The US Forest Service announced on Friday afternoon that it has approved the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project to thin wildfire fuels on 7,600 acres.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on Friday afternoon that it has approved the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project to thin wildfire fuels on 7,600 acres.

The project area includes portions of the Ashland Watershed, source of Ashland's municipal water supply, as well as land that is next to homes in the urban-wildland interface.

The project on Forest Service land was devised with input from the city of Ashland, local residents, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pacific Northwest Research Station and others.

"The Forest Service would like to thank the city of Ashland for its extensive collaboration and continued engagement in the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project," said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Scott Conroy, who signed the Record of Decision authorizing the project. "The agency looks forward to the future of continuing to work with the city of Ashland and our collaborators to implement the project."

Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns said he was pleased by the Forest Service's authorization of the project.

"Obviously, it's huge for us and the preservation of the watershed. I've said that's one of my number one concerns for this community. We can start getting back to a healthy watershed," Karns said.

Federal stimulus money totaling $2 million had already been earmarked to help carry out the multi-year Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

The Nature Conservancy also won a $43,6000 grant so that conservation groups, the city of Ashland and other groups and individuals could monitor the treatment project.

Monitoring will allow people to see if the treatments are having the desired effects.

Karns said he is impressed with the multi-party monitoring that will take place.

"It's been a very collaborative process with the community. I'm anxious to get it started. There's a pledge from my office to do everything we can to keep it a transparent process and to keep all the stakeholders involved," he said.

The Forest Service authorized the Preferred Alternative as described in the Final Environmental Impact Statement without modification. That alternative originated as a plan submitted by the community, which was then adjusted to become the Preferred Alternative.

Darren Borgias, manager and ecologist for The Nature Conservancy's southwest Oregon office, said the Forest Service's Preferred Alternative adopted the Community Alternative's fundamental prescriptions and treatment locations, with changes to improve future fire management.

"It's a good, science-based and collaborative project," Borgia said.

Russell Hoeflich, Oregon director of The Nature Conservancy, weighed in on the news of the project's approval via a press release.

He said dry forests in Southern Oregon need active management to remove overgrown brush and small trees and to allow for the safe use of controlled burns.

"The payoff for Ashland and all Oregonians will be clean water, greater public safety, healthy habitats for fish and wildlife, and forests more resilient to wildfire, insect damage and the impacts of climate change," Hoeflich said.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement on the project was released back in Sept. 2008.

The decision authorizing the project comes in the wake of the Siskiyou Fire, which burned a home and 149 acres in southeast Ashland last month.

The actions of firefighters from numerous fire departments and agencies stopped the fire from destroying more homes or burning up into the watershed.

Forest Service Public Affairs Patty Burel said the Siskiyou Fire did not play a role in the Forest Service issuing a decision on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

"But the Siskiyou Fire confirmed that the watershed is extremely vulnerable to large scale wildfires and has great risks. The watershed has a high occurrence of human-caused fire ignition, high frequency of natural fire and highly valued resources at risk," Burel said.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project will reduce risks for severe wildfire in the watershed, fire in tree crowns and infection and disease in trees, Forest Service officials said.

It will protect legacy trees and improve wildlife habitat for old-growth related species such as northern spotted owls, the Forest Service said.

The project includes roadside treatments to remove ground and ladder fuels around Forest Road 2060. It will use city of Ashland-designed prescriptions in strategic ridge-top locations to fill network gaps of untreated ground and ladder fuel vegetation, Forest Service officials said.

Ladder fuels are brush, small trees or other materials that can carry ground fires into tree crowns, where the fires become more difficult to control.

Because the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project was carried out under the rules of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, any opponents of the plan cannot file administrative appeals with the Forest Service now that the Record of Decision has been issued.

They can, however, file lawsuits in court.

The Forest Service received three pre-decision objections to the project. One was withdrawn. The Forest Service's Objection Reviewing Officer in Portland determined there were no substantial flaws in the environmental analysis and that a decision could be made, Burel said.

Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas was one of the people who filed an objection. That gives him standing to file a lawsuit to fight the project.

He said he will review the Forest Service's decision authorizing the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project and make a decision about whether to pursue a lawsuit.

Navickas said the project allows thinning in riparian areas and the McDonald Peak Roadless Area, and authorizes the construction of too many helicopter pads.

"It's a real disappointment. I was hoping under the Obama administration the Forest Service would be willing to give up the more aggressive components of the project," he said.

Except for Navickas, an Ashland City Council majority voted to endorse the project in October 2008.

On-the-ground work on the project could start as early as this coming spring, Burel said.

The Forest Service plans to work collaboratively with the city of Ashland and The Nature Conservancy to prioritize treatment areas and to work out details of the vegetation treatments, Burel said.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision are posted on the Forest Service's Web site at .

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or