The US Forest Service had allocated $6 million to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, but took back $2 million on January 21 for redistribution elsewhere.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Thursday asking him to restore $2 million in federal funding that was pulled from a forest thinning project in the Ashland watershed.

The U.S. Forest Service had allocated $6 million to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, but took back $2 million on Jan. 21 for redistribution elsewhere.

The Forest Service move came a week after Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas and Arizona ecologist Jay Lininger, acting as private citizens, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging parts of the forest thinning project.

"While I know that a lawsuit has been filed over portions of this project, there is broad consensus on much of it and the litigation in no way reduces the need to move forward in a timely manner to produce badly needed jobs and protect the City of Ashland from catastrophic fire," Wyden said in the letter, before urging Vilsack to restore the funding.

Navickas said he and Lininger did not ask a judge to issue a preliminary injunction to stop work on the thinning and prescribed burning project.

In their lawsuit, Navickas and Lininger had asked a judge to block portions of the project after the case had been heard until the project complies with environmental laws. They asked that all work in the forested area closest to Ashland be allowed to move forward.

Firefighters generally agree that the urban-wildlands interface is a danger area for human-caused fires and loss of life and property. Wildfires also tend to move uphill, and a fire could sweep up into the watershed from the edge of town.

Navickas and Lininger's concerns about the environmental impacts of the project center mainly on areas higher in the watershed, such as the McDonald Peak Roadless Area.

"Why the Forest Service would pull funding now from a project that is not in imminent danger from an injunction and will require requests for additional funding in future years defies logic," Wyden said in the letter. "With double-digit unemployment in Southern Oregon and thousands of acres that require immediate attention, an additional $2 million will go (a) long way in putting people to work and making the forest healthier in an environmentally friendly manner."

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project could take up to 10 years to complete and Forest Service officials don't yet know what the total cost will be.

Earlier this week, Paul Galloway, acting public affairs officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said Navickas and Lininger's lawsuit had created a risk that the project would not move forward.

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 previously had been awarded stimulus funding because of risks that those projects might not move forward quickly, Galloway said.

Wyden said the thinning project was prepared under provisions of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which encourages expedited judicial review of projects that are challenged in court.

"While I support the need to protect sensitive areas, such as roadless areas, I also want to ensure that Oregonians get to work on the jobs that would be created in the woods and that ensure forest health is restored," Wyden said in the letter.

In their lawsuit, Navickas and Lininger 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.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., could not be reached by press time for comment about how they will respond to Wyden's letter. The Forest Service is part of that department.

Navickas said he hopes the $2 million will be restored. He said the Forest Service's decision to pull the money was a punitive response to citizens filing a lawsuit.

Local Forest Service and city officials, the Nature Conservancy and Lomakatsi Restoration Project have made a formal agreement to work together to design the thinning and prescribed burning project.

The Ashland City Council — including Navickas — voted unanimously on Jan. 19 to endorse the partnership.

The partners will work together to decide which trees to cut.

Marty Main, Ashland's forestry consultant, is involved in the partnership. Working with the Ashland Forest Lands Commission, he has helped design thinning projects on city-owned forestland that are tailored to fit different forest conditions.

Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which is known for environmentally friendly forest thinning and stream restoration work, will help train workers for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.