The U.S Forest Service is looking beyond traditional methods for reducing wildfire risk in the Ashland Watershed, agency officials said.




In the 1990s, the Forest Service logged along ridgetops in an effort to create openings where firefighters could drop water or retardant on wildfires. But without regular treatments to cut back brush and new trees, those openings &

known as fuel breaks &

became choked with highly flammable material.




"What we've done in the past with fuel breaks seemed to be the right thing at the time," said Don Boucher, an environmental coordinator for the Forest Service who is the project analyst for the agency's proposed Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.




Under the project, the Forest Service would leave large trees alone on ridgetops and thin smaller trees and brush in the understory. The resulting shady areas would slow the future growth of brush and new trees.




Boucher said thinning out the understory on ridgetops will still create areas to stop blazes because of how wildfires behave.




Crown fires that rage through tree tops still need surface fuels to generate enough energy. Take away material below, and crown fires lose their momentum and drop to the ground, he said.




The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project calls for creating quarter-mile wide shaded fuel breaks along ridgelines. Scattered treatements to reduce small diameter trees and brush in other parts of the watershed would also slow wildfires, Boucher said.




In all, the project calls for treating 7,680 acres through thinning and prescribed fire over 10 years. The estimated cost is $7 million to $9 million, he said.




A hybrid approach




Boucher said that modeling of wildfire behavior shows the watershed is at risk. With conditions as they are, a 1,000-acre wildfire would destroy habitat and cause erosion on 40 to 50 percent of the burned acres. Treating the watershed would reduce the severity of a 1,000-acre fire so that habitat destruction and erosion would occur on 20 to 25 percent of those acres.




The thinning project proposal is a combination of a previous plan put forward by the Forest Service and a community alternative developed with the help of the city of Ashland's Forest Lands Commission and other residents.




Under the community alternative plan, residents advocated more dispersed treatments that didn't focus on ridgetops alone. That approach, often called "area-wide" thinning, is actually preferred by many firefighters, who say it decreases the severity of fires. High-intensity fires burning in choked, unhealthy forests can jump across traditional logged ridgetop fuel breaks.




Boucher said the Forest Service's new plan involves dispersed thinning as advocated by the community alternative, while still allowing shady ridgetop fuel breaks.




The community alternative called for a ban on cutting any trees larger than seven inches in diameter in a roadless area in the Ashland Watershed.




Boucher said the Forest Service has a policy not to accept diameter limits. But policy aside, he said there may be reasons to cut larger trees.




"A lot of our concern is trying to break up the continuity of fuels on the surface and those that go up into the crown of larger trees. Those are referred to as 'ladder fuels.' In some cases, just cutting seven-inch trees would not break up that continuous fuel path," he said.




The Forest Service also wants to thin around large ponderosa pines and Douglas firs known as "legacy trees." That may require cutting small and medium-sized trees, he said.




The Ashland Forest Lands Commission has recommended that the Forest Service take into consideration new Oregon Department of Environmental Quality standards governing erosion and water quality in the watershed, which is the source of Ashland's drinking water.




Those standards state that "no significant increased delivery of sediment to Reeder Reservoir over that which would occur naturally is allowed."




The reservoir, located in the hills above Lithia Park, stores the city's water.




Boucher said the Forest Service is working with DEQ to clarify how that will be monitored. The Forest Service is proposing mitigation in places where sediment could erode into the reservoir, such as laying trees across slopes and leaving untreated buffer zones along riparian areas.




Debate in the city




Earlier this month, a review of the Forest Service's new treatment plan at two Ashland City Council meetings sparked fierce debate.




Councilor Eric Navickas said that development of the community alternative was a collaborative effort that involved many citizens. He said the Forest Service should not ignore the community's request for a seven-inch diameter limit on cut trees in the roadless area. He also faulted the city's Ashland Forest Lands Commission for its acceptance of some Forest Service proposals in recommendations the commission made to the City Council.




Rather than moving forward on a new project, Navickas said the Forest Service should treat the old logged ridgetop fuel breaks, which have seen an "explosion of brush."




"They should set timetables to deal with that first," he said.




Chris Chambers, an Ashland Fire Rescue employee and member of the community technical team that examined the treatment issue, said both the community alternative and the Forest Service's new plan focus on forest health.




"There's a lot of agreement between the city, the Forest Service and the community &

perhaps more than there's ever been," he said. "The Forest Service will move forward with or without us. We need to stay on board and maintain a collaborative relationship."




At their most recent meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 5, the City Council ran out of time to vote on a motion about whether to endorse the Forest Service's proposal, encourage the agency to consider modificatons proposed by the Ashland Forest Lands Commission and continue working with residents. The council must stop its meetings at 10:30 p.m.




Councilor Kate Jackson accused Navickas of continuing to talk in order to run out the clock and prevent a vote.




Navickas, went on at length about his objections as the last minutes ticked away.




Forest Service officials don't know yet when a Final Environmental Impact Statement about the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project will come out, said Linda Duffy, district ranger for the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District, which includes the watershed.




The FEIS will be followed by a 30-day period for people to make objections, and then by a period when the Forest Service will see if it can resolve the objections. The Forest Service will issue a Record of Decision next. Anyone who wants to oppose the project then will have to go to court.




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