Lomakatsi crews transition from wildland fire to ecological fuels reduction — New science publications overwhelmingly support regional restoration efforts
After 90 days of assignment on the Bootleg Fire, Devils Knob Complex, and other wildfires across the West, Lomakatsi Restoration Project’s crews are back to proactively thinning overly-dense forests to reduce community wildfire risk, protect water, and enhance wildlife habitat. Lomakatsi is a non-profit based in Ashland that works throughout Oregon and Northern California to restore ecosystems and improve the sustainability of communities, cultures, and economies.
Over the summer, working closely with the Oregon Department of Forestry, the US Forest Service, and other wildfire response agencies, Lomakatsi’s multi-cultural hand crew and wildland fire engine teams drew on their extensive experience in ecological forestry and prescribed fire (also known as controlled burns) to assist with firing burnout operations and building fire containment lines on steep and rugged terrain.
“This might be the longest fire season I’ve experienced so far,” said Braulio Maya Cortes, Lomakatsi’s Lead Restoration Crew Manager. “Our team worked many long days and nights, often in 100+ degree heat, on five different wildfires. It is hard work but very meaningful to help protect communities. Now we look forward to being home, so we can continue making our communities safer and forests more resilient, in a proactive way.”
On October 18, seasonal ecological thinning work led by Lomakatsi began as part of a broader effort by the Rogue Forest Partners (RFP) in the Upper Applegate Watershed Project area (UAW). The 52,000-acre UAW planning area is located south of Ruch in the Applegate Valley, primarily within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and encompassing adjacent Bureau of Land Management and private lands. RFP is a group of four non-profits and six agencies collaborating to restore forests of the Rogue Basin, starting with 6,000 acres across six priority/high-risk project sites funded by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. RFP aims to improve forest health and enhance wildlife habitat while reducing the risk of severe wildfire near homes, along roads, ridgelines, and other strategic areas to support evacuation and fire response efforts.
To meet the challenge of increasing frequency and severity of wildfire fueled by climate change and a century of fire suppression, forest managers implement ecological restoration—a combination of cutting trees in overly dense forests, followed by controlled burns. This model is grounded in the success of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project (AFR), that many of the partners have been involved in for the past decade. Building on AFR’s success, members of the Rogue Forest Partners recently published the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy, a comprehensive, integrated approach supported by the latest science on forest restoration.
Additionally, to synthesize the most rigorous forest and wildfire science available, a coalition of 40 co-authors from 20 renowned institutions reviewed over 1,000 publications and released a monumental series of three scientific publications last month. One author, Dr. Kerry Metlen, is a long-time Ashland resident who works for The Nature Conservancy and is a key member of the Rogue Forest Partners.
“The science is clear—extensive ecological thinning and intentional fire use is needed to transform our relationship with fire from reactive to proactive,” said Metlen. “This unprecedented science synthesis documents the overwhelming evidence that forest health in the West has declined due to fire exclusion, and that active stewardship is needed to restore balance and help forests and communities adapt future climates.”
This science is complementary to aboriginal fire knowledge and indigenous stewardship practices by area tribes that have been using fire to carefully tend the landscape since time immemorial, and continue to provide leadership in forest restoration today. Tribal Nations with ancestral ties to the area have voiced support of the project and three currently serve on the Rogue Forest Partners’ Implementation Review Team, a group tasked with ensuring forest restoration treatments reflect a range of community values.
In the UAW, after months of technical planning and pre-treatment monitoring with partners, Lomakatsi is treating approximately 185 acres this fall on the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District in the Applegate Valley. The focus on these initial acres is to reduce fire risk in strategic areas by removing surface and ladder fuels—shrubs, small trees, and lower fir and pine branches (often dead)—that, if ignited, could allow a wildfire to spread into the canopy. An additional 1,292 acres of ecological thinning will require the removal of merchantable-sized trees, and while trees were marked for removal this summer, those operations will not begin until 2022. Ecological thinning will be followed by piling of slash for controlled pile burning in the spring or the following fall. There are also plans to begin conducting understory prescribed burns this season in the UAW to help maintain treatments and provide additional ecological benefits, possibly as many as 1,000 acres by 2025.
“Research ecologists from the U.S. Forest Service and academia continue to publish literature that makes the irrefutable case that forest restoration needs in southwest Oregon are immense and growing. Most recently, the trio of articles in Ecological Applications authored by dozens of luminaries in the field of forest ecology detail the documented changes in forest structure, fire regimes, and climate over the past century or more and strongly recommend large-scale forest restoration to promote forest and human resilience to wildfire and climate while we still have time,” said Bill Kuhn, PhD, Regional Ecologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and co-author on the Rogue Basin Strategy. “The combination of ecologically beneficial forest thinning and the reintroduction of fire will help to prepare our forests for the rapidly changing climate and wildfire regimes currently underway.”