A helicopter buzzed above Ashland Tuesday, and log trucks soon will be rumbling through town as part of a project to help protect the watershed — by logging it with a light hand.

The helicopter began airlifting the first of about 52,000 mostly small-diameter trees cut from 934 acres to create space for Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines to thrive in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest above Ashland. 

It's the first time in three years that the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project has used helicopter logging to thin forest stands within the watershed to reduce wildfire danger, protect Ashland's drinking water, enhance wildlife habitat and improve the health of the larger, more mature trees left behind without damaging the sensitive soils.

In recent years, project crews have cut, stacked and burned the woody debris to the tune of about $1,200 an acre, says Don Boucher, the forest's project manager for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

With the helicopter-logged timber sold to a White City mill, the thinning project costs about $800 an acre and the estimated 4.6 million board-feet of sold logs will pick up about two-thirds of the $2.8 million cost, Boucher says.

The remaining money comes from federal grants through the Forest Service and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service through their Joint Chiefs Landscape Restoration Partnership.

"It's not driven by timber harvest, but the timber is the byproduct of the restoration work and they create value to do more work," says Marko Bey, executive director of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, which partners with the city of Ashland, the forest and The Nature Conservancy on the resiliency project.

"And when we're finished, there's a forest standing," Bey says.

Ground crews will thin and haul another 1.2 million board-feet of timber from about 200 acres where helicopter logging wasn't deemed necessary, Boucher says. That work should be done in spring before the start of the wildfire season, and the lumber hauled off that project is expected to more than pay for that part of the project, Boucher says.

When finished, about 80 percent of the 7,600-acre project area will have been thinned since the resiliency project launched in 2009, says Donna Mickley, the forest's Ashland district ranger. The partnership runs until 2020, and the group continues to seek funds to complete those projects, Mickley says.

While conventional commercial operations often target the larger and more expensive timber, this project focuses mostly on trees with a diameter of less than 12 inches when measured at chest height.

Only seven of the Douglas fir, white fir and Ponderosa pines cut as part of the project sport diameters of 30 inches or more, Boucher says.

When the project is completed, those portions of the watershed should look more like they did 70 years ago, before decades of wildfire suppression allowed brush and smaller trees to dominate the landscape.

"We're still not getting it as far back as what it was," Boucher says.

Timberline Helicopters Inc. of Idaho used a mix of its own timber fallers as well as local contractors to fell the trees a month ago, but weather conditions postponed work until Tuesday, says Chamise Kramer, the forest's spokeswoman.

The helicopter hovered well above the tree line as loggers on the ground fastened logs to a long cable. The pilot deftly carried the suspended logs to a nearby landing, where they were stacked.

Log trucks were scheduled to start hauling the logs Thursday, primarily down Tolman Creek Road and eventually to the Murphy Veneer mill in White City, Boucher says.

Some road portions and several hiking trails have been closed during the project for safety, Kramer says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Helicopter logging closures in Ashland watershed by Mail Tribune