Watershed thinning on fast track to approval

The U.S. Forest Service's major new proposal to thin wildfire fuels in the Ashland Watershed will be fast-tracked under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

Signed by President George W. Bush in December, the act speeds thinning projects by limiting the number of project alternatives agencies must consider, changing the administrative appeals process and expediting judicial review if projects are challenged in court.

Use of the act for the Ashland project has some residents worried, while others believe large-scale thinning is overdue.

"I feel, speaking from an Ashland standpoint, we've delayed too long with the planning process," said Howard Heiner, a member of the Ashland Watershed Stewardship Alliance and a retired forester. "We play Russian roulette every year with the watershed by delaying thinning."

The Forest Service will review impacts from the project, as well as impacts from no action, in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement expected out in June. 

In addition to the proposed project and a no-action alternative, one additional option may be considered - but it must be brought up during the preliminary public input phase, known as "scoping," that began last week and ends April 30.

To comply with 1969 National Environmental Policy Act requirements, the Forest Service usually analyzes several alternatives, with impacts ranging from minimal to more intense, when considering a project.

For example, the agency is looking at six alternatives for expanding the Mt. Ashland Ski & Snowboard Resort.

Environmental activist Eric Navickas decried the restricted analysis process for the new thinning project, known as Ashland Forest Resiliency.

"It's pretty scary that they can actually put forward just one (action) alternative," Navickas said.

Lightning speed

The planning process for the 8,150-acre Ashland Forest Resiliency project could take less than a year.

In contrast, planning for the 1,550 acre Ashland Watershed Protection Project took five years, in part because of intense community opposition to an early version of the plan that included cutting trees to form ridgetop fuel breaks.

Ashland District Ranger Linda Duffy approved that multi-year project in 2001 and included a 17-inch diameter limit to ease community fears about logging large trees. On-the-ground work is continuing.

Following the June release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement and a 45-day public comment period that will include a meeting and field trips, the Forest Service anticipates the release of a Final EIS on the Ashland Forest Resiliency project in September or October, according to Duffy.

A decision generally follows the release of a Final EIS in 30 days. 

"It will be my fastest EIS. That's startling for some people. It's one more red flag for people," she said.

But Duffy said the Forest Service, and the community at large, have done much of the groundwork for the project.

The Ashland Ranger District recently released the Upper Bear Assessment, which analyzes conditions in the watershed and on surrounding lands. The assessment contains recommendations for wildfire risk reduction.

For their part, Ashland residents - especially members of the Ashland Watershed Stewardship Alliance - were intensively involved with the thinning project approved in 2001 and helped shape its components.

"If we were ever poised to do an EIS on a quick timeframe, we're poised," Duffy said.

Healthy Forests

Restoration Act

The impact of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act on the planning process will be felt almost immediately.

Last week, the ranger district sent out more than 200 eight-page scoping letters describing the project and asking for input.

Interested parties must respond during the scoping period if they want the Forest Service to consider any alternative other than the current 8,150 acre proposal.

Any alternative proposed by a citizen or group must meet the need to reduce the risk of large-scale, high intensity wildfire that could damage Ashland's clean water supply and old growth habitat in the watershed. The alternative also must meet the purpose to protect values at risk, reduce the potential for crown fires and make the forest more wildfire resilient.

"Under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, we won't consider any other action alternative unless it's proposed through scoping," Duffy said. "It puts a lot more importance on the scoping process and understanding the purpose and need for the action. People need to say what they want to take place and why, and what they don't want to see happen and why."

The Forest Service will still release a Draft EIS, hold a public comment period, and then release a Final EIS followed by a decision.

But anyone who objects to the project must seek a Forest Service administrative review after the release of the Final EIS but before the decision is made, according to the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

Under the act, there will be no administrative appeals process after a decision is made.

Opponents can still challenge the project in court.

But judges are encouraged to expedite review of thinning projects, and an injunction cannot exceed 60 days. Opposing parties must present the court with updated information when seeking renewal of an injunction.

Judges must not only consider the short and long term effects of implementing a thinning project, but short and long term effects if a project is not carried out, such as harm caused from a high intensity wildfire.

Projects that fall under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act are eligible for funding to help carry out the expensive work of thinning small diameter trees and brush.

Areas covered by a community wildfire protection plan, usually organized at the county level, receive funding priority, according to Duffy.

Heiner said area groups and agencies already have begun discussions about creating a community wildfire plan.

Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Ashland and Williams-based Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, said he welcomes the increased funding provided under the act, but the changes in the planning, appeals and litigation process make any objectionable project harder to fight.

But while the link with the act may be alarming to some, he said the Ashland Forest Resiliency project should be considered on its merits. The act also contains some safeguards, he noted. 

"The product is more important than the process. They could come out with something good that isn't cause for concern. There are avenues for public comment. If they do come out with a project that involves logging large trees, they're not allowed to use the Healthy Forests Restoration Act," Vaile said.

Dividing the watershed

The first component of the project involves compartmentalizing the watershed by creating 2,800 acres worth of thinned borders around a dozen areas.

Unlike the approximately 200 foot wide shaded fuel breaks that were carved into the watershed from 1979 until 1991, the new defensible fuel profile zones, or DFPZs, will be one-quarter to one-half mile wide, with more tree canopy left intact, according to the Forest Service proposal.

Many firefighters have said traditional fuel breaks are too narrow to stop canopy wildfires that send embers far distances.

With the DFPZ system, a wildfire that started in one compartment likely would drop from the canopy and become a ground fire when it hit the thinned border. Firefighters would have a better chance of stopping the spread of a fire throughout the watershed, according to the proposal.

By retaining more trees in the DFPZs and maintaining more shaded conditions, Forest Service officials hope to slow the regrowth of highly flammable small-diameter trees and brush.

But Navickas said he believes that the DFPZs will still suffer from regrowth. And although the zones are less intensively thinned than traditional fuel breaks, they also are wider, he noted.

"There will be just as much timber coming out as from regular fuel breaks," said Navickas, who favors a long-term program of prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads.

Both Navickas and Vaile warned the large scale of the Ashland Forest Resiliency project could lead to sedimentation in streams and Reeder Reservoir, which stores the city of Ashland's drinking water.

After the watershed is divided, the Forest Service proposes to treat 3,200 acres of land closest to Ashland through thinning and burning.

The third phase would thin 600 acres of medium sized trees to protect and improve the health of old growth trees. About 250 acres also would be thinned along roads.

The final phase calls for cutting trees on 1,300 acres to reduce competition to large pine and Douglas fir trees in the watershed's Research Natural Area.

The Forest Service is not proposing a 17-inch diameter limit for the project, although many in the community would like to see such a limit since large trees are more fire resilient than smaller trees.

"It doesn't make sense to leave the door open to log old trees," Vaile said. "Having a diameter limit would help people buy into the project and its objectives."

But Heiner said there are times when it is appropriate to remove trees over 17 inches.

For example, scattered Douglas fir stands that grew back after 1901 and 1910 wildfires have not been naturally thinned by wildfire because of subsequent fire suppression. Those weakened trees are falling prey to insects and pose a fire hazard, he said.

Additionally, Douglas fir trees over 17 inches that are competing with old growth ponderosa pines could be removed to benefit the pines, which are more fire resilient, according to Heiner. 

Duffy said as details of the project are worked out and residents see the number of trees to be removed and the diameter classes, some of their concerns should be alleviated.

"We'll only remove trees to increase resiliency to large scale, intense wildfire," Duffy said.