City officials tout forest resiliency project

City officials and forest management groups are working on a proposal to thin out trees in parts of the Ashland Watershed, in hopes of restoring it to a natural level of growth.

Forest Lands Commission member Chris Chambers, consulting forester Marty Main and Darren Borgias with The Nature Conservatory led the public on an educational tour of the Watershed on Saturday to increase awareness of the Ashland Forest Resiliency project.

In what Chambers called part of a "significant education program," proponents of the resiliency plan wanted residents to understand the complexity of issues facing redevelopment efforts in the Watershed.

"Down low in the Watershed is where fires can really find a place to spread," Chambers told the group of 20 in attendance. "We're working with land owners, trying to manage vegetation so that a potential fire doesn't impact people in a way that's threatening to their safety."

The trip was the last of three scheduled Watershed tours. Among those on the hike Saturday were City Councilors Carol Voisin and David Chapman, as well as representatives from Ashland Fire & Rescue and the forest service.

The forest resiliency plan calls for a selective thinning of high-density wooded areas over ten years. Marty Main explained why they believe that procedure is necessary, both to human safety and forest vitality:

"A big part of our effort is to try to reduce the understored vegetation," he said, referring to the loose soil and tree branches that litter the ground and act like a fueling agent in the case of a fire.

Studies on forest density in the past decade have led to a consensus that the Watershed is not in a resilient state, due to the buildup of those fueling agents, as well as the new growth of Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Fir.

Darren Borgias said that in the Watershed's natural state, those new trees would not last long. Until early in the 20th century, parts of land making up the watershed burned approximately once every seven years due to natural causes. That effectively thinned out any excess brush, which, undisturbed could have burned at a higher intensity later on.

In what he and Main recognize as contrary to public opinion, the new growth is a threat to the health of older trees, some of which are more than 500 years old.

"Sort of an odd occurrence developed, where over the last hundred years we've been mostly thinking about fire safety," Borgias said. As the valley grew more populated, new forest agencies adapted to meet those safety demands.

Their efforts saved lives, but the suppression of natural fires created new threats to the Watershed's vitality. And while safety of residents is still the city's top priority, those backing the plan say that strategic thinning, and even some controlled burning, will go a long way toward ensuring the land's log-term survival.

"A little smoke in the spring, when the wind is blowing, is a whole lot better than a lot of smoke in the summer," Chambers said.

He and other proponents are hoping the Ashland Forest Resiliency project will positively impact water quality, animal habitats and recreation possibilities, while preserving the overall goal of an easy to manage woodland, should a large fire occur.

In what is known as Multi-Party Monitoring, project advocates are asking the public to participate in its development. Main said continuing a tradition of teamwork among agencies and the public is the key to finalizing an initiative large enough in scale to have the impact they are looking for.

"By coordinating programs, we can deal with all these issues," he said. "Not doing anything ensures we're going to lose a lot. Ignoring the problem is really not acceptable."

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