The Forest Service previously had received $6 million in federal economic stimulus funding to help pay for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, which could take up to 10 years to carry out.
The U.S. Forest Service pulled $2 million in funding from an Ashland watershed thinning project one week after Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas and former resident Jay Lininger filed a lawsuit challenging parts of the project.
Navickas and Lininger filed the lawsuit on Jan. 15 in U.S. District Court in Medford. In the complaint, they said the 7,600-acre thinning and prescribed burning project would harm riparian areas, cause erosion, hurt water quality, degrade Pacific fisher and northern spotted owl habitat and cut into an old-growth forest reserve and a roadless area.
The Forest Service previously had received $6 million in federal economic stimulus funding to help pay for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, which could take up to 10 years to carry out, said Paul Galloway, acting public affairs officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The total cost of the project is not yet known, he said.
On Jan. 21, $2 million of the $6 million was redirected back to the Forest Service to be redistributed to other projects, Galloway said.
"There was the lawsuit and the risk associated with that of not being able to complete the project due to the litigation," he said.
Galloway said federal stimulus funding is intended to go to projects that can produce jobs as soon as possible.
Nationally, the Forest Service redirected $10.7 million from various projects that had previously been awarded stimulus funding because of risks that those projects might not move forward quickly, Galloway said.
The $2 million redirected from the Ashland watershed thinning project was the only funding that was redirected from the Forest Service region that covers Oregon and Washington, Galloway said.
He said the Forest Service still intends to complete the Ashland thinning project within 10 years.
"We still have over $4 million in stimulus dollars that remain committed to implementing the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project," Galloway said.
Navickas and Lininger filed the lawsuit as private citizens, not in their respective roles as councilman and ecologist for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.
In their complaint, they asked the court to block ground-disturbing activities in the project — except for "necessary and proper fire hazard mitigation work in the wildland-urban interface" of Ashland — until the project complies with environmental laws.
Navickas said most of the early work involving thinning of brush and small trees could be carried out.
He said the Forest Service's decision to withdraw $2 million was punitive.
"I see it as truly a political move on the part of the Forest Service," Navickas said. "It's a way of thwarting legitimate lawsuits that should be heard to make sure the Forest Service is complying with the law. We shouldn't have to face threats that funding will be withdrawn."
Despite the loss of some funding, Galloway said the Forest Service is moving forward with its plans to partner with the city, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project and the Nature Conservancy to plan and carry out thinning in the Ashland watershed. The partners also will monitor the results of the project.
"We're disappointed in the retraction of the funds," said Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns, but added that he remains hopeful that the court case can be resolved quickly.
The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project was prepared under provisions of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which allows for multi-partner monitoring as well as expedited judicial review of projects that are challenged in court.
On Jan. 19, the Ashland City Council — including Navickas — voted unanimously to endorse the partnership, which is meant to help ensure that thinning and prescribed burning is done in an environmentally friendly way.
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.