Echoes of noisy, gritty logging operations are filling the typically motorless and pristine drainages of the Ashland Creek Watershed this summer.
Until last week, federally owned timber had not been harvested from the area since the early 1990s, when logging on public lands sparked heated debates among environmentalists, the timber industry and federal agencies.
This time, however, those same groups are all smiles.
"It's fun to be tied into a good project," said Don Hamann over the sporadic zings of chainsaws and the clatter of logs being worked into the back of a trailer at a landing site on the Sky Line Mine Ridge on the west side of the watershed.
Hamann is logging operations foreman and a partner in Forest Energy Group LLC.
His outfit was awarded a contract to harvest up to a half-million board feet of timber from three units of roughly 100 acres total owned by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, near Horn Gap and the No Candies Trail.
The crew of 13 loggers is loading about four trucks each day, Hamann said. Logging started July 17, and the crew is just shy of being halfway through the three-unit sale. He's expecting 85 to 100 loads of logs from the job, and to have them out of the woods by the middle of August, he said.
Representatives of the Ashland Forest Resiliency stewardship project brag about Hamann, who has been logging since 1980. They say Hamann has successfully evolved with the sweeping changes made to federal forest management policy over the years by relying on minimum-impact ground logging operations.
"Things have changed tremendously over the last 40 years," Hamann said. "The focus has been shifted to forest health and still getting something done."
After a moment of thoughtful consideration, Hamann acknowledged things have changed for the better in federally managed forests.
"It's never ideal in everybody's eyes, but yeah, it's better," he said. He chuckled and pointed to a Toyota Prius parked behind a working log loader. "That's when you know things have changed."
Whoever on the crew feels like he has a "heavy gas foot" each morning drives the car loaded with workers up U.S. Forest Service Road 2060 to the job site, he said.
"It takes some speed to get up the last little steep spot," Hamann explained.
"We're using these old skid trails from the 1960s as main arteries for moving these logs," said project manager Don Boucher of the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District. "We're trying not to impact anything we haven't already touched."
Many skid trails in heavily logged portions of the watershed are still visible from more than 50 years ago, Boucher said, which is why workers on the project carry out thorough rehabilitation work on the skidding lanes before and after logging a unit.
Heavy slash is spread over the makeshift roads before skidders begin towing cut logs to landing sites, where the logs are de-limbed and decked, to minimize ground compaction, said Marko Bey, director of the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project. In some areas, crews are able to use a log loader with an attachment in place of the grapple that throws a choker up to 100 feet into the brush and pulls logs to the road to avoid ground compaction caused by heavy equipment, he said.
"The average log diameter (at chest height) will be 14 inches," Bey said. "There will be some decent-sized trees coming out of here but they are being removed from around much larger legacy trees that are 3 and 4 feet in diameter."
The project is a result of a stewardship agreement signed by Lomakatsi, the Forest Service, the city of Ashland and the Nature Conservancy. They say the result will be a healthier forest with a greatly reduced chance of a catastrophic fire that could threaten lives, homes and the city's water source.
Nearly a decade of planning, community meetings and discussion took place before any trees were marked as commercial logs in the project area, which spans 7,600 acres of the watershed.
"Restoration work is a lot of what we are doing in here, but we're not going for pre-settlement conditions," said Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue's forest resource specialist. "We know that's not a reality."
It's a misconception that the forestry work in the watershed is aimed at restoring the forest to how it was that long ago, said Darren Borgias, program director and ecologist for the Nature Conservancy.
"We are just setting the stage for the forest to take its natural course "… promoting abundant wildlife, clean water and these legacy trees," he said, point up at two towering, old-growth Ponderosa pines. "And none of it would have happened if it wasn't for science-based collaboration."
In one unit, where primary logging operations finished, crews were spread out across the hillside, cutting and piling slash left over from the job and rehabbing skid trails to prevent erosion. Water bars were installed in the trails, and more debris was piled into the path. Lomakatsi crews will come back and burn those piles next winter or fall, Bey said.
Then the forest will be ready to have fire reintroduced into its ecosystem, he said.
"They did a good job logging in here," said hand crew boss Joe Ochoa, while taking a break from piling brush with his 14-person crew.
There is another crew of about 10 marking trees in the watershed in preparation for similar timber sales to be carried out though the AFR project.
Primarily Douglas firs are set to be removed, because they are choking out the more fire-resistant black oaks and sugar and Ponderosa pines that once thrived in the area, according to AFR.
Crews have been working since mid-2010 to thin small-diameter trees and brush, which act as ladder fuels for ground fire to climb to the tops of larger trees and develop into catastrophic crown fires. A century of fire suppression has left the forest with overcrowded stands of trees and unnaturally thick undergrowth, Chambers said.
Boucher said the forest service is attempting to work around the western ridge of the watershed in order to create a fuel break and protect the area from fires that could start on the north and west sides of Wagner Butte.
Large fires swept through much of the Ashland watershed in 1910 and again in 1959. Elsewhere in Ashland, the Siskiyou fire burned 188 acres in 2009 and the Oak Knoll fire consumed 11 homes the following year.
The largest tree found in the project area is a 92-inch incense cedar hundreds of years old, Borgias said.
Logs are being trucked down U.S. Forest Service Road 2060 to Granite Street and off to Murphy Veneer in White City.
The current operation is breaking even financially by selling the merchantable timber, Bey said, but soon-to-come helicopter logging operations will eat up far more than any of the possible profits AFR will make off this leg of the project.
There is no current estimate for how much the project will cost, but it will be paid for out of about $6.2 million of federal stimulus funding AFR secured through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, Chambers said.
That work, on slopes with a grade steeper than 20 percent, could begin as early as fall, Chambers and Bey said, and will cover more than 1,000 acres.
"The intention here has never been to log the woods," Bey said. "These logs are just a by-product of our restoration work."
The city of Ashland is asking people to exercise caution if they plan to use Road 2060 on the western side of the watershed.
Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email email@example.com.