A US Forest Service spokesman in Washington, DC said a project to thin flammable fuels in the Ashland Watershed will be funded by a mix of federal stimulus dollars and regular Forest Service budget appropriations.

A U.S. Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C. said a project to thin flammable fuels in the Ashland Watershed will be funded by a mix of federal stimulus dollars and regular Forest Service budget appropriations.

On Jan. 21, the Forest Service redirected $2 million in federal stimulus funding that had previously been awarded to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, leaving $4.5 million in stimulus funding for the project.

Forest Service officials cited the risk that the project might not move forward because of a lawsuit challenging parts of the project that was filed on Jan. 15 by Ashland City Councilman Eric Navickas and Arizona ecologist Jay Lininger. The two filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Medford as private citizens.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asking him to restore the $2 million in federal funding to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project. The Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wyden said in the letter that the project will reduce wildfire risk while providing badly needed jobs in Southern Oregon, which has suffered double-digit unemployment figures.

Speaking on Friday, Joe Walsh, a spokesman in the press office of the Forest Service's Washington, D.C., headquarters, declined to comment on Wyden's letter.

But Walsh said that $4.5 million of federal stimulus money remains to fund the thinning and prescribed burning project. The Forest Service also will use regularly appropriated funds.

"The Forest Service expects to complete the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project with regularly appropriated funds as soon as is practical," Walsh said. "It's not like it's not going to happen."

Forest Service officials said earlier this week that about $4 million was left in remaining stimulus funding for the watershed thinning project. Walsh provided the more exact figure of $4.5 million in remaining funds.

In the past decade, the Forest Service has faced tightening budgets that have caused it to take steps such as consolidating offices and instituting fees at recreation sites.

Asked whether the Forest Service would have enough money in its regular budget to augment remaining stimulus funding for the thinning project, Walsh said that no one can predict the future.

"This is the current plan. This is the current thinking. We intend to move this project. Wherever the money comes from, it will happen," he said.

The total cost of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project, which could take up to a decade to complete, is not yet known.

The project covers 7,600 acres in the Ashland watershed — source of the city of Ashland's water — and several nearby watersheds in the mountains south of town.

The 2009 Siskiyou Fire on the southeast edge of Ashland burned in the Tolman Creek watershed. The wildfire came within one mile of the boundary of the Ashland watershed, which is drained by Ashland Creek.

In their lawsuit, Navickas and Lininger said the Ashland Forest Resiliency 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 two did not ask for a preliminary injunction from a judge, which would put the project on hold before the case moves through the court system.

Navickas and Lininger did ask for a judge to block portions of the project if he or she finds those portions don't comply with environmental laws.

They asked that all work be allowed to proceed in the wildland-urban interface — the forested area closest to Ashland.

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