The many forest managers in the Ashland watershed may do controlled burns that are occasionally too hot and gobble up a few old “legacy trees,” but, as they explained on a long Saturday tour at 5,200 feet elevation, they are trying to get the watershed back to where it was in 1910, when it had only a third of the trees it has now.

All the forests around Ashland once were thin and easy to walk through and hunt in, as well as providing a landscape hospitable to gathering herbs, berries, grass and food, as Native Americans did for millennia. This changed a century ago, when whites began fighting fires, allowing a buildup of brush and “ladder fuels” that invite fire to scald and destroy forests when less-frequent fires burn more intensely.

The partners in Ashland’s vast watershed — the U.S. Forest Service, Lomakatsi Restoration Project, The Nature Conservancy, and the city of Ashland and its Forestry Division — work together to get the sprawling, brush-choked forests back on track with controlled burns that simulate what natural fire has always done, but, they say, it’s not easy.

It takes rigid adherence to science, moisture, elevation, density — on and on. You don’t just light it on fire and burn out the understory cultivated by man in the past, mainly for timber needs.

Marching on the “No Candies” trail Saturday with about 30 Ashlanders, most involved some facet of environmental and forest science, Darren Borgias, executive director of Southwest Oregon Nature Conservancy, showed off a treasured section of a 700-year old snag, whose tree rings started in the year 1398, displayed survival from 60 fires and, like the forest around it, showed evidence it had been bathed in flames from lightning-caused blazes about every decade.

The dendrochronology (tree rings), he says, “informs our thinking” about what healthy trees did over the centuries of their lives and how they cohabited with fire, usually growing back over any fire wounds. In other words, fire is good, but how do we gradually restore forests to their old fire diet without fire killing them?

“We want 'good fire' back in the ecosystem,” says Ashland Fire & Rescue Forest Division Chief Chris Chambers, the city’s representative to the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project. “If we just burn it, we would get a vastly different forest (than in prehistoric times). The forest is now homogenous. There’s no open land.”

Chambers showed the first aerial photographs of the watershed, from 1939, and compared with present pics, the old shot looks like a different world, open and filled with sunlight and shadows.

Any random fires now “burn way too intensely,” Chambers said. “Everything burns. We don’t want that next to our community. Fire is going to be back, but we want it managed.”

Pointing to a recent controlled burn, Borgias notes new greens and grass have already sprouted up where fire recently walked. In the old healthy forests, he adds, cones produced lots of saplings but most naturally perish. The goal is not to burn, but to scorch the forest, but the process does allow for mortality of some trees, even the rare legacy trees. Legacy trees are over 150 years old.

They’ve learned a lot from the recent blaze that got too hot and devoured some legacy trees, says Rob Marshall, Forest Service Fire Management Officer. The smoke of controlled burns is a huge issue, arousing much alarm from Ashland residents, he says, so fire folk work with the winds, burning in the earliest daylight hours, because, starting in the afternoon, the watershed is “like a perfect funnel,” sending smoke into town. They also learned not to pile slash around the base of legacy trees, but take it somewhere else, as it’s a highly flammable fuel.

The team is now managing fires in the watershed with the goal of “thinning out ladder fuels, and setting the stage and doing extensive preparations for burns to put fire back on the landscape,” said Steve Jensen, a member of the city’s Forest Lands Commission, which manages undeveloped forestlands in the city of Ashland and is not a partner in the AFR project.

AFR completes 700 acres a year, a fraction of the whole, if it can overcome smoke issues.

As a benchmark for healthy forests of past centuries, Belinda Brown, Lomakatsi’s Tribal Partnership Manager, says Native Americans “were the first and best stewards of the land. We managed by working with fire, for food, grasses for weaving, game, driving deer with fire, women gathering berries, moving fire around with burning pine cones.”

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

(Aug. 7: Story updated to clarify that, while Steven Jensen is a member of the city Forest Lands Commission, the commission is not a partner in the AFR project and the controlled burns are in the watershed, not the city.)