The Delicate Balance of an Ecosystem

In Oregon, 8 million acres of dry pine and mixed conifer forests have historically been kept in check by naturally occurring fire regimes, about every 7 to 15 years. Efforts to prevent and reduce damage from these fires throughout the last 100 years—while important in many ways—have had some unintended side effects, ranging from the altering of wildlife habitats to, ironically, increased risk of unnaturally severe wildfires. But through collaborative partnerships and proactive efforts, a few key groups are working to restore the balance in Ashland.

Far-Reaching Affects

In the last century, the exclusion of wildfires in Southwest and Eastern Oregon has resulted in a concerning excess of potential wildfire fuel in the Ashland Watershed, increasing the risk of a severe wildfire and threatening the City of Ashland’s water supply. That also means a risk to people, property, wildlife habitat, beloved recreational activities and vital local business activity.

Changes in the forest landscape create changes in wildlife habitat as well. Species that have adapted to open canopy forests with large trees, like white-headed woodpeckers, mountain bluebirds and other cavity-nesting birds, depend on large old pine and Douglas fir trees. The over-abundance of trees crowding the canopy, and the thickening vegetation below, inhibit these species’ ability to make a home. As a result, some key objectives of this ongoing project are to reduce the risk of wide-spread wildfire, help large, old trees survive fire, insects and disease and restore a healthy forest ecosystem.

Photo Credit: Sean Bagshaw via City of Ashland website

Photo Credit: Sean Bagshaw via City of Ashland website

Solving the Problem Together

With more than 22,000 acres of at-risk forest identified—on public and privately owned land—this is no small task. Fortunately, the City of Ashland, the US Forest Service, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to tackle this project’s most challenging obstacles. More than 7,600 acres have been managed since 2010, including 1,000 acres logged and 2,000 acres treated with prescribed burns, to strategically thin and restore the forest health.

The logs were sent to local mills supporting local communities and families. More than 200 seasonal jobs are supported by this project annually. 

Logging in the steep, erosive soil sometimes requires the use of a helicopter, which can be complicated and expensive. Controlled burns must occur within strict parameters and a narrow window of weather conditions to ensure safety and minimize smoke intrusion.

Local, state and federal resources have been pooled to plan and implement the restoration and ensure proceeds from the harvested timber are re-invested to fund other non-commercial restoration. Thanks to this Master Stewardship Agreement the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Program stands as a shining example of the power of collaboration.

Looking to the Future

The partners involved with this project are currently working to expand the effort to restore an additional 4,000 acres of adjacent, privately owned forested lands. To advance this new cross-boundary effort, the partnership is expanding to include the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Together, the partners are working to design, plan and implement restoration activities across both public and private ownerships, in this important geography in Southern Oregon.