Stimulus creates 150 forest jobs

More than 150 people will begin working to reduce wildfire danger in southwestern Oregon this spring, thanks to roughly $3 million in U.S. Forest Service contracts funded by the federal stimulus package.

The largest is $1.4 million for the Hope Mountain Stewardship Project in southeastern Illinois Valley. The joint effort is a partnership involving Uncle Sam and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project based in Ashland and Siskiyou Regional Education Project in the Illinois Valley.

The stewardship effort, which will employ about 35 people for a year and create an additional 15 indirect jobs in the community, involves cutting brush and small trees on about 890 acres in the Wild Rivers Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Grayback Forestry Inc., which has offices in White City and Merlin, has been awarded a $600,000 contract to remove hazardous fuels in the Waters Creek area of the Wild Rivers district and an additional $325,000 for similar work in the Agness area in the Gold Beach Ranger District.

Those contracts will provide work for about 100 people for some three months beginning as early as Wednesday, said company president Mike Wheelock.

Sutherlin-based Diamond Fire received two contracts totaling about $580,000 for hazardous fuels work in the Gold Beach Ranger District and the Powers Ranger District. Those contracts are expected to create up to 30 jobs, according to a forest official.

Noting that his firm has had a 40 percent reduction in work in the past two years and was facing a reduced season and possible layoffs, Wheelock said the stimulus funds will provide work for existing employees as well as about 40 new workers. He estimated there will be enough work for at least 100 people for up to three months and a year's worth for many others. Most of the firm's employees live in Jackson or Josephine counties, he said.

"This is definitely a shot in the arm," he said. "After being faced with cutbacks, this is real uplifting for everybody in the company."

In preparation, Grayback has purchased six new trucks to replace worn-out vehicles in its fleet, three from a dealership in Josephine County and three from a dealership in Jackson County, he said.

Other equipment purchased from local stores includes 30 chain saws, fire clothes, boots and other supplies, he said. The work will mean more income for other local businesses as well, he added.

"This important work will provide family-wage jobs to our workers ...," he said. "In anticipation of the new work load, we started our returnees a month earlier than previously expected. Recently we hired an additional 20 new workers and expect around 20 to 30 more new hires over the next few months."

All of the firm's employees are hired through the local state employment office, where interested people should apply, he said.

"This is a very intense manual labor market now," he said. "Where we used to get 10 to 20 applications for a job, we are now getting 200 to 250 people applying."

That ratio is by far the most the firm has experienced since it began 30 years ago, he added.

Marko Bey, Lomakatsi director of operations, agreed.

"Over the past six months, we have received more phone calls than any other time in our 14-year history, from people looking for work and seeking employment opportunities," he said.

In addition to providing work to remove hazardous brush and overgrown thickets and produce some biomass fuel, the project will enable Lomakatsi to provide work force and contractor training, he said.

The work also will help the environment through improved wildlife habitat and forest diversity, observed Oshana Catranides of the Siskiyou Project.

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