With the Pilot Joe timber sale in the Applegate Valley as a backdrop early Tuesday morning, visiting policymakers from Washington, D.C., proclaimed the hybrid logging and restoration project a success.
"I'm proud of this as a pilot project," said U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, as he stood on the northwestern flank of Tallowbox Mountain. "But I recognize it is just one pilot and we need to do more."
The BLM will do just that by including at least five additional forest restoration pilot projects in the coming fiscal year on the 2.5 million acres it manages in Western Oregon, he said.
"We want to demonstrate that we can do forestry and timbering and also address the conservation values that are at stake," Salazar said.
Later that morning, during a town hall session with some 250 people packed into the BLM district office in Medford, Salazar indicated the pilot project in the Applegate will have an impact on the way the BLM harvests timber.
"It will be the essence of what will be included as we more forward with the resource management plans," he said of plan revisions for each BLM district.
During the town hall meeting, Salazar fielded a wide range of questions and comments regarding the pilot project and other issues. One person said the projects were too small to provide an economic boost, while another warned the BLM was moving too fast on the project. Others were concerned about issues ranging from preserving old-growth forests and wilderness to increasing mining and protecting wild horses.
The idea for the pilot projects took seed in 2010 when Salazar met with forest ecology professors Norm Johnson of Oregon State University and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington. The professors, along with environmental activists and timber industry representatives, convinced him to try a restoration forestry approach on three pilot projects in southwestern Oregon.
The principles envisioned by Johnson and Franklin preserve trees older than 150 years and avoid entry into roadless areas. The goal is to preserve the largest trees and improve forest health, including protecting northern spotted owl habitat, while producing wood for mills and reducing wildfire danger.
In addition to the middle Applegate Valley project, two other pilot projects are under way on BLM land in Douglas and Coos counties.
However, the 1.5-million-board-foot Pilot Joe timber sale in the Applegate, where logging began late in December, is the first where trees have been harvested. It sold for more than four times its appraised value.
Although the details of the additional pilot projects are not yet available, officials said the first step is to revise regional management plans. Public input will be taken during that process.
Before making the announcement on the mountain Tuesday, Salazar, who was joined by other agency officials, received logging lessons from veteran logger Ed Hanscom, whose Eagle Point firm is logging Pilot Joe.
At one point, Hanscom showed him how to set a choker around a log.
"We need to figure out a way of getting beyond the gridlock of the past," Salazar said, "and moving forward with sustainable forestry that will sustain the jobs Ed has in his company while at the same time sustaining the conservation values that have been so much a focus of this debate over the last 20 years."
Neil Kornze, the BLM's acting deputy director for policy and programs, agreed.
"We hope to clear away some of the underbrush that has been holding us back from active management and doing the right thing for species in this area," Kornze said.
"I think it represents the future of working together to build a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment," Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said of the Pilot Joe project. "This represents real progress."
Butch Blazer, deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, echoed similar sentiments.
"The science involved in these pilot projects we are looking at today is the good science that is going to help us create the balance we need," Blazer said.
"Not only looking at the ecological health of our forests but also looking at the social health of our communities," he continued. "There is a lot of very important acreage out there we need to restore so we don't have the horrific wildfires we've experienced in the past or the disease kill in some parts of the West."
Franklin and Johnson, who were also on the Tuesday morning tour, said they were pleased with the results thus far. The BLM personnel took the pilot project from theory and made it work on the ground, Franklin said.
"I hope you all notice there is still a forest there," Franklin told the assemblage on the mountain. "This is dry forest restoration. When you do dry forest restoration, you leave a forest behind.
"Now, some of our friends in the forest industry referred to this as boutique forestry," he added. "You look around here and you tell me if this is boutique forestry. We are taking out half of the basil area in these stands. That is a serious operation."
He was quick to observe it was a landscape approach in which some area is left untouched.
"This isn't that much different than we would normally do in a thinning operation," Hanscom said. "I would hope we can do more of this. I'm only cautiously optimistic because something has to be done to deal with the litigation and get forest management out of the courts."
Hanscom, however, said the restoration approach is not a panacea.
"It's a great idea but it is not a catch-all for everything," he cautioned.
After the tour, Salazar reiterated that he was impressed with how the pilot project is developing.
"Ed's people are working — they have jobs and timber is being produced for the mills," he said. "At the same time, there is a landscape, ecological restoration program under way.
"We are going to prioritize these pilot projects in the new resource management plans," he concluded.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.