Ashland has won a $255,345 federal government grant to help it reduce wildfire fuels, including on city-owned land in the middle of the Ashland Watershed.
About $204,000 of the grant will be used to thin trees and brush on the city's 160-acre Winburn Parcel in the watershed. The city parcel is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land.

Ashland has won a $255,345 federal government grant to help it reduce wildfire fuels, including on city-owned land in the middle of the Ashland Watershed.

About $204,000 of the grant will be used to thin trees and brush on the city's 160-acre Winburn Parcel in the watershed. The city parcel is surrounded by U.S. Forest Service land.

The rest of the grant money will be used to thin fuels on other city land, Ashland Parks & Recreation Department land and the property of willing landowners, according to city officials.

Grants were awarded to 11 high-priority projects across the country, city officials said. The Ashland City Council unanimously voted to accept the grant on Tuesday night.

The money comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior, which includes the BLM.

The federal agencies were looking to award money to projects that treat land across jurisdictional and private/public boundaries, said Darren Borgias, program director for The Nature Conservancy's Southwest Oregon field office.

The Nature Conservancy helped Ashland win the grant money.

The city of Ashland, the Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project — a nonprofit that restores forests and creeks — already had teamed up on a 10-year, $5.1 million Ashland Forest Resiliency Project to reduce wildfire fuels on 7,600 acres of Forest Service land in the Ashland Watershed. The partners kicked in funding for the project, although most of it is paid for with federal stimulus dollars.

On-the-ground work for that project kicked off in 2010.

That partnership helped position the city to win the new $255,345 grant, Borgias said.

"The grant recognizes the Ashland community for demonstrating results in doing this kind of work," he said.

Borgias said planned thinning on the city's Winburn Parcel will reduce the threat of fire to Ashland, the watershed and the natural systems there.

The city's Ashland Forest Lands Commission worked for years with Marty Main, owner of Small Woodland Services Inc., to devise a carefully tailored plan for thinning trees and brush on the Winburn Parcel. The Ashland City Council approved that plan in 2007, but it has sat on the shelf because of a lack of money to carry it out.

The plan calls for thinning the smallest, weakest trees to allow larger trees to thrive, while also reducing the risk of a high-intensity wildfire that could lead to erosion in the watershed.

Some large trees will be cut, for example, if they are growing in crowded conditions, but no trees will be removed just to generate money to help pay for the work. The plan calls for costly but relatively low-impact helicopter logging.

The Winburn Parcel-thinning project would have been a deficit operation, but $204,000 from the new grant will close that gap and make it affordable, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Resource Specialist Chris Chambers.

Work could begin on the Winburn Parcel this fall or in the spring of 2013, Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns said.

City officials hope to carry out the project in conjunction with helicopter thinning planned as part of the Forest Service's Ashland Forest Resiliency Project. A joint project makes the helicopter work more economically feasible, city officials said.

Not everyone is happy that Ashland won a sizable grant to pave the way for the Winburn Parcel thinning.

Former Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas said he is disappointed with The Nature Conservancy for promoting commercial logging on fairly pristine land within the Ashland Watershed. He said the conservation group has a history of being too friendly with extraction interests, such as the timber industry.

"I'm not convinced restoration logging is beneficial. Logging is logging," he said.

Navickas noted that the Winburn Parcel has sensitive riparian areas because it sits at the confluence of Weasel Creek and a branch of Ashland Creek.

Navickas and former Ashland resident Jay Lininger have a lawsuit pending to try and stop helicopter logging on Forest Service land for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project. A judge has yet to issue a decision. No injunction is in place to block logging, Navickas said.

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