Forested areas bordering populated neighborhoods from Talent to Jacksonville are being thinned

by Morgan Rothborne for Medford Mail Tribune
Published June 23, 2022

The wildland-urban interface from Talent to Jacksonville is being willfully and skillfully treated for fire resiliency and long-term ecological health, but the job is huge and the effort needed to tackle it is massive.

The West Bear All Lands project brings together 12 public and private organizations, including Lomakatsi and Rogue Forest Partners, into one 27,000-acre project designed to pool available dollars, hands and expertise.

The West Bear project builds on work done and collaborative connections made between public and private agencies tried and tested during the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project. The 12,500-acre stewardship project stretches from the Siskiyou Summit to Wagner Creek. West Bear All Lands picks up where the resiliency stewardship project left off, just outside the city of Talent, and is funded to go into the Applegate area around Jacksonville, Lomakatsi Executive Director Marko Bey said.

“If a fire burns into a treated area, like the Ashland Forest resiliency area or the West Bear area, it gives us more time to respond; it changes the fire behavior so we can attack it head on,” Ashland Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers said of the positive effects of ecological thinning.

Research by the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy has highlighted West Bear as one of the highest-risk areas for wildfire in Oregon. The project promises to reduce wildfire risk for 5,500 structures.

“We’re all part of the watershed. We’re all a part of the ecosystem,” Bey said.

“I’d like to call this ecological forestry,” Bey said. The project overall, he added, is “an approach including climate resilience, habitat, community safety. We’re looking to elevate the workforce.”

Bey said Lomakatsi considers social and human ecology along with the ecology of the land. Lomakatsi’s forest workers are a carefully trained, intentionally diverse group of primarily Latino and Indigenous workers. Bey said Lomakatsi also is committed to paying their workers more and offering better benefits.

Cristian Hernandez, who has been working with Lomakatsi for two years, said he tried to leave and work in construction, but he missed the woods.

“Out here, it’s peaceful. I like it,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he and his co-workers are wildland firefighters in the summer. In years past, they would travel far and wide, chasing thinning and forest restoration projects throughout the country. The West Bear project has allowed them to stay home and feel they are protecting their own homes.

The West Bear project was informed in part by a study titled “Integrating Forest Restoration, Adaptation and Proactive Fire Management: Rogue River Basin Case Study.” Based in computer projections and data evaluating the needs of forest health — including endangered species — and fire resilience, then comparing three 20-year treatment plans, the study argued that treating all land, regardless of ownership, was necessary.

“It [all lands treatment] reduced risk overall by 70%, to homes by 50% and to core northern spotted owl habitat by 47%. This scenario treated 25% of the 1.9-million-hectare landscape, including 31% of federal land and 40% of the community at risk,” the study’s abstract said.

Oregon Department of Forestry offers help for landowners, from surveys and prescriptions for the land to rebates for the cost. Despite the estimated expense — from $1,200 to $2,000 per acre, according to Bey — ODF encourages landowners to have the treatment done.

“It really does make a big difference. Not only is it more safe for our firefighters, it makes it so we can stop fires. We can be more successful,” said Natalie Weber, ODF public information officer.

For the West Bear project, spaces are carefully chosen for treatment. The project has primarily targeted landowners along roads and points of critical entrance and exit from areas, as well as land along ridge lines.

“Treating these areas ensures emergency vehicles can maintain access during a fire, it keeps evacuation lines safe and open and, in the case of ridge ways, it helps prevent fires from being whipped up by the wind … making them easier to attack,” said Chambers.

By combining organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative with Oregon State University and such government institutions as ODF, Rogue Valley Fire Chiefs Association and Bureau of Land Management, the West Bear All Lands project can better pool its resources.

The project pools grant money, state money, investments from tribal nations and such donors as Meyer Memorial Trust, combined with federal money and resources from a new wildfire-focused state Senate bill, SB 762 A. The project has pooled $11 million for the lofty goal of treating 40% of the 27,000 acres by June 2023.

Work in the West Bear area is ongoing near Anderson Creek above Talent, but it soon will have to stop as its workers go out to fight fires.

Bey said work will pick back up in the fall and is intended to reach Jacksonville by June 2023.

This story was updated to clarify that a study used to plan the West Bear Project referred to a scenario that treated 25% of the 1.9-million-hectare landscape, rather than 1.9 million acres.

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