The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest is poised to move forward with an ambitious project aimed at prepping vast swaths of federal land in the upper Applegate River watershed to reduce potential wildfire impacts and improve its ability to adapt to climate change.
Forest managers are proposing a series of treatments on 22,000 acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands that will include a mix of commercial logging and brush removal and focus heavily on previously logged and replanted stands.
The plan, detailed in an environmental assessment expected to be released Wednesday, also includes 4,910 acres of prescribed fire on new areas and reintroducing fire as maintenance on up to 13,000 acres of previously burned areas, including lands burned in last year’s Miller Complex of fires.
“We’re scaling up quite a bit on some of this,” said Brett Brown, the district’s fire ecologist. “It’s definitely bigger than what the Forest Service has done here recently.”
The assessment also calls for adding up to 18 miles of new hiking trails and four miles of new off-highway vehicle trails while decommissioning as many or more miles of unauthorized trails now used.
In all, the work is designed to reduce the size and intensity of future wildfires as well as create healthier forest stands better prepped to withstand hotter, drier conditions expected over the coming decades in the 52,300-acre upper Applegate watershed.
Reducing stand density to accelerate the growth of larger, more fire-resistant trees and emphasizing legacy species such as oaks and pines over planted Douglas fir will help these stands better adapt to hotter, drier climates, research shows.
“The objective is to make the watershed more resilient to disturbances like fire, insects and climate change,” said Don Boucher, the forest’s district ecologist and main architect of the plan.
In all, the package could cost up to $14 million, with as much as $2 million generated from commercial logging and the remainder coming from future grants, Boucher said.
The environmental assessment will be up for public comment for a month, with comments incorporated in a final decision expected next spring, Boucher said. Work could begin next summer, he said.
After nearly four years of dialogue with the Applegate community, the project has garnered wide support.
“Overall, I think it’s a good project,” said Amanda Astor, southwest Oregon field forester for the American Forest Resource Council, who has kept close tabs on the project’s planning. “It’s going to be really good for that landscape.”
The only real push-back the Forest Service has heard so far on the project involves motorized trail use.
“It’s been a project that, basically, we’ve supported all the way through,” said Chris Bratt from the Applegate Neighborhood Network.
However, the late addition of adding new motorized trails to the project jeopardizes the network’s support, Bratt said.
The proposal includes turning an old, decommissioned road in Hanley Gulch that’s being used by off-roaders into a single-track motorcycle trail to help reduce erosion.
“It would have been no problem, except for those off-road vehicles,” Bratt said. “It’ll depend upon what it looks like in the EA to determine if we still support it.”
Tim Niemela from the Motorcycle Riders Association said the amount of proposed new trails shows a distinct bias against motorized users and he believes it does not acknowledge the amount of work his group does in the woods.
“As OHV users, we’ve been using and maintaining (trails) for decades,” Niemela said. “We want to make trails that last and deter any erosion issues.
“We are happy to share but the people who are in non-motorized (groups) aren’t happy to share,” Niemela said.
The extent that recreation shows up in the proposal is somewhat rare in large-scale landscape restoration projects, but Boucher said it was a core value raised by the community when the Forest Service first broached project concepts in 2015.
Proposals include a new non-motorized trail from the McKee Bridge area up the Palmer Ditch and eventually all the way to near the base of Applegate Dam, the project’s southern boundary. Also, the EA proposes a trail up Brushy Gulch and eventually to Squaw Lakes.
The proposal calls for commercial logging of up to 7 million board-feet of timber, focusing on the thinning of trees averaging 12 to 13 inches in diameter and spread over 36 units covering 1,520 acres, Boucher said. The logging includes work on thinning previously logged and planted areas, he said.
Astor said the commercial volume tapped in the proposal is less than desired by the industry but not a surprise, considering the landscape.
“It’s not a very productive forest,” Astor says. “It makes sense what’s going to be removed.”
Plans include 11,000 to 13,000 acres of prescribed fire as maintenance in areas previously burned that have seen brush and understory growth since then.
“I think the amount of prescribed fire is going to be a bit of a challenge,” Boucher said.
Many of these units were logged in the 1950s and ‘60s and heavily planted with Douglas fir in areas where Ponderosa pine would have regenerated naturally, Boucher said. Douglas fir is prone to insects and disease, and the recent outbreak of the flatheaded fir borer there has become the primary source of conifer mortality throughout the entire Applegate watershed, Boucher said.
Miller Complex lands could get some ground burning in the latter stages of the overall project to match the area’s historic fire frequency.
“That’s going to be really good for that landscape,” Astor said.
The current proposal calls for no new road construction but temporarily re-opening less than a mile of old road for use throughout the project’s lifetime, Boucher said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.