Ashland Watershed Stewardship Alliance

Posted: Feb 15, 2006
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos
 Members of the Ashland Forest Resiliency Community Alternative Team
Photo courtesy of AFRCAT

Location: The city of Ashland, Oregon, is surrounded by 14,500 acres of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and another 1,000 contiguous forest acres owned by the city. The forest provides the city's drinking water and a scenic and recreational backdrop, including the McDonald Roadless Area, for this fast-growing southern Oregon city of 21,000 people.

Objective: To manage the watershed for forest health, water quality, and endangered species habitat, and develop a community-driven management scheme for the national forest.

Participants: City of Ashland; U.S. Forest Service; The Nature Conservancy; Headwaters; community members; private consultants.

History: The city of Ashland has a long history of collaboration with the Forest Service. A 1929 cooperative agreement between the city and the agency established shared responsibility to protect water quality and delivery for the region. Forest Service District Ranger Linda Duffy says the agreement translated into fire suppression over the decades and inadvertently intensified the threat of wildfire. By the 1990s, Ashland and the surrounding national forest were vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire - and smack in the middle of spotted owl country. The Northwest Forest Plan had designated old-growth forest in the upper reaches of the watershed the Mount Ashland Late-Successional Reserve, which includes critical habitat for the endangered owl and its prey.

The 1996 HazRed (hazard reduction) Timber Sale Project was supposed to expand an existing fuel break - a ridgeline cleared of trees - through the middle of the watershed. While citizens favored watershed protection, the plan drew strong criticism because it would have removed 8,000 of the largest and tallest trees in the project area. "After HazRed came out, a number of community members came together and felt we could do better," says JoAnne Eggers, a retired teacher and member of the Ashland Forest Lands Commission.

In 1998, the group formed the Ashland Watershed Stewardship Alliance (AWSA) to advocate for management that more closely reflected the values of the community. In response, the Forest Service halted HazRed planning, and took another approach under the name of the Ashland Watershed Protection Project. Rather than engage in a standoff, Duffy called for "community dialogue meetings" so her agency could get a better sense of what the public wanted.

During 1999, AWSA, which included up to 40 participants, met two times a week for six months to share ideas and expertise for the 1,400-acre watershed protection project. The final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), released in December 2000, reflected AWSA's hard work and helped the project earn priority funding through the National Fire Plan. Instead of a fuelbreak system, the Forest Service committed to a "fuel discontinuity network" that more closely mimics natural fire patterns. The agency also agreed to a diameter limit that excluded cutting trees wider than 17 inches.

At that point, AWSA stopped meeting regularly, but members say the collaboration laid the groundwork for community cooperation during the current round of forest planning, which focuses on the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project (AFR) - one of the first projects authorized under the provisions of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act.

The AFR will extend the management scheme of the earlier watershed protection project to nearly 9,000 acres in three phases. The city and partners from AWSA began collaborating in May 2004 on a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) that will serve as an alternative to the plan proposed by the Forest Service in the project EIS.

Accomplishments: Through AWSA, representatives of environmental groups, the forestry industry, the city, and the Forest Service overcame regional contention sparked by the Northwest Forest Plan and the controversy over the spotted owl. The collaborative process gave the alliance political muscle to shape policy for the Ashland Watershed Protection Project.

"I think they had a huge amount of influence in that area," says Keith Woodley, Ashland City Fire Chief. "I think they got the Forest Service's ear." By embracing the fuel discontinuity network, Woodley says the Forest Service is coming closer to restoring fire as a natural process "rather than one-size-fits-all" fuel break management that is prone to invasive species outbreaks and windthrow during storms.

The new approach leaves old-growth trees in place, removes more flammable white fir that has increased because of fire suppression, and encourages Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and hardwood species. The collaboration-derived watershed plan also has benefited the spotted owl, as well as overall forest health and aesthetics.

The Ashland Watershed Protection Project process demonstrated that community interests, the city, and the Forest Service could collectively develop a forest management plan. When the Healthy Forests Restoration Act provided the opportunity for a community-based alternative for the entire watershed, the former AWSA partners were comfortable with reassembling as a technical working group - the Ashland Forest Resiliency Community Alternative Team (AFRCAT) - and tackling the task of developing the CWPP as their own alternative for the Ashland Forest Resiliency Project.

AFRCAT is an interdisciplinary working group of retired agency biologists and other scientists, city staff and consultants, members of the Ashland Forest Lands Commission and other locals. The members' energy and range of expertise allowed the team to write the entire CWPP alternative - an accomplishment that is unique among Healthy Forests' projects.

"I believe in hindsight [AWSA is] what gave the city the ability to do [the CWPP], or want to do that," the Forest Service's Duffy says.

I can guarantee you we relied a lot on the hard work done by AWSA," says Cindy Deacon Williams, conservation director for the local nonprofit Headwaters Environmental Center and a member of AFRCAT. "Also really critical is that the district ranger, Linda Duffy, is really strongly committed to developing a relationship with the community."

Top of the Ashland watershed looking into in the proposed Ski Ashland expansion area
Photo courtesy of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center

Writing an alternative scheme for a national forest management plan is not that easy. After AFRCAT crafted the CWPP, the Forest Service analyzed the scheme and, according to the June 2005 draft EIS, concluded that it would unintentionally degrade 1,000 acres of spotted owl habitat. Deacon Williams says the group is now trying to decide whether the habitat losses represent an acceptable short-term change or need to be minimized.

Joseph Vaile of the nonprofit Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center calls the Forest Resiliency Project "overly ambitious" in trying to treat the whole watershed based on satellite imagery instead of field data. He says the AFR's omission of a diameter limit for logging is a concern for his group and other community members. Vaile worries that pushing to expedite a management plan is coming at the cost of greater certainty about the effects of forest thinning. "It's nebulous," says Vaile of the AFR alternatives. "There are all these uncertainties, and uncertainties breed a lot less comfort."

Ironing out wrinkles isn't just an exercise in collaboration for Ashland. More than 70 years after the initial cooperative agreement for watershed management, wildfire is a greater threat than ever. "I still am concerned whether the Forest Service has the ability and the funding to carry through. You're running Russian roulette every year when the [fire] season comes up there," says retired forester and alliance member Howard Heiner. "One of the biggest challenges is for the city to keep their interest up - on monitoring. The Forest Service has been terrible on monitoring over the years."

Duffy, the district ranger, says differences in regulations between the city and the federal agency have been a "stumbling block" at times. But she emphasizes the scope and purpose of the AFR to create a 20-year plan that will account for forest health. "We're looking for that day when lightning strikes and we can actually use [fire] as a management tool," says Duffy.

The final EIS and management plan will likely draw on recommendations from both the Forest Service and AFRCAT. The main difference between the two alternatives is that the agency proposes thinning at higher elevations first, while the community plan targets lower elevations where there are more homes. Regardless of the outcome, community members expect to play a role in implementing the AFR.

"None of us are looking at the record of decision and the final EIS [for the AFR] as the end," says Deacon Williams. "You need to have success measured by more than the people feeling good about each other. You need to have success measured on the landscape."

For more information see:

Ashland Forest Resiliency Project Update

Community Wildlife Protection Plan

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