City of Ashland and U.S. Forest Service officials are still reviewing potential impacts to a thinning project in the Ashland watershed after a federal judge found that too much bare soil could be exposed to meet environmental safeguards.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Clarke wrote in a recommendation late last week that the 7,600-acre Ashland Forest Resiliency thinning project could expose too much soil.
Standards call for 7 percent to 15 percent soil exposure in very high or very severe erosion hazard areas. But the environmental impact statement for the thinning project — which was approved back in 2009 — states that soil exposure will be less than 30 percent in those hazard areas.
Forest Service project manager Don Boucher said less soil is being exposed than predicted and he believes the project is falling within the protective standards.
"What we're finding is that the work is much less impactful than what we estimated in the EIS. It's an issue of words written in the EIS. It has nothing to do with what's happening on the ground," Boucher said.
Monitoring has been ongoing but all the data is not yet in, he said.
The project is a partnership with the Forest Service, Ashland, The Nature Conservancy and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, with most of the funding coming from the federal government.
About 1,500 acres have been thinned without removing trees that are large enough to be commercially valuable, Boucher said. Another 100 acres thinned included commercially valuable trees, Boucher said.
In August, the city approved a contract of up to $1.8 million with Columbia Helicopters to do helicopter thinning of trees on 355 acres as part of the watershed thinning project. Funding comes from the federal government.
That work is set to begin later this year, Boucher said.
He said he doesn't believe the judge's recommendation will impact work this year.
Clarke's recommendation will go to a U.S. District Court judge, who will make an official ruling.
The parties in the case have until Sept. 25 to dispute aspects of the recommendation, Boucher said.
Former Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas and former Ashland resident Jay Lininger filed the initial lawsuit that challenged the watershed thinning project.
"Logging on steep slopes will expose sensitive granite soils to erosion and foul Ashland's water," said Lininger, who is now an ecologist with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. "This lawsuit tackles an obvious environmental hazard that triggered serious concern in the community."
The recent judge's recommendation will not impact logging scheduled as part of the project this year, according to a press release issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, which is well versed in environmental law.
If a judge upholds the recommendation, changes could be required in future years, according to the center.
Navickas said he would like to bring stakeholders to the table to offer an agreement that work be allowed to continue in the lower watershed, closest to homes.
He said he wants restrictions on helicopter pad construction, all types of logging, and road maintenance in areas of the municipal watershed that drain into Reeder Reservoir, which stores Ashland's drinking water.
"These areas are most critical from a standpoint of soil retention and old-growth habitat protection," Navickas said.
In his recommendation, the judge sided with the Forest Service on several issues, saying the agency complied with aquatic conservation laws and that removal of trees large enough to have commercial value is allowed.
The judge also commended all sides on the issue.
Clarke lauded Navickas and Lininger for their "sincere and passionate efforts to protect environmental resources that are important to them and the community."
He also praised the Forest Service, community members, environmental groups and advocates, academics and others for their good-faith collaboration and "shared desire to preserve valuable environmental resources for present and future generations."
The thinning project previously won $6.1 million in federal stimulus funding, according to Boucher.
The Forest Service is still looking for funding sources to cover an additional $3 million to $4 million worth of work, he said.
Depending on market conditions, selling timber from the project could bring in $1 million, Boucher said.
The Forest Service and its partners on the project have long contended that large trees are being cut only to improve the health of the forest, not to generate income.
Large trees can be cut to reduce competition for water, soil and sunlight to help even larger trees thrive, for example, according to the EIS.
The watershed has become unnaturally dense with trees and brush after decades of wildfire suppression efforts, most agree.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.