US Sen Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, has joined the effort to win back $2 million that the US Forest Service pulled from an Ashland Watershed thinning project.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., has joined the effort to win back $2 million that the U.S. Forest Service pulled from an Ashland Watershed thinning project.

Merkley sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Friday asking for the return of the federal stimulus money.

On Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter with the same request.

The Forest Service redirected $2 million out of $6.5 million in funding from the watershed project after Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas and Arizona ecologist Jay Lininger filed a lawsuit challenging parts of the project.

Forest Service officials said they redirected $2 million in stimulus dollars because of the risk that the lawsuit could delay the project. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds are meant to go to projects that can quickly provide jobs, they said.

"Although I applaud the USDA Forest Service's effort to use ARRA funds efficiently to create jobs as quickly as possible, it would be an enormous mistake to withdraw these funds," Merkley said in his Friday letter.

Merkley said the lawsuit would only impact a portion of the 7,600-acre Ashland Forest Resiliency Project treatment area. He said money could be used this spring to treat the forest in areas that are not at issue in the lawsuit.

"The lost $2 million represents 1,500 acres and approximately nine months of employment," Merkley said in the letter. "This is a significant loss to this project."

If the Forest Service has already allocated the $2 million to other projects, Merkley said he would urge Vilsack to find other funding that was appropriated for use in the 2010 fiscal year and use that "to keep boots on the ground in the Ashland Watershed."

Merkley added, "My state is struggling with an unemployment rate of 11 percent — one of the highest in the country. The jobs that would be created with this funding are important to rural communities and to the health of our forests."

A Washington, D.C. spokesman for Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., could not be reached by press time about whether Walden is joining the effort to get the $2 million in stimulus funding restored.

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