ashland.news
July 14, 2024

Many Hands: Ashland Forest Lands Committee helps manage complex resource

Dead and dying trees in Siskiyou Mountain Park, located above (south of) Walker Avenue. Rogue Reconnaissance photo for the city of Ashland
November 21, 2023

Forest and watershed health, fire danger and recreational uses all play into decision about helicopter logging project 

Editor’s note: “Many hands make light work,” the saying goes. Ashland seems to have taken it to heart — the city website currently lists 14 committees, two commissions and two boards helping keep the civic infrastructure functioning. This is the second in a periodic series of stories in which we take a look at what these 18 panels are up to.

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

Douglas fir trees are dying at a rapid rate throughout Ashland’s municipal forests. The Ashland Forest Plan has been adjusted to meet the moment with a project using helicopters to remove dead and dying trees from the steep slopes of the lower watershed and nearby Siskiyou Mountain Park. 

At its Nov. 14 meeting, Ashland’s Forest Lands commission discussed strategies for how to manage the forest’s health during and after the project and reviewed public comment on the project. 

Forest Lands Committee
Established: 1994
Mission: To develop forest management plans for the city of Ashland’s municipal forests, provide direction and oversight for wildland urban interface and the Ashland Creek Watershed, and to increase public engagement and knowledge of Ashland Forest Plan programs.
Members: Seven seats available, six occupied (Ashland Parks & Recreation seat is vacant). Each member serves three-year terms. 
Meetings: The commission meets the second Tuesday of the month at Fire Station No. 2, 1860 Ashland St. 
Agendas for meetings: Check the city of Ashland meeting calendar 
Public comment form for meetings: Click here.
Apply to serve on a city committee or commission: Click here. The City Council appoints qualified applicants following an interview process. Questions? Email the City Recorder’s office at recorder@ashland.or.us or call 541-488-5307.

“I think we’re seeing things on the ground happening in an accelerated way, or worse than we predicted,” said commission member John Owen. 

Research conducted last summer showed 25 to 60% of Douglas fir trees were “on their way out,” throughout the area, said Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire & Rescue division chief. 

“One of the solutions is going to be changing species composition. We’ve talked about trying to keep the Doug fir, but that may be a losing effort at a lot of our locations,” said commission member Frank Betlejewski. 

More pine, hardwoods and black oak could be the future of the watershed as the climate changes which trees can thrive there, he said. Black oak would be particularly important to provide cavity nesting habitat. 

Oak trees can’t tolerate shade, explaining the wild curvaceous shape of their branches as the trees grow to the light, Chambers said. With fewer Douglas firs in the watershed, oak populations could naturally increase. 

The commission reviewed a handful of written comments submitted by Ashland residents. A firewise neighborhood near Siskiyou Mountain Park expressed enthusiastic support. It will dovetail with their own efforts — neighbors have already pooled resources and paid for their own removal of dead and dying trees in their neighborhood. 

One commenter asked: Will it make it worse? Could the removal of too many trees cause remaining trees to die? 

“If it’s a poor site for Doug fir, yeah it can make it worse. But if it’s a productive site and we can thin and create a growth response, then we can actually make it better. We don’t want to thin too much anywhere, except where the trees are already dead and dying,” Chambers said. 

The choice of which trees to remove in which areas will be nuanced with thought to not only the douglas fir trees but “refugia,” or places where plants and animals can find shade from persistent drought and heat. Some “snags” or standing dead trees will also be left behind to serve as habitat. Another comment urged the project to leave as many snags as possible. 

The commission rejected this suggestion in the face of studies that showed a drastic rise in fire danger from too many dead trees. The dying trees create pools of dropped red needles, creating an immediate rise in fire danger, Chambers said. As the needles decompose, fire danger drops until the trees are completely dead, when fire danger sharply rises again. 

Another comment asked if the project could leave most of the felled dead trees and forgo the expense of helicopter logging to let the dead wood decompose naturally and feed the forest. 

“Here with 19 inches of rain and a lot of fire, not a very good strategy. … if we’re going to leave that stuff out there, it’s going to be an increase in firefighter safety concerns, it’s going to increase significant impacts to soil if it burns, that kind of burning can even be in the winter. I have seen that. And it’s going to make prescribed burning really difficult,” Chambers said. 

The project will leave a judicious amount of dead wood, attempting to balance forest health and fire danger. 

Local mountain bike associations submitted a comment of concern that the project could interrupt races, events and access to trails — a potentially significant economic impact that could be the end of some small businesses in Ashland. During the few weeks when helicopters will be flying above the watershed carrying logs, it would be too dangerous to allow trail access, Chambers said. For that reason, the project will be scheduled to take place in the winter when few will be on trails. 

“I took those comments to heart. We will try as hard as we can. … There will be probably some intermittent closures or at least some nuisance smoke in trail areas as we go in there and deal with piles of slash left behind,” he said. 

If Ashland City Council approves a contract with nonprofit organization Lomakatsi during the Nov. 21 council business meeting, the project could begin in the coming weeks. It will take a week or longer to train Lomakatsi staff to recognize and appropriately mark which trees are to be removed, Chambers said. 

One submitted comment wondered if the expense of helicopter logging was worth it. 

“What’s the opportunity cost of a catastrophic megafire compared to paying a helicopter for a few weeks? … What is the cost of a megafire in the Ashland watershed? So many things we really can’t even really put a number or a value on,” said committee member Luke Brandy. 

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

Related article:
Many Hands: Climate and Environment Policy Advisory Committee works to reach climate goals

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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