ASHLAND — Hal and Mary Townsend's 120-acre piece of paradise overlooking Emigrant Lake has unique madrone groves, firs and oaks, but the dense underbrush was a potentially dangerous threat to their land.
The only thinning the couple had done in recent years was when they cut their annual Christmas tree, so the overgrown brush created more and more fuel for a potential wildfire while slowly degrading their forest.
"It was such a mess," Mary Townsend says. "It was overwhelming."
Through a new program here by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Townsends were able to develop a specific plan for thinning and clearing slash to reduce wildfire danger and make their madrone groves healthier at a fraction of what it normally would have cost.
"We're trying to preserve the health of our forest," Hal Townsend says. "That and fire safety are the two main motivators for us."
The NRCS and its myriad partners are looking for more people like the Townsends to help improve forest health and curb the risk of catastrophic wildfire through the ongoing Ashland Forest All-Lands Restoration project.
The Townsends were one of seven willing landowners within the 52,000-acre AFAR footprint to take advantage of the first year of a cost-share program that spent slightly more than $1 million to help treat more than 1,200 acres of land.
AFAR is about to embark on the second year of this three-year project with about $2 million in potential grant money in hopes of doubling the lands treated in the Ashland watershed to curb catastrophic wildfire danger here.
Erin Kurtz, NRCS's district conservationist, says she hopes the successes of the first round of grants will help other landowners in the AFAR range, stretching from Emigrant Lake to Wagner Gap, take part in the program.
"Implementation began last fall, and I think it's going really smoothly," Kurtz says. "We have people coming in almost every day looking to sign up. Word of mouth is the best way to go."
Landowners who sign up meet with NRCS conservationists to draft a plan for their property to reduce fire fuels while also taking into consideration protection and enhancement of their forestlands for wildlife habitat.
Landowners work out a cost-share agreement that can often fund most, but not all, of the treatment costs, Kurtz says.
"There are some expectations that landowners have some skin in the game," Kurtz says.
The landowner and conservationists also work with the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project to put that plan into action by specifically identifying what trees, shrubs and other material gets removed or left through a mix of noncommercial thinning, trimming and brush removal.
The landowner hires whatever contractor they want to do the work, and AFAR pays its portion of the agreement when the work is completed and inspected.
AFAR is an extension of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, a similar program that focuses on about 7,800 acres of Forest Service lands within the Ashland watershed using a combination of commercial and noncommercial thinning.
The federal project is within the AFAR boundaries, and partners in the projects say they need each other to make a real difference in a watershed that has a mix of ownership but a joint need to treat overgrown forestlands ripe for a catastrophic burn.
"We're looking for the all-lands, all-hands approach," says Darren Borgias, of The Nature Conservancy, one of several AFR and AFAR partners. "It's the only way we can have effective fire-management for the land and the people."
Kurtz says AFAR was able to cash in on some of what she calls the "political capital" of AFR when they started looking for willing landowners and received a mixed bag of excitement and skepticism.
Hal Townsend says he was pretty excited when he received notice about the program. When they built their concrete-sided home in 2009, they created all the requisite fire setbacks but have done very little since.
"But being in the forest, wildfire has always been a concern for us," he says.
Their AFAR agreement calls for about $100,000 worth of work on their land, with the Townsends on the hook for just 10 percent of that.
After Lomakasti helped with their plan, they hired Lomakasti, and its crews spent less than two weeks clearing and stacking slash to burn this fall.
"It went really well," Hal Townsend says. "I like their work."
When completed, their land will be part of the wildfire solution in the Ashland watershed and no longer part of the problem.
"We put our house here," Mary Townsend says. "We are the invaders. You can't change nature, just prepare yourself as best you can."