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Collaborative thinning project receives BLM support

By paul fattig
mail tribune
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The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has set aside $1 million to provide seed money for two forestry projects in the Medford District that will focus on small-diameter trees.

"That $1 million is to jump-start the process — we're at a point now where we can do something significant on the ground," said John Gerritsma, head of the BLM's Ashland Resource Area.

The funding for the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative project includes a 600-acre harvest that will yield some 800,000 board feet of small-diameter trees in the Little Applegate River watershed and another thinning project in the Grants Pass Resource Area, he said.

The collaborative project brought to the table everyone from environmental activists to timber industry representatives and federal agency employees to find consensus in harvesting small-diameter trees from local public lands.

The Little Applegate River project is expected to provide about 20 jobs for three years after the contract is awarded late this summer, Gerritsma said, adding that the other project isn't far enough along to determine its employment impact.

"This is foundational project with the collaborative," he said of the Little Applegate project. "There will be many more collaborative efforts in the future."

That's good news to Jackson County officials, including members of the Board of Commissioners, who recently expressed concern that the diverse coalition formed in 2005 had not yet produced any tangible progress. For the past three years, the county has been financially supporting the collaborative project.

Before Gerritsma made the announcement, Commissioner C.W. Smith said it was time to see results.

"We are the chief financial benefactor for the operation — about $40,000 a year now," he said, noting the funding was allocated in hopes of creating future jobs. "We've lost a lot of infrastructure already. But if we lose people with knowledge to go into the woods and be good stewards, that's something that can't be replaced readily. We need something to keep people working."

Yet Smith was quick to observe the commissioners, who have asked the collaborative for an updated report on its progress, support the idea.

"It's movement — it's getting people working together to find a solution," he said. "It's not stagnation. It is forward movement."

Jokingly referred to as the "knitting circle" based in a home in the upper Applegate Valley with no budget when it initially formed, the group acknowledged it has been challenging to find agreement within the group. So word of the BLM funding was welcome news.

"That's money that is going to the ground," said group coordinator George McKinley. "We are gaining traction now."

There are nearly 50 collaborators in the project, whose focus has been entirely on small-diameter trees. While debates over cutting mature trees could cause some to come to blows, the group generally has agreed that many local public forests are overgrown with small trees because of fire suppression for the past century.

"The goal has been to improve forest health and habitat needs as well as generate material to maintain our manufacturing and work force capacity," McKinley said. "We want to focus on watersheds, not just raw acreage."

Collaborative member Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland agreed, noting the stress has been on environmentally responsible management.

"There are a lot of things we can agree to disagree on," he said. "But with small diameter trees in fire-suppressed forests (near rural communities), that is the common ground where we can get something done."

"This is very worthwhile to pursue — we're getting real close to getting things accomplished," added collaborative member Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.

Timber harvest legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Or., for eastern Oregon calls for collaborative involvement by similar groups in the early planning stages, Schott observed He said there likely will be similar legislation for west of the Cascades.

"The collaborative will have a very important place in future decision-making by the Forest Service and the BLM," Schott said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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