ASHLAND — Hikers and bikers will be invited back to the Ashland Watershed Saturday after a four-month lockout for a forest-thinning project, the last of five planned closures instituted during the logging work.
Access to about seven miles of trails will reopen Saturday now that most of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project seasonal work has ended in a part of the watershed where trails draw 50,000 visitors annually.
Tolman Creek Road, which has been closed for safety during the thinning project, will also reopen, making it possible for people to drive to 4 Corners and access trails there, says spokeswoman Chamise Kramer of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Also opening to the public are the popular Catwalk and Upper Eastview trails, Kramer says.
"This is mainly affecting trails high in the east side of the watershed," Kramer says.
The reopening will not only give hikers and bikers their trail system back, it will give the public a glimpse at what wildfire protection in the urban-rural interface looks like as the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project winds down.
The closures were for safety during the four months when helicopters hauled logs to landings for loading onto log trucks that traversed Tolman Creek Road at a regular clip.
But some ground-cutting and yarding will continue adjacent to the Lower Bull Gap Trail, so people will be detoured around that area during weekdays. The detours will be clearly marked and were expected to remain in place for about three weeks, Kramer says.
Launched in 2009, AFR is a partnership involving the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, the city of Ashland and the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project to address wildfire fuel loads that have altered the watershed.
The project, on about 7,600 acres of Forest Service land, seeks to reduce potential wildfire intensity, protect Ashland's drinking water, and improve forest health, including protecting or enhancing habitat used by northern spotted owls, Pacific fishers and other animals.
By silviculture standards, it's a light touch on the land. Because there were no clearcuts, only the small helicopter landing areas used to load logs will be rehabbed, so Forest Service officials believe what visitors will see beginning Saturday is more like a scab than a scar on the landscape.
Dating back to the fall of 2012, the previous four closures during logging and yarding periods were primarily in winter, and only the 2013 closure pushed into early May, Forest Service records show.
This winter's work was also along that framework, but heavy snows hampering another logging operation in the Umpqua Divide area pushed the AFR work later than planned.
"We didn’t really get fully operational until early March," says Don Boucher, the forest's stewardship coordinator. "Most of that was attributable to weather on the other job. I'm not sure we would have had much more opportunity to start earlier given the winter we had."
The earlier closures seemed to be well received, but the drawn-out nature of this final one pushed the envelope a little further with the public, Boucher says.
"I believe the last one has been the most frustrating simply because we are right in the time when people want to use the trails the most," Boucher says. "We have worked to try and schedule the closures during the late fall and winter time, but weather and equipment delays didn’t work in our favor for the latest closure."