Democracy is not the driver when it comes to making the final decision on the proposed Bybee management project in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
"This is not about how many 'votes' we receive," stressed forest supervisor Rob MacWhorter. "I'm not looking at sheer numbers but at substantive, thoughtful comments about the document we put out there.
"Simply saying, 'I don't like this' doesn't give me a lot of space to try to figure out how to resolve that particular issue," he added. "But we will respond to substantive comments and may incorporate some of them into whatever decision we do make."
Forest officials received thousands of comments, including more than 10,000 contained in three big boxes handed in by environmental groups on Feb. 28, the last day for commenting on the project's 290-page environmental assessment.
The agency is still going through the comments and doesn't yet have an exact count, said Sasha Fertig, the forest's environmental coordinator. The amount received is more than for any projects in recent years, she said. "We knew people were interested, but we were surprised by the level of input," she said.
The proposed alternative for the project in the High Cascades Ranger District calls for up to 45 million board feet of timber to be harvested from the 16,215-acre area. The project would be between Highway 230 and Crater Lake National Park, with the southern tip of the tract about 15 miles north of Prospect.
The project's proximity to the park has riled environmental groups, including those who support creating a 500,000-acre Crater Lake Wilderness to protect what they say are wilderness characteristics along a 75-mile corridor from Crescent Lake south to Highway 140 at Fish Lake.
They say the proposed project and planned logging would destroy critical wildlife habitat and degrade water quality in river drainages.
Opponents include Oregon Wild, Environment Oregon, Umpqua Watersheds, Crater Lake Institute and the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.
But the project has been supported by others, including the timber industry and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, who on Friday unanimously agreed to draft a letter in support.
"One of the primary reasons why we are doing this is to thin the forested stands that are overstocked," MacWhorter said.
"We want to reduce the risk of a catastrophic wildfire, not just a wildfire but a catastrophic one in which we lose an entire forested stand," he added, noting such a fire could threaten stands in the nearby Crater Lake National Park. "We also want to enhance the structural and species diversity within the forested area."
The project is intended to improve forest health overall, protect habitat for rare species such as the northern spotted owl and provide jobs in the region.
"Many of our southwestern Oregon counties in terms of economic viability are in dire straits," he said. "Depending on what alternative I pick, it could produce from 10 (million) to 45 million board feet. That could mean upwards of 500 jobs and several thousand homes from the commercial entry."
A little over half of the proposed area has been harvested in the past, Fertig said.
"When this project was started a number of years ago, they began with a 16,000-acre planning area," she said. "An interdisciplinary team went out and looked at all this ground to target the areas really needing treatment."
That process resulted in the area to be treated being dropped to about 3,000 acres, she said.
District biologist Jeff von Kienast said there was a wide range of scientists and other specialists on the team.
Because the northern spotted owl is on the federal list of threatened species, it received the highest level of protection in the wide variety of species the agency is managing in the project area, he said.
"We will not cut in a spotted owl nest habitat — we will not go there," he said.
Work within specific areas within the project boundaries would be determined on a site-specific basis, said Eric Watrud, acting ranger for the High Cascades.
"Silviculturists tailor the prescription for a specific area depending on the plant composition, ecological factors at a site," he said.
Fire suppression over the past century has allowed white fir and other species to encroach on the once dominant pine trees, said Ken Wearstler, the forest's climate change coordinator.
"When fires were allowed to burn in this area, the frequent, low-intensity fires would have eliminated the white fir and left the legacy pines and those adapted to that environment," he said. "We now have a situation where these fuels have built up and we have the potential for stand replacement fires. That would eliminate owl habitat and impact water and everything else."
No comments will be unread and stored away in some dusty warehouse, MacWhorter promised.
"Those comments may point out how we missed something or show we were spot on — we look at them all," he said. "They become part of the document."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.