Oregon partners with federal and private landowners to make forests more resilient to fire and disease
BLY — On the Fremont-Winema National Forest, Oregon’s first Good Neighbor Authority timber sale and restoration operation is showing visible improvements to forest health, as before-and-after photos included with this story show.
Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) allows agreements between the state and the federal government to accomplish forest restoration work on U.S. Forest Service land using state personnel and resources. Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF)’s Federal Forest Restoration (FFR) Program, which works to increase the pace, scale, and quality of forest restoration work on federal land coupled with U.S. Forest Service funding, has conducted work under GNA since 2016. Through selective tree thinning harvests, the revenue from selling the timber can then be invested in more forest restoration work as well as covering costs to administer the work. To date across the state of Oregon, ODF has sold 18 GNA timber sales to treat 6,700 acres and generate 41 million board feet of timber.
“GNA helps the U.S. Forest Service get more restoration completed, and it allows the state to generate program revenue through timber sales, which can then be used to get more restoration accomplished on Forest Service lands,” said Amy Markus, Cohesive Strategy Coordinator for the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
In untreated areas at Paddock Butte, there are tangled thickets of pine, juniper, and other plants all competing for limited light and water resources. When laying out these timber sales, foresters identify large, healthy and older trees to leave behind.
“In a healthy forest you want space between the trees,” said Justin Hallett, Federal Forest Restoration coordinator for the ODF Klamath-Lake District. “You want it to be a vigorous stand where trees are continuously growing. In an overstocked forest, there’s maybe 500 trees per acre, all small and competing for resources.”
The before and after pictures show the results: Big trees with space to grow, not competing with underbrush and less healthy trees that not only are competing for resources, but can serve as fuel that makes fire more intense.
Fire does not have to be the enemy, Markus said. Low-intensity, ground fires historically have helped maintain the forest, and one of the goals for the Paddock Butte sale is to set it up for successful prescribed burning.
The last century’s focus on fire suppression has contributed to overstocked forests that otherwise may, in a sense, self-regulate with low-intensity fires, said ODF Klamath-Lake State Forests Unit Forester John Pellissier.
“It’s kind of led to an accumulation of fuels and additional density and stocking on the forest, which leads to poor growth, poor health, insect infestations and even large fires,” Pellissier said.
Recognizing that fire doesn’t stop at property boundaries, GNA sales are paired with other forest restoration projects on public and private lands where possible. Paddock Butte is an isolated patch of federal forestland surrounded by private ranches, whose owners have been actively managing their lands to improve forest health and fire resiliency. The scale of the need for forest restoration is massive, so working in tandem with adjacent landowners can achieve results across a larger area and pay better dividends in terms of reduced fire and disease. As an example, the Paddock Butte timber sale is 637 acres, and will fund treatment of an additional 1,134 acres. Combined with nearby private ground treatments, nearly 3,300 acres will see improved forest health and less susceptibility to large fires.
“The wildfires we’re seeing now are big, high-severity, and grow very fast,” Markus said. “They do not stop at ownership boundaries. When you start talking forest health and really trying to reduce the risk of wildfire, it’s key you’re doing it across boundaries and at large scales. We’re really trying to work hard to do forest restoration across public and all private lands involved at a scale that’s meaningful.”
The benefits of the project go beyond immediate forest health improvements: The sold timber employs crews and helps support local mills, and a more fire-resilient landscape should reduce the financial and social toll of large fires on the treated landscape. It allows ODF to keep experienced seasonal employees on board outside of fire season working on forest health projects like Paddock Butte. Program revenue stays with ODF to achieve more forest restoration work on federal lands.
“It’s a great program that supplies a lot of benefits,” Pellissier said.