Study targets fire history in watershed

Ecologists at the Nature Conservancy's southwest Oregon field office are getting under way with research in the Ashland Watershed to study historic wildfire patterns there and in surrounding forests.

About five years of research will gradually be turned over to partners within the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project so that it can be considered in future management decisions by policy makers.

"This is one of many ways of trying to figure out what appropriate management actions could be for the future," said Kerry Metlen, forest ecologist for the conservancy. "What we want to have is a template, so that if someone wants to promote forest restoration this research can be used as a foundation."

The Nature Conservancy's Priscilla Bullitt Collins Trust Northwest Conservation Fund awarded its Oregon branch with the $500,000 grant last June, and ecologists have already gathered about 30 samples from the western portion of the watershed, said Metlen.

"Eventually we'd like to have two or three hundred," he said. "We are sampling on a very fine scale in the watershed, which should benefit our research."

The conservancy will also gather samples from sites in the Applegate, Illinois and Middle Rogue watersheds, said Metlen, although the majority of the samples will come from the Ashland Watershed.

Metlen said in addition to the conservancy's partnership with AFR, it is focusing on the Ashland Watershed for the project because it is a prime location for gathering samples that can be used to shape policy in similar stands of forest throughout the region.

"It's a relatively intact forest that's been minimally disturbed," he said. "We have a huge selection of samples, and of course we know the importance of the watershed to the community of Ashland. It'll be nice for AFR knowing that most of this work is specific to their watershed."

Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue's forest resource specialist, said the Nature Conservancy's research will play a large role in the future of the Ashland Watershed. The research will be applied to thinning prescriptions, controlled burning techniques and other on-the-ground projects, said Chambers, as AFR works to restore the watershed to its historical health.

"Fuels reduction and forest restoration go hand in hand," he said. "By getting this grant, they are going to inform a lot of what we do, and help us form prescriptions that have a positive impact on our watershed."

About ten years ago, a similar, but limited, study was conducted in the Ashland Watershed, said Chambers. He hopes that the Nature Conservancy's work will paint a clearer picture, and affirm what AFR already knows about the history of wildfire in the watershed.

Outside the scope of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, the Nature Conservancy's study will also contribute to ongoing research conducted by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service around southwest Oregon, said Metlen.

Some of the preliminary information the conservancy has found through its research is that clusters of isolated trees were once the norm in many stands of forest throughout southwest Oregon. Now, there are more trees per acre and they are more uniformly distributed, which promotes the spread of catastrophic wildfires, said Metlen.

"A lot of what we are doing now is just gathering and analyzing samples," he said. "Eventually we would like to be able to bring greater knowledge to the table, and hopefully affect management action now and in the future."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytiding.com

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