How one Oregon town put politics aside to save itself from fire

This article about Ashland, Oregon, “How one Oregon town put politics aside to save itself from fire,” was first published back in September in Grist, but was republished today by InvestigateWest. Excellent piece.

“After another year of meetings and paperwork, the Forest Service approved the Ashland Watershed Protection Project. Environmentalists who had once thought that the notion of cutting down trees to reduce wildfire damage was simply a Trojan horse for loggers had engaged deeply with the evidence suggesting that human intervention could make the watershed resilient to fire. They had devised a plan of action they believed in. The doubters who had claimed that the environmentalists were obstructionists who would never agree to any real management watched in amazement as workers began cutting down trees.”

I attended one SAF tour of part of the Ashland Watershed Protection Project maybe 20 years ago. Lots of work has been done since then, but there’s a long way to go.

11 thoughts on “How one Oregon town put politics aside to save itself from fire”

  1. I thought this part was interesting..

    “Residents are enthusiastic about the work. Mark Shibley, a sociologist at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, surveyed people as felling was starting, and again in 2019. As people saw the state of the forest, support for controlled burning rose from 52 percent to 76 percent, while support for thinning rose from 58 percent to 80 percent.

    The cheering isn’t universal, of course. Dominick DellaSala, a forest scientist who lives just north of Ashland, is well known for his minority perspective that forests are better off with little or no management. In his view, the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project is degrading spotted owl habitat, and he says the work will do nothing to protect the town from fire, since all the management takes place away from homes and buildings: “What you do beyond 100 feet of a structure has no effect at all. Whatever you are doing in the backcountry is not helping the house.”

    Because the plan called for workers to take out small trees and leave the big ones, the thinning was strictly noncommercial on 80 percent of the project’s acres. But Ashland did recoup a little money by selling trees that workers did cut down. Some 3,000 trucks piled with logs have left Ashland’s surrounding forests headed for area sawmills, yielding enough lumber to build over a thousand homes. The project made $6 million off those logs — just a drop in the bucket compared to the costs.

    Ultimately, the project worked because the Forest Service was willing to give up its idea that each project should pay for itself, and allow the Ashland watershed restoration to lose millions. “It’s proof that you can get productive work done in a very challenging environment,” Chambers, the wildfire chief, said. “But it’s not a great example in as far as money goes: It is a really expensive project.”

    The project received some $28 million dollars in grants, the bulk from the federal government, though the state, tribes, nonprofits, and philanthropies also contribute. In 2013, Ashland voted to add a couple of dollars to every water bill, adding up to $200,000 every year, to pay for managing the watershed. A lot of money was needed upfront for cutting trees and brush, but as the years go on, Chambers said, the work will shift mostly to controlled burns as maintenance.”

    It seems to me it’s another argument for developing uses for small diameter material. Also the idea of going slow to go fast.. developing trust. Probably also true for prescribed fire and wildland fire use.

    • Uses for small-diameter material — and biomass for producing power. Seneca’s mill in Eugene, OR, has a power plant that runs on biomass and produces enough power for 13,000 homes. The company says, “The wood biomass used to fuel the cogeneration facility comes from Seneca Sawmill’s bark, sawdust and shavings, as well as forest biomass “logging residuals or slash” from Seneca Jones Timber Company’s sustainably managed tree farm, located nearby in Oregon’s Coast and Cascade Ranges.”

  2. As a former employee of an ENGO that worked on forestry projects, I cannot stress enough how frustrating the Dominick DellaSala’s and Chad Hanson’s of the world are to many in the ENGO community. Since they are so extreme, they are on the news media’s speed-dial anytime a polarizing quote is needed for a story. This results in the perception of the entire ENGO community as being extremist. I have heard it joked that Chad is a government agent who’s purpose is to discredit the ENGO community.

    Sure, ENGOs took a hard stance against the liquidation of the last of the old growth forests in the late 80s and early 90s, but there wasn’t much left to compromise about and time was running out. Ecosystem restoration is complicated, with many perspectives on how to get there. When many in the ENGO community came to realize that active management is necessary and humans have been part of the system for thousands of years, they had to come to the table to push for restoration methods that took into consideration the resources that are important to them.

    • A- it’s certainly interesting to observe who is quoted by whom when it comes to media accounts. That would be a fascinating study for a journalism/environment/science graduate student. If we only had $60K or so to support one..

    • There was substantially more diversity of ENGO opinion regarding old-growth forests in the late 80s and early 90s than this comment suggests. The Sierra Club actively opposed litigation to protect Northwest old-growth. National Wildlife Federation abandoned the fight early on when the political going got tough. And National Audubon Society had to be pushed and pressured by its independent state affiliates every inch of the way. This in-house debate honed and sharpened old-growth forest proponent arguments and strategies — if the Sierra Club, et al., could be overcome, what chance did the timber industry and Forest Service have? 🙂

      As is the case with natural ecosystems, diversity of views is an indicator of resilience in political institutions. If today’s “active management” ENGO proponents are discomfited by the heat of DellaSalla/Hanson criticism, then perhaps they need to be more effective in advancing their own messages and strategies.

    • From my point of view, the diameter limits and the ban on clearcuts were the right things to do for Sierra Nevada National Forests. You cannot ‘restore’ the ecosystems by cutting old growth. Yes, there are a few holdouts wanting to end all logging, everywhere. I do think that most conservationists do not want more of what happened the last few years, here in California. I think they are willing to look at the details of current Forest Service practices here, instead of listening to the false rhetoric and tunnel vision of die-hard preservationists. Today, commercial thinning projects cut trees which average about 15 inches in diameter, with most of the cut trees being between 10 and 18 inches.

      People should also remember that the Tuolumne Chapter of the Sierra Club supported the salvage projects within the Rim Fire (until their National leadership overruled the locals.)

  3. “Ultimately, the project worked because the Forest Service was willing to give up its idea that each project should pay for itself …” They left the big trees; no bake-sales to raise money. This is worth repeating: “Ultimately, the project worked because the Forest Service was willing to give up its idea that each project should pay for itself …”

    “Ashland voted to add a couple of dollars to every water bill, adding up to $200,000 every year, to pay for managing the watershed.” Equally important, at least going forward there is some recognition that those who benefit from fire protection should pay for it. More like this.

    • Agreed, Jon, but the residents of Ashland paid only a tiny fraction of the costs. Still, a project like this involves many values that can’t be monetized.


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