ashland.news
June 21, 2024

BLM shares worries about immense die-off of southwest Oregon Douglas firs

A conifer mortality tour was provided by the Bureau of Land Management near the Armstrong Deming Trailhead for the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail in the Applegate Valley. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch
March 24, 2024

Agency continues push to log dead and dying conifers near roads, homes and strategic locations

By Shaun Hall, Rogue Valley Times

Drought, heat and a beetle known as the flatheaded fir borer are contributing to an escalating die-off of Douglas fir trees in southwest Oregon, prompting the Medford District of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to continue its push to log dead and dying conifers on 5,000 acres of forest land over five years.

The agency proposes to log trees and reduce brush and woody debris near roads, homes and key points where wildland firefighters can make a stand if needed. Dubbed Strategic Operations for Safety, or SOS, the proposal aims to increase safety for motorists, firefighters and property owners.

In any case, the die-off is immense.

“There’s thousands of acres out there that we’ll never get to,” Aaron Worman, a BLM timber appraiser, said March 15 during an agency-sponsored field trip to forested properties in the Applegate Valley outside Ruch and Jacksonville.

About 60 people attended the outing, which took place at Bunny Meadows near Ruch and at a logging site near the Armstrong Deming Trailhead about 11 miles southeast of Jacksonville. Red trees, a sign of death, were at both locations.

The die-off is affecting huge swaths of primarily BLM and private land, including land on the edges of the Applegate and Bear Creek valleys. Affected areas are concentrated on warm, low-level sites under 3,500 feet elevation that are stressed by lack of water. U.S. Forest Service properties are less affected because they are more commonly located on more productive lands at higher, moister locations. When trees are stressed, they’re more susceptible to beetles and disease that can finish them off.

Environmental advocates, timber industry personnel and landowners were among those who joined agency personnel on Friday’s tour to discuss the proposed project.

“I’m really pleased to see such a diverse group out here,” Elizabeth Burghard, BLM Medford District manager, told the group at its first stop near Ruch, before the crowd drove to the second site, off of Sterling Creek Road.

The BLM proposes to clear dead and dying trees along roads, near homes and at strategic locations such as ridges and waterways where wildfire can be stopped. The proposal follows the publication last year of a 25-page report titled “Trees on the Edge” by Max Bennett and Christopher Adlam and published by the Oregon State University Extension Service. Lisa Meredith, a BLM silviculturist on Friday’s forest tour, recommended the report as easy to read.

An estimated 260,000 Douglas fir trees in Southwest Oregon died in a five-year period ending in 2019, more than in the previous four decades combined, Bennet and Adlam wrote. Their report looked at causes, effects and options.

“Douglas-fir mortality in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties is a serious and growing issue,” they wrote, stressing the danger from wildfire, but noting other impacts. “Douglas fir trees provide vital wildlife habitat, are an important source of timber and capture and store carbon.”

The BLM rolled out its SOS plan last fall and took journalists on a forest tour to Woodrat Mountain near Ruch for a view of the landscape. From a mid-level launch site for paragliders and hang gliders, red patches of dead trees could be seen in all directions. Last week’s tour was a continuing outreach effort by the agency to reach people who wanted a firsthand look.

A stress cone crop — numerous cones near the top of the tree that are much smaller than average — is visible on a conifer near the Armstrong Demming Trailhead about 11 miles southeast of Jacksonville. A year ago, this was a healthy-looking conifer “with a crown,” according to Mike Vandenberg, a forester with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, who spoke March 15 during a public field trip. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch

About 209,000 acres of the 876,000 acres in the BLM’s Medford District are affected by the die-off, according to agency spokesman Kyle Sullivan.

“Every day is fall in the Applegate,” he said, referring to the red patches.

The Applegate Valley has been particularly hard hit, especially on southern and western slopes getting the most sun.

“I think we’re going to continue to see trees die off,” Meredith said. “It’s only getting hotter. It’s only getting drier.”

Like Burghard, Meredith noted the big turnout for Friday’s outing.

“It’s nice to see so much interest in this topic,” she said.

Among those interested were Luke Ruediger and his wife, Suzie Savoie, of the Upper Applegate area. They wanted to hear more about environmental impacts from the project, not just its benefits.

“It’s important to be balanced,” said Ruediger, executive director of the Applegate Siskiyou Alliance environmental organization. “I’m not necessarily opposed.”

“I feel like it’s your obligation to disclose some of the environmental impacts,” Savoie said.

Burghard replied that an environmental assessment would be made available for public comment.

“We are trying,” she said. “I would encourage you to look forward to our environmental assessment.”

The project is still in its development stage, with more public comment opportunities to come. So far, 180 comments have been received and 70 locations have been identified where treatments such as salvage logging and prescribed burning could take place.

“We’ve had a really great response,” said Todd Bowen, who is the agency’s lead for compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

According to Meredith, the die-offs are concentrated on “water-stressed sites” that typically get 35 inches or less of precipitation annually and at sites that historically were more open and had less competition with other trees. Relatively low-level fires previously helped keep those areas open, but that’s changed.

“We have been suppressing fires for over 100 years,” she said. “Fire suppression is how we got to this point.”

Lisa Meredith, a silviculturist with the Bureau of Land Management, speaks on Friday during a conifer mortality tour near the Armstrong Deming Trailhead for the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail. Rogue Valley Times photo by Jamie Lusch

Increased competition for water during a time of drought is another factor.

“We’ve been in drought since 2012,” she said.

Meanwhile, climate change and warmer temperatures have contributed.

“Very high temperatures, which the trees are not able to physiologically handle” have stressed trees, Meredith said.

Summer temperatures are projected to increase up to 6 degrees by mid-century and as much as 10 degrees by 2100, according to the OSU report.

Signs of a distressed Douglas fir include death of branches or branch tips; red or gray branches; death at the tree top; a general thinning or yellowing of foliage and numerous cones near the top of the tree that are much smaller than average. An abundance of pitch droplets in bark crevices are another sign, especially if the tree’s crown is in decline. Also, a tree with stripped bark is a sign that a tree likely is doomed, as woodpeckers strip back bark to get at beetle larvae.

Addressing firefighting issues, Miranda Stuart, assistant fire management officer with the BLM, said dead trees can fuel more intense, faster-moving wildfires that increase danger to firefighters. Snags, which are standing dead trees, are the No. 1 cause of fatal accidents among wildland firefighters, she said, adding that fallen trees and branches on the forest floor make firefighting more difficult for bulldozers, as well as hand crews

Creating breaks in the forest can provide safe places to anchor fire lines and conduct prescribed burns to eliminate woody debris from the forest floor, according to Stuart and Burghard.

“Personally, I’ve seen them work,” Burghard said.

Asked what’s taking so long, Burghard replied, “This is what urgent speed looks like.”

Salvage logging as part of the project could begin early next year.

The sale of salvaged logs helps pay for the work, including prescribed burning, which can cost $5,000 an acre to cut and burn low-level fuels.

One of the considerations for the agency moving forward is what to plant in areas where trees have died or been removed. Instead of Douglas firs, trees better suited to warmer, drier conditions include pines, oaks and madrones.

“As a preventive measure, thinning may improve tree vigor and increase resistance to drought and pests,” Bennett and Adlam wrote. “Typical restoration objectives include shifting to drought-tolerant species, reducing fuel loads and reintroducing low-intensity fire.”

Maintenance practices that can help prevent decline in landscape trees, they noted, include irrigation, mulch, avoiding fertilizers during drought, avoiding altering drainage during drought and avoiding mechanical damage and soil compaction around roots.

More information about the project is available from the BLM’s Todd Bowen, at 541-618-2365, or online at bit.ly/48nZxym. To view the OSU report, search for “Trees on the Edge.”

Reach Rogue Valley Times outdoors and environmental reporter Shaun Hall at 458-225-7179 or shall@rv-times.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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