ashland.news
July 21, 2024

Helicopter logging project to begin in Ashland watershed and Siskiyou Mountain Park

Trees marked with blue rings will be taken out as part of the helicopter logging project. These trees are on the Snark Loop Trail. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
March 26, 2024

Trail closures set to begin Monday, helicopter activity as soon as April 10

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

The forest in Ashland’s watershed won’t be the same after Wednesday, March 27, when a helicopter logging project will begin in the watershed, spanning over popular trails such as Bandersnatch and Lewis Lookout to remove dead and dying trees.

The plan, part of the Ashland Forestland Climate Change Adaptation Phase I Project Plan, will start with ground crews cutting dead and dying trees marked for removal. Helicopters will then move in to collect the downed trees and carry them to a nearby drop site where they will be machine processed into logs of a uniform size to be carried to the Timber Products mill in Yreka, said Ashland Fire & Rescue Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers.

The sale of the logs will recoup an estimated $686,000 of the project’s estimated $1.3 million cost. Trail closures are expected to begin Monday, April 1. 

The forest will look different when it’s over, Chambers said. But for anyone who knows what to look for, the forest already looks different, he said as he walked up the road by Ashland Creek leading to the city water treatment plant Thursday. 

A walk up the road to the city’s only water treatment plant shows some of the many trees that have already died as a result of climate change, drought and insect infestation. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“Look at that tree up against the sky — it’s dying,” he said, pointing to a tree towering above road to the left and the creek to the right. 

The tree has its “feet” in the water, he said, referring to root systems reaching into the creek. A tree growing in the shade with access to water would ordinarily be able withstand the forces causing mass die off of Douglas fir trees in the area — particularly drought and the invasion of the flatheaded fir borer beetle. To see this tree dying is a sign of the severity of the problem.

“It’s not dead yet, but it will be. They wake up from dormancy and try to photosynthesize and realize they can’t. We often say a tree is ‘dead but it just doesn’t know it yet,’” he said. 

Chambers said he’s tested his friends, leading them into the watershed and waiting for someone to notice they’re walking through a stand of dead trees. 

“People usually only look at ground level. They don’t realize the tree trunks they’re looking at are dead,” he said. 

Ashland Fire & Rescue Wildfire Division Chief Chris Chambers talks about the work that will be done above Lithia Park to remove dead and dying trees to give the remaining healthy trees a better chance at survival. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

But when they look up it’s obvious, he said, looking up to where red needles or no needles in the nearby trees betrayed what has been quietly accelerating since 2020. 

There was a little jump in Douglas fir mortality that year. It had happened in the watershed before, more was expected with climate change. But last year, it was a “shock” to see how many trees were fading so fast.  

“It’s heartbreaking for me. I am attached to this place, to see this many trees dying is hard to swallow,” he said. 

Sap ran in little rivulets around the broad trunk of the tree leaning over the road, betraying where it had tried to eject beetles burrowing in. This tree could fall in either direction as it dies, Chambers said. If it fell into the creek, it could break into pieces, some of which could tumble downstream toward downtown Ashland. If it fell over the road, it would block the only access to the city’s water treatment plant. 

Throughout the forest, dying trees are leaning precariously over trails and adjacent parking lots, threatening a resource beloved by locals and generating revenue for Ashland’s tourism-based economy. The heaviest thinning will be around trails in the interest of human safety, Chambers said as he walked toward Snark Trail. 

Blue tape marks the boundary line of the project that was approved by the City Council on March 19. The project could begin this weed with with ground crews cutting dead and dying trees marked for removal. The helicopter would arrive by mid-April to remove trees. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

But trails aren’t the only resource involved. At its heart, the project requires balancing multiple resources against each other. 

The city’s forest health has its own value, and the removal of these trees is an attempt to prevent a phenomenon happening across the west as forests succumb to drought and climate change then shift into grasslands or shrubland, he said. The city also has limited financial resources to support the project. But if a fire came through the forest now, it could be catastrophic. 

As climate change alters the forests of the west, the sudden increase of dead and downed trees mean an abundance of fuel creating the potential for fire behavior never previously seen, Chambers said. It has been called “mass fire,” a term borrowed from war. Originally referring to firebombing an area until the fire takes on a life of its own, the term has been used to describe events such as the Carr Fire in 2018, Chambers said. A fire that built up enough heat to create its own weather, including a fire tornado

Embers from these fires can travel 2 to 3 miles. A fire anywhere in the project area is close enough to Ashland that embers could easily encompass the city, he said. 

A city of Ashland map shows the helicopter logging project area in light green. The area at left is west of the south end of Lithia Park; the column at left center runs along Ashland Creek; and the rectangle at right is in Siskiyou Mountain Park, west of Oredson-Todd Woods.

Due to the steepness of the watershed, using ground crews would be more expensive and make it harder to remove the dead trees and thereby eliminate the fire risk. Helicopter logging was determined to be the best solution. But the project does pose a potential risk to the mountain bike trails in the area. 

Members of the local mountain bike community expressed grim acceptance and a cautious optimism. 

“It’s a tinderbox up there,” said Ryan Hawk, president of the Rogue Valley Mountain Bike Association. 

The project is cutting out a vital swatch of the calendar. It’s during the wet spring when the soil is soft that volunteers typically perform trail maintenance, he said. It’s also when locals enjoy riding the most. 

“We love it after a rain, it’s kind of like skiers looking for fresh powder,” he said. 

But Hawk said he understood Chambers was constrained by the contractor’s availability and the project is “the least bad option,” for the forest, even with the risk of felling so many trees so close to trails. 

The forest in the project area has many dead and dying Douglas fir trees, perhaps the most common tree in Oregon. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“All the labor put into those trails, on a volunteer basis. Hopefully, we’ve built those trails to be durable and they’ll last,” he said. 

Casey Botts, president and co-founder of Ashland DEVO, also accepted the necessity of the project and respected the city’s proactive approach to forest health. But he said the trails are on city land and the city should pay to cover any damages. 

“If there’s x number of trees, even if 1% hits the trail, it could be really damaging. … The trails are basically an amenity like any other, they’re like the pool or the tennis court,” he said. 

Botts said the city has not given a clear answer about a willingness or ability to cover potential damages. Botts echoed Hawk in praising Chamber’s clear and consistent communication and his attempts to lessen the project’s impacts for mountain bikers. 

After the logging is done and the area is cleaned up, the project can become an opportunity for the forest, Chambers said, standing on Snark Trail and looking up the steep hill overhead. Numerous trees wore blue belts of spray paint marking them to be felled in the coming days. Once they are gone, remaining Douglas-Firs may revive. Oak savannas may thrive in the additional sunlight. Other native species can be planted, improving the ability to use prescribed fire to treat the forests and prevent mass fire. 

Numerous dead trees in the watershed increase the fuel load and wildfire risk for the city of Ashland. This dead tree is one of many on a steep slope just north of the Granite Street water reservoir. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

A replanting plan will be carefully developed after the project, Chambers said as he walked back down the water treatment plant road. 

Coming back directly beneath the not-quite-yet dead tree leaning between the road and the creek, he noticed a nest large enough for a hawk or a falcon. He explained trees cut in similar projects in California showed beetles encased in sap inside the tree with rings radiating outward, showing the trees fought the invaders and sometimes won, even if only for a little while. 

“Maybe I’ll leave that one. Maybe it’ll make it,” he said. 

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

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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