Forest Management Plans Led By Community
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
A series of meetings called the Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) began in 2013 to build bridges between the antagonists of the so-called Timber Wars. Last week the group moved beyond flow charts and the theoretical.
Nearly 50 participants went to the woods to talk about how they would treat forest fuels given the set of six shared values the group had agreed to the year prior.
They did their work in several units that had been logged 35-40 years ago and have since grown a dense cover of trees and brush of many species. From the perspective of wildfire management, it is thick with the ladder fuels that can generate intense heat and even carry fire into the crowns of towering old growth trees.
The area, between the GO Road and the Klamath River, is a pilot project for landscape-level treatments in the future, and the attendees were assigned to four-to-six person teams that diverse points of view. The task for the day was to plan good treatments and each team needed members to reflect all points of view.
There have been attempts at collaboration in the past, but many of them are remembered as betrayals by the environmental community, a talk-rich waste of time by the timber industry and a reliable source of lawsuits by the Forest Service.
There were differences in these latest meetings, though. Certainly they were talk-rich like the rest, but they were moderated by veteran staffers from the Fire Learning Network, a branch of the Nature Conservancy. And the U.S. Forest Service, an agency saddled with ambitious targets for timber volume, was not in charge, although it took part.
The moderators used a method they called Open Standards which hunted for some areas all the players could agree on and built from there. That starting point for common agreement seemed to be the wildfires that were hammering the landscape from Orleans to Happy Camp and throughout the West.
There were earlier attempts to address these fires, which each year cause firefighter deaths, property damage, lost habitat and the hemorrhage of millions of dollars per day.
One was a law passed in 2002 called the Healthy Forest Initiative. The timber industry welcomed it, but environmental groups renamed it the No-Tree-Left-Behind Act because it seemed to target removal of the larger trees instead of the brush and smaller trees that form the ladder fuels for the most severe burns.
Significantly, one of the current collaborative’s earliest sessions was in Orleans, but was interrupted the day in late July, 2013, when wind-driven flames raced through the community.
The attendees at that session included Patty Grantham, Forest Supervisor of the Klamath National Forest, and Tyrone Kelley, then her counterpart for the Six Rivers National Forest. Their presence reflected the importance the Forest Service attached to the WKRP effort.
Kelley’s successor Merv George, Jr., joined the field trip last week as the collaborators traveled out into the woods to develop work plans, what foresters call prescriptions, for an initial pilot run of their ideas.
When the participants were broken into teams, George ended up in a group with Bill Tripp, the eco-cultural restoration specialist for the Karuk Tribe; Carol Sharp, a retired Forest Service silviculturalist; a couple of reps from non-profit groups and a reporter from the Two Rivers Tribune.
The group began by assessing the present condition. The site was overgrown with tanoak of all sizes and conifers about 10-inches diameter, probably the product of reforestation after a clearcut.
They began talking about ways of reducing the highly-flammable thickets. George supported that approach and said, “If it’s struck by lightning as it is now, you could lose your entire eco-system.”
The others agreed and added that a severe burn would also increase erosion which would damage the river’s water quality. Healthy river systems is another shared value agreed upon by the collaborative.
Tripp asked whether there might be a market for the small logs, reflecting another of the shared values—sustainable local economies. Sharp, the silviculturalist, said the goal would be to get down to a wider spaced mixed conifer stand.
George agreed and said that the flammable tangle that existed there now was a product of single species management, a conifer harvest years earlier. He posed questions: What does the community want? How does that work with national standards? What about owls? And sacred sites?
Then he posed the question of a manager who must juggle budgets: Will the sale of the small-size trees pay for the treatment?
And the counter-question: What if we do nothing? That one he answered: “We know that someday we’ll have a million-dollar-a-day fire here,” with a likelihood that it would trump all the other values.
Later he said he hoped that the broad support for the WKRP and its inclusive process would avoid the litigation that has stopped or slowed many other projects.
He said he had made it the top priority for the Six Rivers NF, which included access to all of the specialists in all the districts who could fast track the required documentation.
George added, “I can’t wait until this group (the WKRP) starts handing me documents to sign.”
After lunch all of the subgroups came together to travel together from one unit to another. Everybody heard what the smaller groups had proposed and there was a give and take of questions and suggestions.
One of the morning proposals was presented by Scott Harding from the Salmon River Restoration Council. The unit, he reported, was not now fire resilient, jargon for a place where fire in the present condition would seriously damage every thing there. His group recommended cutting, piling and burning everything under six inches in diameter on the first entry.
On a second entry, possibly a few years later, crews would clear around the older hardwood trees and sugar pines and create openings to protect them.
Another speaker noted that there were enough saw logs to create some economic return and also to open spaces to around the larger tanoaks, which are otherwise suppressed.
Other comments supported removing the smaller tanoak by broadcast burning, and opening up the canopy to promote some of the huckleberry patches for food and for stand diversity.
Dave Jaramillo, a registered professional forester who joined the team from the Hayfork Watershed Research and Training Center, said the complexity of the job would complicate the interactions of a crew, which has to cover a lot of ground in a short time.
Zack Taylor, a fuels specialist with the Forest Service in Orleans, suggested not cutting the bigger conifers but removing the weaker trees instead so the other trees would have thicker more fire-resistant bark.
Lisa Hillman, Food Security Project Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said that the project area was above the old ceremonial village site of Katimiin and also the village of Ameekyáaraam, which she described as the birthplace of salmon. This proximity meant any project plans would need consultation with the tribe.
Bill Tripp from the Karuk Tribe and Will Harling, Director of the Mid-Klamath Watershed Council in Orleans were principal authors of an in-depth report on the entire collaboration. It was published last summer and is available online at http://goo.gl/zM5VFW
It is a rarity among reports of its sort because of its candor. An example, describing the level of distrust that existed before this effort, it acknowledges that earlier efforts at collaboration in the area have “contributed to the further lack of trust between stakeholders.”
When the group returned to Orleans, Will Harling, long a proponent of proactive prescribed burning, was in a good mood. He said, “This is bigger than all of us.
This land is asking for fire to come back. With the level of expertise in this group, both cultural and scientific, for the first time I’m hopeful that we can make a difference at the landscape level.”
Before he returned to his headquarters in Eureka, Merv George also sounded upbeat about the prospects. He thanked all the participants, and said, “We have a critical amount of muscle moving in the same direction. That’s a lot of horse-power.”
It’s the fashion these days to describe ones self as “an environmentalist.” Oil companies do it. Timber companies do it. There was one woman on the field tour who has unquestioned credibility in that regard—Kimberly Baker, who represents both Klamath Forest Alliance and Environmental Protection Information Center.
She has joined in litigation many times for projects that she thought would be damaging, but she also voiced a careful confidence in the WKRP process. After the tour, she said some of the earlier efforts were “ok, some terrible…They were not true collaboratives.”
She has been attending the WKRP meetings for nearly two years and said the difference this time was “the community is driving the effort.”
Challenges remain, but while the details are still being worked out, the community is coming together around the idea to bring fire back at the right times of year.
They want to create fuel breaks that would allow large scale controlled burns. It may be the only way to treat critical areas around communities that haven’t seen fire for over a century.
And the participants increasingly realize they need this before wildfire comes on its own terms in the hottest, driest days of summer.