Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Klondike Fire Along the Illinois River Trail

A view from the Illinois River Trail to Pine Flat after the Klondike Fire.

The Klondike Fire Along the Illinois River Trail

The Klondike Fire burned along the majority of the Illinois River Trail this summer, deep in the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. The fire burned in a natural mixed-severity mosaic through the 2002 Biscuit Fire footprint. The Klondike Fire burned in a diversity of habitats, including closed-canopy mixed conifer forests, serpentine woodlands, chaparral and forests of sun-bleached snags. The fire reduced fuel, recycled nutrition and continued shaping the fire- adapted forests of this wild region.  

As part of Klamath Forest Alliance's Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports, we have been out on the ground exploring the Klondike Fire, its fire effects, fire suppression impacts, and trail conditions. Below is a photo essay of the Klondike Fire along the Illinois River Trail. All photos were taken recently from the Illinois River Trail, in mid-November 2018.

The Illinois River Trail can be accessed during the winter months as long as snow levels remain high; however, the eastern access at Oak Flat immediately crosses Briggs Creek on a large bridge, and the wood on the bridge burned in the fire, making the bridge crossing unsafe. We crossed Briggs Creek by fording the stream, but now that rain has returned and water levels may be up, that crossing may be unsafe as well. The western access from Oak Flat near Agness should be accessible through the winter months, but winter weather can impact trail conditions, so use caution. 

Looking up the Illinois River towards the confluence of Briggs Creek.
The rugged Illinois River canyon in the heart of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness downstream from Nome Creek.

Old growth forests burned at low to moderate severity in the Clear Creek watershed.
Native plants such as the rare western sophora (Sophora leachiana) sprouted back quickly after the Klondike Fire. Species like western sophora will expand their populations due to the effects of the Biscuit and Klondike Fires. These native plant populations have been "restored" through the effects of high-severity fire.
The incredible clear, blue waters of the Illinois River wind through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and the Klondike Fire.

A sharp bend in the Illinois River at the confluence of Clear Creek and the Shorty Noble site. Notice the low to moderate severity fire effects in the mixed conifer forests of the Illinois River canyon.
A beautiful bend on the Illinois River near Nome Creek.

Umbrella plant (Darmera peltata) along Briggs Creek.

The Illinois River and Silver Peak above the confluence of Indigo Creek. Notice the low severity fire effects in the lush conifer forests below Silver Peak. The fire burned low and cool beneath towering forests of Douglas fir, sugar pine, tanoak and madrone.The snags in the foreground are from the 2002 Biscuit Fire.
The Indigo Creek canyon along the Illinois River Trail. The Klondike Fire burned in the immediate vicinity, but the snags in the background are from the 2002 Biscuit Fire. The Klondike Fire still refused to burn on the serpentine slopes above.

Understory fire burned beneath the beautiful old-growth forests surrounding Fantz Meadow.

Fantz Meadow following the Klondike Fire.

The small historic structure and rusted farm equipment at Fantz Meadow made it through the Klondike Fire. The fire burned at mostly low severity surrounding Fantz Meadow.

Low severity fire burned the under brush around Fantz Meadow while maintaining the old-growth canopy.
A view up Indigo Creek showing mixed severity fire effects.

The incredible Illinois River canyon upstream of Indigo Creek, following the Klondike Fire.

The wild, rugged Illinois River canyon.

KFA is in the midst of field work, document review, and analysis of this season's wildfires, including the Klondike Fire. We are in the process of preparing fire reports throughout the region. Please consider making a donation and supporting our work. 

For more information: klamathsiskiyoufirereports.org

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Klamath Forest Alliance-Siskiyou Field Office: A Year of Activism in the Siskiyou Mountains

A rainbow below the Siskiyou Crest in the Elliott Creek canyon.
2018 has been a busy year for Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA). We started the year by officially opening our Siskiyou Field Office, based in the Applegate Valley, at the heart of the Siskiyou Mountains. 

KFA's Siskiyou Field Office roams the region monitoring federal land management projects on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, the Klamath National Forest and the Medford District BLM. Each year we hike hundreds of miles in steep, rugged terrain monitoring timber sales, OHV trails, grazing allotments and fire suppression impacts in the rain, snow, smoke and heat. We work from southern Oregon's Wild Rivers Coast and across the Siskiyou Crest to the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

KFA also spends countless hours writing public comments, administrative objections, appeals and monitoring reports informed by our on-the-ground monitoring efforts. We attend meetings, field trips, and workshops with local land management agencies, advocating for conservation and the protection of wildland habitats. We educate, organize and empower local communities to become advocates for their watersheds and join regional conservation partners on important campaigns across the region.

Gentiana calycosa (Traveler's gentian) on the Siskiyou Crest.
Our goal is to protect, defend and restore wild places, ancient forests, clear flowing streams, and biodiversity. KFA is a place-based, on-the-ground environmental organization utilizing grassroots community activism, science, passionate advocacy, environmental education, and litigation to achieve tangible conservation victories. 

Please consider making a year-end donation to KFA and support conservation throughout the Siskiyou Mountains.

In 2018, KFA worked on the following conservation campaigns:

Timber Sale Monitoring

KFA's Siskiyou Field Office works across the region monitoring federal timber projects on both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Clean Slate Timber Sale
Ancient forests like this one are targeted for logging in the Clean Slate Timber Sale outside Selma, Oregon.
KFA and regional conservation partners spent much of 2017 opposing the Pickett West Timber Sale, a massive logging project proposed by the Medford District BLM on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, the mountains above Selma and in the Applegate Valley. Due in part to our efforts, thousands of acres of forest, including intact old-growth stands, were withdrawn from the Pickett West Timber Sale. Despite significant public opposition, the BLM reoffered portions of the Pickett West Timber Sale in the Deer Creek watershed as the Clean Slate Timber Sale. 
KFA has been out in the field monitoring the proposed timber sale units and documenting potential environmental impacts. We found numerous old-growth units proposed for logging and submitted both extensive public comments and administrative objections to the Clean Slate Timber Sale. 
Unfortunately, the Medford District BLM approved the Clean Slate Timber Sale, yet it has not sold in timber auction and remains unlogged. It is clear that BLM will be reoffering the sale in the next timber sale auction and KFA will be opposing this project every step of the way.

Savage Murph Timber Sale
This beautiful old forest above North Applegate was originally proposed for logging in the Savage Murph Timber Sale, but was withdrawn due to pressure from KFA and other conservation allies.

The Savage Murph Timber Sale was the Applegate Valley portion of the Pickett West Timber Sale. Although public outrage and impacts to both habitat and prey sources for the Northern spotted owl forced the BLM to cancel large portions of the Pickett West Timber Sale. They did not initially cancel the Applegate Valley portions. This became the Savage Murph Timber Sale. 

Located in the mountains above North Applegate, Murphy and Wilderville, Oregon, the project sprawled across vast acreages. Originally, 2,229 acres were proposed for commercial logging , including numerous old-growth units and the construction of significant new roads. Much to the displeasure of the surrounding community, the BLM was also proposing to log within the proposed Applegate Ridge Trail corridor. 

KFA joined forces with local conservation partners at the Applegate Neighborhood Network and successfully encouraged BLM to withdraw all the old-growth and old forest logging units, as well as new road construction. We also protected large portions of the proposed Applegate Ridge Trail corridor, a non-motorized trail proposed by the Applegate Trails Association. Currently, the BLM has reduced the acres proposed for logging by 86%, to 192 acres. The BLM has tried once to sell the timber sale at public auction and it received no bidders. To date, not a single acre has been logged in the Savage Murph Timber Sale.

Upper Briggs Timber Sale
Ancient forest on the Onion Way Trail was proposed for logging in the Upper Briggs Timber Sale. The project was proposed to "reduce the risk of catastrophic fire" and ironically burned at largely low severity in this summer's Taylor Fire. 

The Upper Briggs Timber Sale has been proposed by the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in the Briggs Creek watershed, an important tributary of the Illinois River. The proposal calls for logging in old-growth forests, adjacent to important meadow systems, on numerous recreational trails, near the Sam Brown Campground and the Horse Meadow Wildlife Area. 

KFA conducted extensive field monitoring on this timber sale. We organized local opposition in the conservation community and submitted detailed public comments on the Upper Briggs Timber Sale. Before the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest could make a decision, the Taylor Fire burned through the area at mostly low severity. KFA has filed documents with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest to withdraw the timber sale due to changed environmental circumstances associated with the fire and will be tracking future developments in the Briggs Creek watershed.

Post-Fire Logging Campaigns
KFA works throughout the region fighting environmentally damaging post-fire, clearcut logging proposals on federal land. 

Chetco Bar Fire Salvage
The incredible Chetco River watershed flows out of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and into the Brookings Harbor. The Forest Service approved over 9,000 acres of clearcut, post-fire logging in the lower Chetco River watershed.

Following the 2017 Chetco Bar Fire, the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest proposed a massive post-fire, clearcut logging proposal in the Chetco River Watershed. The Chetco River is one of the most intact watersheds in the West and large portions of the watershed are protected in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area. The river supports both exceptional water quality and an incredible run of wild steelhead and salmon. 

KFA conducted extensive field monitoring of proposed timber sale units, demonstrating that significant unroaded habitats and fire-effected old-growth forest were proposed for clearcut post-fire logging in the Chetco Bar Fire Salvage Project. KFA submitted detailed public comments and worked to alter or cancel this damaging post-fire logging project.

Unfortunately, in his first decision as Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor, Merv George Jr. approved post-fire clearcut logging throughout the lower Chetco River watershed on over 9,000 acres. KFA will continue monitoring this project to document and demonstrate the environmental impacts associated with post-fire, clearcut logging. 

Seiad Horse Project
KFA in the field, looking across the Seiad Horse Project Area to the Red Buttes Wilderness Area.

Following the 2017 Miller Complex Fire that burned roughly 36,000 acres on the Siskiyou Crest in and around the Red Buttes Wilderness, the Kangaroo Roadless Area and the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area, the Klamath National Forest proposed a large post-fire, clearcut logging project near Cook and Green Pass, the PCT, two Late Successional Reserves and even within the Kangaroo Roadless Area. 

KFA went into action, monitoring proposed timber sale units, documenting the beneficial effects of the Miller Complex Fire and advocating for conservation in the Siskiyou Crest Connectivity Corridor. We submitted extensive public comments and administrative protests opposing the project. 

Unfortunately, the Klamath National Forest approved this devastating post-fire logging proposal, forcing KFA and regional conservation partners, the Environmental Protection and Information Center (EPIC), KFA and KS Wild to file a lawsuit opposing the Seiad Horse Project. Although we have yet to see our day in court, we hope to stop the Seiad Horse Project and protect the connectivity of the Siskiyou Crest. 

Private Land Acquisitions
Black Mountain

The Selberg Institute's Black Mountain Preserve protects the ancient forests of Black Mountain and the connectivity of the Siskiyou Crest.
In 2018, KFA worked with the Selberg Institute to facilitate a conservation buyout of the Black Mountain Parcel. The Black Mountain Parcel is a 240-acre privately owned, old-growth forest surrounded on all sides by the over 20,000 acre Condrey Mountain Roadless Area. The forest is embedded within some of the most intact old-growth forest in the eastern Siskiyou Mountains and the Applegate River watershed.

Historically, owned by the Fruit Growers Supply Company (FGS), a private timber company located in Hilt, California, the Black Mountain Parcel contains incredible old-growth forests, the headwaters of numerous clear-flowing streams, wetlands, glades and beautiful rock outcrops. These forests contain one of the only stands of Pacific silver fir on the Siskiyou Crest and the state of California. 

In 2017, the Miller Complex Fire burned through the area at low severity leaving the vast majority of the old-growth canopy intact. Despite the positive fire effects and unscathed canopy, FGS was threatening to apply for an "emergency fire salvage" permit to clearcut the parcel. The logging was to occur this past summer, but instead KFA and our conservation allies at Applegate Neighborhood Network and Selberg Institute joined forces to secure a conservation buyout of this important and irreplaceable wildland habitat. Our friends at the Selberg Institute are now the proud owners of the Black Mountain Preserve and the parcel has been permanently protected from commercial logging or other development activities. 

Everyone in this region who loves wild places, old-growth forests and the connectivity of the Siskiyou Crest owes the Selberg Institute a debit of gratitude for their efforts to permanently protect the old-growth forests and conservation values of Black Mountain and the Condrey Mountain Roadless Area. Although much of the buyout effort was facilitated by the Selberg Institute, KFA played a vital role in identifying the threat and working to find allies who could secure the protection of Black Mountain. KFA is honored to have participated in this inspirational conservation victory. May Black Mountain forever remain wild!


Upper Applegate Watershed Restoration Project
The Upper Applegate Valley.
For the last three years, Klamath Forest Alliance and other conservation partners have been working to ensure that the Upper Applegate Watershed Restoration Project lives up to its name and has a truly restorative outcome. 

In many ways we have been largely successful and many of the project proposals will have beneficial results for the environment and for surrounding communities. Klamath Forest Alliance has been supporting proposals to conduct relatively large prescribed burning projects and some fuel reduction thinning projects adjacent to communities in the Upper Applegate Valley. We have also been supporting plantation thinning, some commercial thinning with strong ecological sideboards, unauthorized OHV trail closures, road closures, pollinator/native plant restoration projects and new non-motorized trails. 

The Forest Service also proposed numerous new off-road vehicle trails in the Upper Applegate watershed and in the Boaz Mountain Roadless Area. Local residents, community groups and KFA successfully opposed numerous new motorcycle trails, including those in the Boaz Mountain Roadless Area. Unfortunately, the Forest Service continues to propose a few remaining off-road vehicle trails up Beaver Creek in the Upper Applegate Valley.

KFA will continue to engage in this project and will oppose all new motorized trail development. Motorized trails are simply not "restorative" in nature and have no place in supposed "restoration" projects. An Environmental Assessment for this project is schedule to be released any day now. We will keep you posted. 

Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports

The Taylor Fire and Briggs Creek watershed with Chrome Ridge in the distance.
The Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports Program is an innovative, one-of-a-kind KFA program documenting the on-the-ground fire effects and the ecological benefits of wildfire in our region. We also document the environmental impacts associated with fire suppression activities. Our Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports are utilized to educate the public, oppose post-fire logging proposals, and dispel myths surrounding wildfire in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. The ultimate goal is to reform fire suppression policy and support ecologically appropriate fire management. We know of no other environmental organization with a similar program in the West.

In 2018, KFA published three major fire reports for the 2017 Salmon-August Fire in the Marble Mountains Wilderness, the 2017 Eclipse Fire in the Siskiyou Wilderness and the 2017 Miller Complex Fire on the Siskiyou Crest. 

We are also working on three major fire reports for 2019, exploring the 2018 Klondike and Taylor Fires in the Kalmiopsis region, the 2018 Klamathon Fire in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade Siskiyou National Monument, and the 2018 Natchez Fire on the Siskiyou Crest in the Siskiyou Wilderness. 

We also use our experience and expertise to advocate in the debate surrounding wildfire and forest management in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. While few other environmental organizations dare to question the current assumptions surrounding wildfire, forest management and historic fire regimes in the Klamath-Siskiyou region, KFA has put ourselves in the center of the controversy, advocating for biodiversity, the reform of fire suppression policy, forest management strategies and the use of managed wildfire. We are actively engaged in education campaigns across the region, promoting a more healthy relationship with fire and more firewise communities.

Check out our new website for more information on the Klamath-Siskiyou Fire Reports.

OHV Monitoring
KFA has focused its OHV monitoring on the Botanical Areas of the Siskiyou Crest, where unauthorized motorized use is impacting important botanical values.
KFA continues to monitor and document illegal, unauthorized and/or damaging off-road vehicle activity on federal lands in the Applegate Valley and on the Siskiyou Crest. We submit detailed monitoring reports to the BLM and Forest Service and advocate for closure of damaging off-road vehicle trails. In 2018, we continued focusing on monitoring efforts on designated Botanical Areas on the Siskiyou Crest. 
Looking Forward to 2019 
Founded in 1989, KFA will be celebrating its 30th year advocating for the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains. For decades we have been protecting wild places, old-growth forests, intact watersheds, connectivity and biodiversity in the Klamath-Siskiyou region. We track federal land management projects on millions of acres and need your support. Please consider making a year-end donation to Klamath Forest Alliance. Help us keep the Klamath-Siskiyou Wild!


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Natchez Fire: Beneficial Fire, Bulldozers and White-Headed Woodpeckers in the Siskiyou Wilderness

A view across the Natchez Fire from Lookout Mountain in the Siskiyou Wilderness.
This summer the Natchez Fire burned in and around the Siskiyou Wilderness Area in the backcountry of the Siskiyou Crest. The fire started on July 15, above Takilma, Oregon at roughly 4,400' in elevation in the Poker Creek Watershed. The fire eventually burned over the ridgeline and into the rugged watersheds in the South Fork of Indian Creek above Happy Camp, California. 

With over 100 fires spread throughout the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in mid-July, the Natchez Fire was not a high priority, and being understaffed, it continued to grow in remote and rugged terrain. The sheer number of fires and the proximity of many wildfires to nearby communities overwhelmed fire suppression crews, forcing them to prioritize. 

Fires like the Natchez Fire, burning far from residential properties or communities, dropped to the bottom of the priority list. This meant that although attempts were made to suppress the Natchez Fire, crews could not successfully minimize the acres burned with an initial attack strategy. The necessary resources were not available and the terrain was simply too dangerous and extreme. Instead, crews pulled back, creating indirect firelines along existing forest roads and on the ridgeline between Little Greyback and Poker Flat, a large meadow system and designated Botanical Area adjacent to the Siskiyou Wilderness Area.
The Natchez Fire burned at mostly low severity in the forests around Poker Flat at the edge of the Siskiyou Wilderness, but did not burn directly into the meadow system itself.

By July 23, the fire was over 2,000 acres and had spotted over existing firelines, becoming established in the headwaters of Indian Creek, high above the Klamath River and Happy Camp, California. On the evening of July 25, the Natchez Fire made a significant uphill run, again spotting over containment lines near Poker Flat. Crews began to scramble, working to keep the fire from burning into the rugged Siskiyou Wilderness Area to the south. 

In response, crews began to bulldoze into the Siskiyou Wilderness on the Poker Flat Trail and on the spine of the Siskiyou Crest. Crews bulldozed at least two miles on the Poker Flat Trail, turning the former wilderness trail, on a long-abandoned mine track, into a dusty, disturbed dozerline. They bulldozed through headwater streams, old-growth forests, serpentine outcrops, high mountain meadows, and beautiful Jeffery pine savanna. Crews also felled large, old trees and snags along the dozerline, creating additional impacts to the region's spectacular wilderness qualities. 

In addition to the bulldozing of the trail and old mine tracks, new dozerline was scrapped across the Siskiyou Crest above the Poker Flat Trail. This egregious bulldozing of an intact wilderness ridgeline will have long-lasting ecological impacts. 
This small meadow in the Siskiyou Wilderness on the Poker Flat Trail was bulldozed by fire suppression crews.

Fire crews also opened old mining tracks that extend deep inside the Siskiyou Wilderness Area in order to facilitate driving into Twin Valley and a freshly constructed helipad on the ridges above Kelly Lake. The long-term damage to native plant communities, clear flowing streams and wilderness values was significant, and to make matters worse, these wilderness dozerlines did not contribute towards the fire's ultimate containment.

On July 27, when the fire activity increased, spot fires became established south of the dozerlines into both the South Fork of Indian Creek and Twin Valley Creek, making the wilderness dozerlines completely obsolete. At this point, crews were left with little option but to abandon the dozerlines punched into the Siskyou Wilderness. 
Massive old trees up to 7' diameter were removed along the Poker Flat Trail during fire suppression. This tree was removed on the Siskiyou Wilderness boundary. Fire crews also bulldozed through the headwaters of Sutcliffe Creek's West Branch.

At the same time, dozers began pushing into the roadless headwall of Dunn Creek, attempting to cut off the fire's western flank. The dozerline was built on extremely steep, erosive slopes and was quickly passed up by the Natchez Fire's western movement. 

After doing great damage to the Siskiyou Wilderness by bulldozing open old mine tracks, creating new dozerline on ridges, felling hundreds of snags and blasting apart rock outcrops with "fireline explosives", crews finally began to implement Minimum Impact Suppression Tactics (MIST) developed to maintain wilderness values while suppressing wildland fires. MIST is mandated under the Klamath National Forest Plan in the Siskiyou Wilderness Area, but in this situation, was instead used as a last resort, when more aggressive and impactful suppression tactics failed. 

In the end, crews used natural barriers to slow and contain the fire. In this case, these natural barriers were composed of a series of sharp and relatively barren granitic peaks to the west of the fire, extending from Preston Peak to the Lieutenants, Polar Bear Mountain and along with the open serpentine slopes of Lookout Mountain. Adjacent to these sharp peaks was last year's Eclipse Fire footprint, creating an impermeable firebreak to the south-southwest. Crews worked to steer the fire towards these relatively fire impermeable summits and recent fire footprints, containing the fire by corralling it into the wilderness.
The Natchez Fire burned at low- to moderate-severity at the headwaters of the South Fork Indian Creek. The large granitic summits in the background, including Preston Peak, Copper Mountain and El Captain, were used as a "natural barrier" to contain the western flank of the Natchez Fire.

The fire was also backing moderately into the South Fork of Indian Creek in the Cole Creek drainage burning towards a few isolated rural residences. Fire crews successfully defended all threatened structures and for a short time held the fire on the South Fork of Indian Creek. 

Low-severity fire in the South Fork of Indian Creek.
On August 12, the fire spotted across the South Fork of Indian Creek into extremely rugged and relatively inaccessible terrain. With little opportunity for containment, crews fell back to an unused contingency line from last year's Eclipse Fire. 

Starting at the 2017 Eclipse Fire perimeter near the Baldy Mountain Lookout, suppression crews began methodically backburning into the South Fork of Indian Creek, nearly tripling the size of the fire. This created a safe, effective and relatively low-impact fireline and the tactical firing operations created beautiful low to moderate severity fire effects. It also quite effectively protected the community of Happy Camp from the Natchez Fire.  The decision to initiate large-scale burnouts from the Eclipse Fire contingency line was controversial in some local communities, but should be applauded as appropriate, safe and effective fire management.

On September 25, the Natchez Fire worked its way through the rock near Cyclone Gap, burning over the natural barrier used as fireline and into the headwaters of Clear Creek. The fire burned onto Copper Mountain and Preston Peak, reaching into the Raspberry Lake basin as a mixed-severity fire. Over the course of the next few days the fire marched into Clear Creek and onto the face of Rocky Knob. This portion of the fire burned in the headwaters of Clear Creek until extinguished naturally in October.
The Natchez Fire burned as a low-severity underburn around the shores of Kelly Lake.

In all, over 38,000 acres burned in the Natchez Fire. Although fire severity maps have not been released, it is obvious that large swaths of forest burned at low severity. The Natchez Fire was a beautiful natural event with profoundly beneficial effects. Blanketed by dense smoke inversions and blessed with very little wind, the Natchez Fire burned in a mosaic of mostly low to moderate severity, reducing fuels, maintaining old-growth canopies, invigorating plant communities, and reintroducing natural process to the diversified forests of the Siskiyou Crest. 

Low-severity fire in Lower Twin Valley.
Although the myth of ecologically catastrophic fire has consumed our social and political landscape, the physical landscape and wildland habitats of the Siskiyou Mountains have maintained a healthy and productive wildland fire regime, and few, if any, regional wildfires can be credibly characterized as ecologically catastrophic. Instead, most wildland fires in the Siskiyous have been necessary, inevitable and highly beneficial for natural communities. In fact, much of the forested habitat affected by the Natchez Fire burned in the understory, at low to moderate severity. Large portions of the fire burned cool and low, beneath tall, old trees in Twin Valley Creek, Copper Creek, the South Fork of Indian Creek and near Kelly Lake.

In upper Dunn Creek and Poker Creek, the fire burned in a more mixed pattern, including low-, moderate- and high-severity fire. In places, the fire ran uphill, burning vertical swaths of forest at high severity and leaving behind blackened snag forests, filled with a cacophony of hairy and white headed woodpeckers.

The white headed woodpecker is often abundant in fire-killed forest throughout the Siskiyou Crest. Photo: Frank Lospalluto
Although these patches of forests experienced overstory mortality and trees were killed in the fire, a forest bursting with life still remains. For the next number of years this young, naturally regenerating habitat will be flush with diversity as vegetation responds in abundance and snags soften to create cavities and hollows for wildlife. In the post-fire environment pollinators will feast on the nectar and pollen of native flowering plants; elk and deer will graze on the grasses, forbs and regenerating vegetation; black bears will gorge themselves on abundant berries; while owls, small carnivores and raptors will feast on dusky footed woodrats, mice and rodents in the small openings created by high-severity fire.   
The Natchez Fire in Upper Twin Valley and on the face of Polar Bear Mountain above.
Wildfire, although currently demonized by some in our society, has scorched its essential influence across vast landscapes, shaping the structure, composition and diversity of plant communities throughout the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains.  

The Natchez Fire burned at low severity in the forests around Brad's Lake.
The Siskiyou Wilderness is one of the most intact and important wildland habitats in the entire Klamath-Siskiyou Bioregion and represents all that wilderness has to offer. According to recent research published in the Journal Nature, wilderness is diminishing worldwide at an alarming rate. According to their estimate 77% of the global land base has been altered by development, logging, agriculture, mining and other economic activities.

The Siskiyou Wilderness, like all wilderness, contains relatively intact biological legacies and remote, isolated landscapes that provide habitat for free-roaming wildfire. Although valuable as a human refuge, wilderness is not just a place to renew our souls,  find solitude and connect with nature. Wilderness defines our landscapes, informs our sense of place and provides the natural world an opportunity to demonstrate the efficiency, artistry, and abundance it can maintain. Wilderness represents the uncontrolled spirit of nature and is one of the only places where natural process can sustain biodiversity at evolutionary time scales.

Free-roaming wildfire burning in late October in the Siskiyou Wilderness at the headwaters of Clear Creek, at the end of the Natchez Fire.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy: Forest Restoration or Forest Industrialization?

Despite having no recorded fire history, most of the 2018 Klamathon Fire burned at low and moderate severity in the Soda Mountain Wilderness and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. 

Controversy has erupted in the region this summer regarding wildfire, smoke and forest management. The media, area land managers, many regional politicians, the timber industry and their allies have all been working overtime to manipulate the public's fear of wildfire, and in particular, anger about wildfire smoke. Some claim that a combination of aggressive fire suppression, manual fuel treatments, prescribed fire and commercial logging will increase "forest health," while also reducing wildfire occurrence, wildfire severity and smoke. 

As someone who has designed ecological restoration projects, taken part in prescribed fire treatments and performed forest thinning adjacent to homes and communities for twenty years, I can support some of these activities in strategic locations and adjacent to communities; however, the effectiveness of these management techniques at reducing fire severity, limiting acres burned, and subsequently reducing smoke levels is significantly overstated, and the potential ecological impacts of increasing federal land logging are largely being ignored. 

Oak woodland underburned in the 2018 Klamathon Fire.
Recently the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative has proposed the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy (The Rogue Basin Strategy) that promotes widespread "active management" on both public and private land. According to the Rogue Basin Strategy "active management" would include fuel reduction, commercial logging and/or prescribed fire. While the strategy provides a hopeful and perhaps overly optimistic vision of future forest management, it does not clearly identify the limitations, potential impacts, and trade offs inherent to "active management" on nearly a million acres. 

The Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy
The funding for the Rogue Basin Strategy came from various project partners, including:
  • Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) Federal Forest Health Program
  • Jackson and Josephine Counties
  • Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) Forest Collaborative Capacity Grant Program
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Forest Service
  • BLM
Taking a hard look at the funding sources for the Rogue Basin Strategy is instrumental in understanding how and why this strategy, despite some environmental sidebars, contains a significant timber bias.

ODF is a state agency that serves and loosely regulates logging activities on private land and provides fire suppression services for the BLM. ODF oversees one of the most lenient Forest Practices Act in the country and is well known as an aggressive advocate for the timber industry. Both Jackson and Josephine Counties have similar interests related to federal timber production and the funding of county services. The Forest Service and BLM also have annual timber targets they must meet and strong political pressure to log more timber from public land. 

The mature mixed conifer forest in the upper portion of the photograph was thinned by the BLM in the O'lickety Timber Sale in the Little Applegate Watershed. This timber sale supposedly had fuel reduction and ecological objectives along with timber production. The stand was thinned to roughly 40% canopy cover, slightly lower than the level proposed in portions of the Rogue Basin Strategy. The results of the O'lickety Timber Sale included high levels of windthrow and post-treatment mortality.

The Rogue Basin Strategy was developed as a land manager decision making tool, intended to inform and influence land management throughout the Rogue Basin. The Rogue Basin Strategy analyzes three management scenarios: Business as Usual, Maximum Federal Lands, and All Lands. I will focus on the Maximum Federal Lands Scenario, which would "treat" five times the current status quo, expanding the number of acres treated annually from 9,000 to 45,000 acres. The goal would be to treat roughly 900,000 acres in a 20-year period with manual fuel treatments, commercial logging, and/or prescribed fire. Of those 900,000 acres, 475,000 acres would be commercially logged, creating a projected 1.3 billion board feet of timber. This would require logging nearly 24,000 acres per year on federal land in the Rogue River Basin. 

Proposed logging "treatments" would target late successional stands (i.e. old forests) and would be implemented with no diameter or stand age limits. The Rogue Basin Strategy also proposes intensive overstory thinning in forested stands, reducing canopy cover to between 42% and 54% on average.

Fire-adapted, late successional forest was proposed for logging in the Pickett West Timber Sale in the foothills of the Applegate Valley. We were told that logging this stand would reduce fire risks and fuel loading, while increasing forest health; however,  the canopy removal proposed would have done the opposite.
The Pickett West Timber Sale, the first federal timber project tiered to the Rogue Basin Strategy, proposed commercial logging to as low as 30% canopy cover in late successional stands between 180 and 240 years old. According to the Medford District BLM, these old-growth logging treatments were specifically designed with "the Rogue Basin Cohesive Restoration Strategy "ecosystem resilience" and "fuel management" models in mind" (Picket West EA. p. 3). 

The Pickett West Timber Sale was highly controversial throughout southern Oregon and was ultimately canceled due to public outrage and impacts to Northern spotted owl and red tree vole habitat. Many local environmentalists are concerned how federal land managers may interpret and implement the Rogue Basin Strategy, especially under the BLM's timber heavy 2016 Resource Management Plan. 

The Rogue Basin Strategy Proposes to Increase Logging in Old Forests and Northern Spotted Owl Habitat
This forest outside Selma, Oregon was proposed for logging in the BLM's Pickett West Timber Sale. The unit was proposed as an "Ecological Restoration" thin and was designed "with the Rogue Basin Cohesive Restoration Strategy... in mind." The proposal would have logged this late-successional stand to 30% canopy cover, converting it from closed-canopy, late successional forest to an "open" forest structure. The unit was canceled in the Pickett West Timber Sale and has recently been included in the Clean Slate Timber Sale as unit 3-11.

The Rogue Basin Strategy projects 66 million board feet of merchantable timber annually from commercial logging on federal lands. It also encourages logging in closed canopy, older forests (mid and late seral), claiming that the Rogue Basin currently supports an "excess" of these conditions. One of the goals of the strategy is to "balance" successional stages and vegetation mosaics by converting these supposedly "excess" stands of closed canopy, late and mid seral forest into open canopied stands. 

This type-conversion, from closed forest to open forest, is a central feature of the Rogue Basin Strategy that will be facilitated by downgrading or removing existing Northern spotted owl habitat. In many stands, reaching the proposed basal area and relative density recommendations, while achieving conversion from closed to open stand conditions, will require the removal of many large, fire-resistant trees. This approach encourages homogenization on the stand and landscape level, creates uncharacteristic structural conditions, and increases fuel loading. The proposed treatments could significantly impact imperiled Northern spotted owl habitats and biodiversity associated with old, complex canopy structures. 

In fact, according to the Rogue Basin Strategy, closed canopy, late seral forest types are prioritized for treatment with a "priority multiplier." This means closed canopy, late successional forests are prioritized for treatment two times higher than young, heavily altered plantation stands. Instead of focusing restoration efforts on those portions of the landscape with the most obvious forest degradation and unnatural fuel loads (e.g. plantations), the Rogue Basin Strategy is emphasizing treatment in fire-resistant, late successional stands where commercial timber is more readily available. 

This beautiful mixed conifer forest was proposed for logging in the Pickett West Timber Sale. The stand contains significant diversity, heterogeneity and late successional conditions. The unit is now proposed in the Clean Slate Timber Sale as unit 9-5. Many local ecologists and environmental activists are particularly concerned how the Medford District BLM will interpret the Rogue Basin Strategy. The current BLM Resource Management Plan proposes volume-driven commercial logging and the agency will happily convert closed-canopy, late successional forest into open structured forest, as was proposed in the Pickett West, Clean Slate and Griffin Halfmoon Timber Sales.

Instead of enhancing Northern spotted owl habitat, the proposal would either downgrade or remove thousands of acres of suitable habitat and fragment important connectivity corridors. Proposed treatments would also remove many important habitat elements such as large trees over 20" in diameter, interlocking canopy structure, understory shrub cover, snag habitat and downed wood. 

The Rogue Basin Strategy Proposes Logging in Specially Designated Conservation Areas

Unfortunately, very few areas have been excluded from "treatment" in the Rogue Basin Strategy. In fact, the strategy is proposing commercial logging in Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA), Botanical Areas, Research Natural Areas, Late Successional Reserves, National Monuments, and other management designations that currently restrict or limit commercial logging. 

The strategy clearly states, "Late Successional Reserves, Roadless Areas, Research Natural Areas, and National Monuments were included as candidates for mechanical treatment" (Rogue Basin Strategy. P. 35). Logging these habitats will compromise decades of conservation efforts and degrade their ecological and social values.

This "Factsheet" identifies proposed "treatment areas" in the Upper Applegate Watershed and numerous Inventoried Roadless Areas. The orange polygons represent treatment areas proposed in the Rogue Basin Strategy. The areas outlined in red are Inventoried Roadless Areas where large treatment areas are proposed. The blue line depicts the boundaries of the Red Buttes Wilderness. For reference, Grayback Mountain is at the top near the number 15 and the yellow square to the left is the boundary of the Oregon Caves National Monument. The Applegate Reservoir is the body of water to the right of the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area. 
Many of our wildlands are proposed for "treatment" in the Rogue Basin Strategy. These treatments can include commercial logging within 1/2 mile of existing roads, even extending into Inventoried Roadless Areas themselves. Many of these roads will require significant road reconstruction. 

Although the strategy assures us that, "the ecological benefits of restoration thinning are the sole justification for mechanical treatments" (Rogue Basin Strategy P. 35), these justifications do not erase the real impacts associated with commercial logging and road reconstruction. 

For example, the Rogue Basin Strategy identifies the Chetco Divide/Doe Gap Trail in the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area as a road to access treatment areas along the wild and spectacular ridge system dividing Rough and Ready Creek from Baldface Creek. The same is true for portions of the McGrew Trail and Biscuit Hill Trail, and old roads in the Rough and Ready Creek and West Fork Illinois River drainages. Obviously, reconstructing long-abandoned mining roads throughout the South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area would significantly alter its wilderness and roadless qualities. Similar treatment areas are proposed in numerous of the roadless areas bordering the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. 

This "factsheet" identifies treatment areas proposed in the Rogue Basin Strategy. The orange polygons show proposed "treatment" areas. The red line depicts the boundaries of the South Kalmiopsis and Packsaddle Inventoried Roadless Areas. The treatment areas in the South Kalmiopsis are located adjacent to long-abandoned mining roads, many of which have been turned into trails. This includes the McGrew Trail, the Biscuit Hill Trail, the Doe Gap Trail, and numerous old decommissioned roads in the Rough and Ready Creek and West Fork Illinois River watersheds. Many of these areas are located on ultramafic soil types and are not in need of "restoration" treatments. 
According to the Rogue Basin Strategy, IRAs, Botanical Areas, and Research Natural Areas in the Siskiyou Crest region would be proposed for treatment, including high elevation and subalpine forests, meadows, dry clearings, rock outcrops and serpentine barrens. 

The 2017 Burnt Peak Fire in the Collings-Kinney Roadless Area.
On BLM lands treatments are proposed in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and along the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in the Zane Grey Roadless Area. Treatment areas are also included in nearly every low-elevation wildland in the Applegate Valley such as the Little Grayback (Mule Mountain) and Collings-Kinney Inventoried Roadless Areas, the Dakubetede Roadless Area, Wellington Butte Roadless Area, and Burton -Ninemile LWC. 

The Rogue Basin Strategy would impact nearly every wildland and conservation area in southern Oregon, except designated wilderness areas. The environmental community has fought hard for these important designations, and for good reason. These wildlands are the backbone of our regional conservation network, sustaining our regional biodiversity and habitat connectivity throughout southern Oregon.  We need areas on the landscape that are not open to industrial forestry in order to maintain the integrity of wildlands for future generations. 

This "factsheet" identifies treatment areas on the Illinois River near $8 Mountain, including large swaths of Inventoried Roadless Area (outlined in red). The area is a unique serpentine habitat with an active fire regime and little need for "restoration" treatments. The stand development patterns and fire regime of this unusual serpentine region is little understood and no credible "restoration" treatments have been implemented in low-elevation serpentine savannas.
The Rogue Basin Strategy promotes commercial logging, road reconstruction and other forms of management in many of our most cherished wildlands. 

The Connection Between Logging and Climate Change

Recent research conducted by Oregon State University demonstrates that Oregon's forestland, particularly federal forest land, represent significant carbon sinks that should be protected. The report also demonstrates that wildfire related emissions are relatively minimal. According to this new study, the wood products industry is creating 35% of the total emissions in the state of Oregon, while wildfire is contributing a minimal 4%. 

Timber production strategies such as clearcut logging and commercial thinning contribute significantly to our statewide carbon emissions and undermine our ability to reduce emissions overall. The OSU report recommends a 50% reduction in timber harvest on federal lands, while the Rogue Basin Strategy would increase harvest levels in terms of both acres treated and volume produced. 

The Assumptions and Scientific Basis of the Rogue Basin Strategy
A clear mixed severity fire mosaic with significant closed canopy forest at the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Applegate River (left) and Carberry Creek (right) in 1933. The high-severity fire patch on the southern flank of Arnold Mountain burned through a swath of closed canopy forest which dominates the headwaters of both the Middle Fork and Carberry Creek. North-facing slopes, canyon bottoms and even south-facing slopes are colonized by mostly closed forest with rocky and brushy openings from previous fires.

The Rogue Basin Strategy also includes numerous false assumptions regarding historic landscape conditions and fire regimes, as well as unfounded assumptions about the severity of contemporary wildland fires. For instance, the strategy assumes that stand conditions throughout the Rogue Basin were historically open-canopied due to frequent fire and consistent low-severity fire effects. These assumptions contradict numerous natural historic vegetation studies conducted in the Rogue Basin that document a propensity towards closed vegetation types at all elevations (Leigberg, 1900, Dipaolo and Hosten 2015, Duren et al. 2012, Hickman and Christy 2009, Hickman and Christy 2011). Open stands and open habitats, although present, were the exception and not the rule, even in valley bottom sites that likely experienced the most frequent indigenous burning practices. 

The Mixed-Severity Fire Regime

Mixed-severity fire effects in the 2018 Hendrix Fire in the Little Applegate Watershed. The snag forest in the foreground burned at high severity in the 2002 Quartz Fire and reburned in the Hendrix Fire. Sevenmile Ridge at the center of the photo burned in a low to moderate severity pattern creating heterogeneity, diversity and more fire-adapted forest communities.
In the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains the steep topographical relief, relatively productive forest conditions, complex vegetation patterns and Mediterranean climate combine to create a mixed-severity fire regime with highly variable fire effects. Natural ignitions tend to be prevalent in the summer months when lightning storms are most abundant and fuels are sufficiently dry. Fire frequency can, at times, be frequent, but significant decades-long gaps are also characteristic during wet periods or when lightning ignitions are less frequent (Agee. 1991, Frost and Sweeney. 2000, Colombaroli and Gavin. 2010). These natural gaps in fire frequency have significant impacts on species composition, stand structure, habitat mosaics and fire regimes.
A view across the Siskiyou Mountains from Anderson Butte looking towards Bald Mountain and Wagner Butte. Take note of the mixed-severity fire mosaic, with patches of closed forest and open areas consisting of poor rocky soils and/or areas burned in high intensity fires.

The faulty premise that extremely frequent, low-severity fire was the dominant fire regime throughout the southern Oregon Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains leads to the identification of an inaccurate reference condition, with an overemphasis on open structured forest and vegetation as the impetus for widespread thinning. This in turn leads to an assumption that contemporary wildfires are burning more severely than under historic conditions and that "untreated" stands are more likely to burn at high severity, despite a lack of corroborating evidence. This assumption is false for multiple reasons, including the vegetation dynamics across the region and the actual effects of contemporary wildfires. 

The Cascade Mountains and the Upper Rogue River watershed from Hershberger Lookout were colonized by vast swaths of closed canopy forest in 1933.

The mixed-severity fire regime, with its variable fire effects and return intervals, creates vastly different plant communities than a more frequent fire return interval would create. Frequent low-severity fire creates very open canopy conditions and favors early successional species such as pine, hardwoods, and herbaceous plant communities. In contrast, the mixed-severity fire regime in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains creates more abundant closed canopy habitat types, mixed with more open stands and patches of complex, early seral habitat. This pattern is evident throughout our region, in historical photographs, early landscape descriptions and in currently fire-adapted habitats. 

The Actual Effects of Contemporary Wildfires

A diverse, ecologically beneficial and restorative mixed-severity fire mosaic in the 2017 Miller Complex Fire in the Middle Fork of the Applegate.
Contemporary wildfires in our region have been largely ecologically beneficial, burning in a natural mosaic more influenced by weather and terrain than fuel loading and canopy density. The claims that contemporary wildfires are creating uncharacteristic or catastrophic effects are simply unfounded, but are driving "restoration" treatments and outcomes. Most fires in our region burn at largely low severity, with moderate- and high-severity burn patches present to a lesser extent in any given fire event. This mixed pattern of fire severity is important for the maintenance of biodiversity and creates both fire resilience and highly effective, natural fuel reduction.  

Contemporary wildfires, although less frequent or widespread then historic fires, continue to operate in a similar manner and are creating similar patterns of fire severity. Many of the habitats affected by recent wildfire are on a trajectory of fire resilience due to an increasingly frequent fire return interval. The fire mosaic has been diverse, productive and characteristic for the region.

The recent wildfires in our region have provided ecological benefits, restoring fire process, fire-adapted plant communities and wildfire mosaics. They also provide highly effective fuel reduction on the landscape scale. Actively managing wildfire for resource benefit, although politically controversial, is possible even in the suppression context. Recent wildfires have had restorative benefits and in many cases have the potential to "treat" more acres in a more natural and diverse mosaic than any other form of "active management." 

Predicted On-the-Ground Impacts of the Rogue Basin Strategy

A commercial logging unit in the O'Lickety Timber Sale in the Little Applegate Watershed on BLM land. The project proposed to create more open structure forest by heavily logging mid-successional forest of Douglas fir. The result was simplified forest structure and a loss of Northern spotted owl habitat.
Although the treatments proposed in the Rogue Basin Strategy are being promoted as habitat restoration, they will utilize the same technologies and create many of the same impacts that logging has historically created within this same landscape 

For example, the intensity of logging proposed, the heavy removal of overstory canopy, and the prioritization of treatments in late successional, closed canopy forest will create extensive habitat fragmentation, disrupt connectivity between late successional habitats and degrade late successional habitat conditions utilized by the Northern spotted owl. 

Many of the same mid to late successional forests targeted for logging are currently highly fire resistant and the extensive canopy removal required to create "open" forest will increase fire risks by regenerating dense understory vegetation. Heavy thinning will also desiccate forest stands by increasing solar radiation, ambient air temperatures and access to drying winds. 

Heavy understory regeneration and fuel loading following a commercial thinning operation on BLM land in the Middle Applegate Watershed.

Trees will be yarded using tractors, cable systems and helicopters. These yarding impacts are documented to include soil compaction, increased surface erosion rates, sedimentation into nearby streams, damage to residual "leave" trees and the spread of noxious weeds. The impacts are often unavoidable to one extent or another in any commercial logging operation and they will be compounded as the number of acres treated this way increases. 

A linear, cable yarding corridor in the BLM's Cheney Slate Timber Sale in the foothills of the Applegate Valley.

Although no new roads are proposed in the Rogue Basin Strategy, it is highly likely that the Forest Service and BLM will propose new roads to access timber in many of the proposed helicopter yarding areas. This may require the removal of larger trees to pay for yarding costs and road construction, as often happens in federal timber sales. 

Many roads proposed to access treatment areas in the Rogue Basin Strategy have long been abandoned, would require significant road reconstruction, and should be closed to reduce environmental impacts. Some of these roads are poorly constructed and are failing, while others are located in riparian areas. These roads create disproportionate impacts to nearby rivers and streams, and instead of decommissioning them to achieve restoration goals, the Rogue Basin Strategy proposes the reconstruction of many roads, including those extending into Inventoried Roadless Areas and other conservation areas. 

Capitalizing on current political dynamics, as well as the public's deep-seated misunderstanding of fire and hatred for smoke, this brand of forestry is being propelled by fear, politics and false promises that smoke and wildfires will be drastically reduced. Utilizing the disaster capitalism model, the Rogue Basin Strategy is gaining steam within a climate of anger and a false presumption of ecological catastrophe. This sense of urgency is propelling the proposal forward without a realistic analysis of its science, assumptions, or ecological impacts. 

The vast serpentine habitats of the Kalmiopsis region are best managed with wildfire. Many of the watersheds are simply too remote to conduct forest management activities and wildfire provides the most effective, dynamic form of fuel reduction.
When the smoke clears and emotions calm down. I encourage folks to take a hard look at the actual outcome of this season's wildfires and compare those to the likely impacts of widespread "active management" as proposed by the Rogue Basin Strategy. When one looks objectively at the issue, it is clear that the recent wildfires have a far more restorative effect: enhancing biodiversity, incorporating natural process and creating far more heterogeneity and resilience than the proposed logging and manual fuel reduction treatments in the Rogue Basin Strategy. 

The best way to restore an active fire regime is to manage wildland fire in the backcountry, while focusing our manual restoration activities in plantation stands, at strategic locations, and around homes and communities. By preparing local communities with defensible space treatments, safe ingress and egress routes, strategic firebreaks, and prescribed fire treatments, we can more effectively utilize unplanned ignitions in the backcountry for resource benefit, while protecting communities from wildfire impacts. 
Fuel reduction thinning and prescribed fire is appropriate next to homes and in strategic locations near communities. It can also be useful in plantations and in heavily altered landscapes, but is unnecessary in the backcountry.

Wildfire is a reality on this landscape, with a long history of beneficial ecological effects and social impacts. We cannot remove wildfire or smoke from this landscape, nor can we replace their important ecological functions with manual treatments. Wildfire and smoke are a natural and inevitable part of our Mediterranean climate and forest ecosystems. As someone who has had wildfire (the 2017 Miller Complex) surround my own rural property, I believe a little humility, tolerance and a dose of reality may go a long way in providing us with solutions. Increased federal land logging in our last old forests, roadless areas, botanical areas and other important conservation areas is not the answer. We must ask ourselves the question: Do we want forest restoration or forest industrialization?   

Download the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy here.