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As Fire Risk Explodes Across the West, an Oregon City Finds a Solution

Using selective logging and controlled burns, Ashland has reduced fire risk on thousands of acres in the forested watershed that provides the city’s drinking water. The partnership that made it happen could be a model for other fire-prone communities.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A crew burns slash piles in 2016 that were left behind from logging activity in the watershed that Ashland, Oregon, relies upon for its municipal drinking water. The work is part of the Ashland Forest Resliency Project.Courtesy City of Ashland

All over the West, overgrown forests represent a ticking time bomb. A century of fire suppression and inappropriate logging practices have left forests dangerously overgrown. Add climate change – rising temperatures, shrinking snowpacks – and the threat of catastrophic fires becomes very real.

In California, thousands of homes were recently incinerated in Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara by fires that could not be controlled. In the latter case, subsequent mudslides killed more people than the original fires and also harmed water quality.

Fixing the problem is difficult. Simply cutting down overgrown vegetation is expensive and poses many environmental concerns. Lighting more controlled burns raises worries about chronic smoke inhalation and the potential for a runaway fire.

Now, a solution may be emerging in the southern Oregon town of Ashland, home to the famous annual Shakespeare festival. Ashland has been working quietly for years to thin the overgrown forests that form the town’s scenic backdrop.

Motivated largely by a desire to protect its drinking water, Ashland has used selective logging and controlled burns to reduce fire risk. The goal is to return its forested watershed to a more natural state, one that can handle low-intensity fires on a regular basis without killing big trees and polluting the water supply.

The city draws its potable water from Ashland Creek, and for years had no other supply to tap in a pinch. The watershed is highly erosive, meaning a serious fire could harm water quality and clog Reeder Reservoir, the storage point for the city’s water system.

“Other cities have multiple watersheds,” said Chris Chambers, forest division chief for the city of Ashland. “If one burns it’s a big deal, but they have other sources. We’re not in that scenario. We really have all of our eggs in one basket.”

Ashland launched its Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project in 2010 in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a nonprofit based in Ashland that specializes in habitat projects. By the end of 2019, it’s expected that 10,800 acres will have had both thinning and burning treatments, according to Chambers.

It’s a remarkable achievement for any city, but particularly so for Ashland, where protesters demonstrated in the 1990s against logging plans in the surrounding Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, partly out of concern for endangered spotted owls.

“There was this whole paradigm shift,” said Darren Borgias, Southwest Oregon forest project director at The Nature Conservancy. “We’re fundamentally changing the culture’s relationship to fire, and Ashland is helping to represent what that change could be.”

Trees logged out of the steep slopes in Ashland’s watershed are lowered by helicopter to a waiting ground crew. The work was part of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project. Trees cut by the project averaged 13 inches in diameter, and many were sold to the forest-products industry. Large trees were avoided. (Photo Courtesy Evan Barrientos, The Nature Conservancy)

The origins of the project date back to 2003 and passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. This federal law allowed local governments to draft a “community wildfire protection plan,” and required the national forest in the area to consider this plan as an alternative to whatever standard practices it had in place at the time for managing wildfire risk.

Borgias praised the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for embracing this new path.

“The Forest Service helped enable this fresh opportunity for the city to convene people and develop a community alternative,” he said. “They recognized there had been a hard time in getting along with the community in managing the forests.”

The local plan became known as the Ashland Forest Resiliency project. It also benefited from some good timing.

By the time the project was getting rolling in 2009, the national economic recession was in full swing, and the Obama administration was offering large grants for job-creating projects under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Ashland Forest Resiliency Project was the sort of “shovel ready” project those federal funds were intended for, Borgias said. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest was awarded a $6.2 million federal grant in 2009 to launch the project.

Besides actually thinning the forest in Ashland’s watershed, the forest resiliency project has created 17 full-time equivalent jobs directly related to the forest work, and an estimated 90 additional indirect full-time jobs.

It also produced more than $5 million in revenue from wood products sold from the forest thinning work. Most of the wood was chipped to produce plywood.

Even so, the project has not been a money-maker. One reason is that expensive helicopter logging was ordered in many locations to minimize erosion. Another is that large, old-growth trees were declared off-limits to cutting, to protect habitat for spotted owls and other wildlife. The average tree size removed during the forest thinning work was only 13 inches in diameter.

In subsequent years, the partners secured nearly $14 million in additional grants from state and federal sources to continue the work. Ashland residents provided matching funds, too: The city imposed a $1.29 monthly fee on every water customer to subsidize the work. This generates about $175,000 annually, Chambers said.

“At the time it was passed, it was clear to us we had to put some skin in the game in order to leverage federal funding,” he said. “It’s been very successful in doing that.”

This is what the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project is designed to protect: Ashland Creek, the pristine stream that provides the town’s drinking water. Keith Perchemlides, a field ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, measures riparian canopy closure as part of aquatic monitoring along the creek. (Photo Courtesy Evan Barrientos, The Nature Conservancy)

The town has an unusual relationship with its forested watershed that dates back to 1891 with the passage of the Forest Reserve Act, which allowed cities to petition the president to protect their municipal watersheds as a “forest reserve” where logging would be limited.

Remarkably, only two cities in the West took advantage of this opportunity – Portland and Ashland, Oregon.

As a result, Ashland’s watershed experienced no clearcut logging during the 20th century, unlike most areas of the West. This spared it from one fire-risk factor: When trees grow back after clearcutting, it results in a so-called “even-aged” forest that is more fire-prone.

But for many decades, the city’s watershed did experience the heavy hand of fire suppression. As in so many communities, fire was considered bad and virtually every fire was extinguished as rapidly as possible. This produced an overgrown forest, thick with flammable underbrush and small trees.

Severe fires have hit the watershed in the past, notably in 1910 and 1959, causing heavy erosion that affected Ashland’s water supply. On several occasions, Chambers said, the city has spent millions of dollars to dredge sediment from Reeder Reservoir.

These days, Ashland has the ability to purchase water from the neighboring city of Medford. But that water is expensive, Chambers said, and considered an emergency supply.

The other key ingredient in Ashland’s plan was convincing the public that a little bit of logging and managed fire were necessary to help the forest. Public attitudes gradually shifted as the forest resiliency plan was developed over many public meetings. Slowly, people began to trust that it wasn’t a logging plan in disguise, Borgias said.

“From the very onset, it was not just an agency representative riding in on their white horse and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’” he added. “But it was the agency inviting the public to become engaged.”

The Ashland Chamber of Commerce also became an important player. It held meetings to educate its members about the forest resiliency project, and it partnered with the city to produce educational materials.

Sandra Slattery, the chamber’s executive director, said she was motivated to help because the forest is the city’s scenery. “It is not only the source of our water, but it is also the physical backdrop to our community,” Slattery said. “If there was a massive wildfire, it would be devastating. Not only for the flora and fauna and everything up there, but for our tourism-based economy.”

Sometime in 2019, Chambers said, the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project will meet its original goal of reducing fire danger on 7,600 acres of federal land. The heavy logging is finished, and all that’s left is controlled burning and brush clearing on less than 1,000 acres.

After that, the goal is to maintain the area using controlled burns about once a decade.

Has it worked? Chambers is honest: Ashland won’t really know until the next wildfire hits. But he said the partners can take comfort knowing they’ve done everything possible to protect the community and its water supply.

“We’ve brought the community along and shown them, in fact, logging can happen and the forests are healthy and vibrant after,” he said. “Cities need to find a way to participate in these kinds of projects. In the end, the alternative is doing nothing. We know what the outcome of that is going to be.”

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