Residents tour forest thinning site

In 1959, the show went on at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theatre as a wildfire blazing up into the Ashland Watershed lit up the night.

OSF is still going strong, and trees have returned to the burned slopes — albeit in a different configuration than existed there before the fire.

On Sunday, 30 local residents stood on a ridge across from the burned hillside and looked at a flush of deciduous madrone and oak trees that sprouted after the 1959 fire. Only a few scattered Ponderosa pines rose above the new growth — even though pines are naturally adapted to Southern Oregon mountains that were regularly visited by wildfires before people began snuffing them out in the 1900s.

Beginning May 24, Lomakatsi Restoration Project crews will go to work trimming small trees and brush in an effort to give drought-tolerant pines a chance to thrive again.

"We're going to thin to protect those trees," said Marko Bey, co-director of the Ashland-based nonprofit group that does hands-on work to restore ecosystems.

Sunday's hike was a chance for local residents to see the site and hear how Lomakatsi, the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and the city of Ashland have teamed up on a 10-year project to thin 7,600 acres in the mountains above town under the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project.

The treatment unit visited by the residents is only about half a mile from the swimming hole in upper Lithia Park — close enough to be visible from many parts of town as people peer up the Ashland Creek canyon.

While Lomakatsi workers will thin out competing trees around pines in dry areas, they will let Douglas fir trees — which prefer moist sites — grow on cooler north and east-facing slopes. The few sugar pines and incense cedars left in the area will be left untouched.

Madrone trees, recognizable because of their fawn-colored, smooth, skin-like trunks and green leaves, will be thinned, as will manzanita bushes, which have smooth, chocolate brown limbs that often twist and gnarl.

Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Resource Specialist Chris Chambers said workers will be especially cautious around landslide hazard areas. The Ashland Watershed experienced severe landslides during the 1997 New Year's Day flood.

"We take pretty seriously the potential for landslides and erosion," Chambers said.

Some might question why hazardous areas should even be treated at all, but U.S. Forest Service Project Manager Don Boucher said untreated areas can burn at a severe intensity if they are not thinned.

"There's a reason for not just walking away from them," he said.

However, thinning will be light on unstable areas, Boucher said.

Untreated areas that burned in the 2009 Siskiyou Fire on the southeastern outskirts of Ashland were so charred that they even lost organic material in the soil, Chambers said.

Scientists who have studied a 1,500-acre Research Natural Area in the middle of the Ashland Watershed have found that forest crowding is taking a toll, with 40 percent of large trees there already dead, said city of Ashland Forestry Consultant Marty Main.

An opportunity to restore the ecosystem and protect habitat for scarce animals and plants is what brought The Nature Conservancy on board, said Darren Borgias, the conservation group's ecologist for Southern Oregon.

Oregon State University and two other Ashland conservation groups, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and the Klamath Bird Observatory, will also be involved to make sure the project is carried out correctly.

The Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative, which is working on uses for small diameter trees, and the Jackson County Fuel Committee, which gathers firewood, are hoping something can be done with the small trees trimmed in the woods.

Bey said most of the material will be piled for burning next year, but there may be opportunities to use wood that is closest to roads.

Some will be left on the ground to help prevent erosion, he said.

During the first two years of the project, workers will focus on 2,100 acres closest to Ashland, Chambers said.

The Forest Service has already received $4.5 million in federal stimulus dollars to help carry out the project.

That compares to about $50,000 that the Forest Service would get per year in the past to thin in the watershed, Chambers.

The millions of dollars in stimulus funding for the project should help assure residents that the project is being done for the health of the forest, not for the Forest Service to turn a profit by logging big trees, he said.

Lomakatsi estimates the project will provide jobs for about 50 seasonal workers, or the equivalent of about 20 full-time workers.

After the 30 residents who went out to see an Ashland Forest Resiliency treatment area on Sunday climbed up a steep, slippery trail, clambered over fallen trees and skirted poison oak, Borgias looked over the lightly panting group.

"OK. You all qualify for working on AFR," he joked.

To learn about future outings and for updates on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, visit

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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