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Stewardship foresters, landowners partner to reduce wildfire risk
Contact: Rod Nichols, 503-945-7425
 
Managing a small forest in Oregon today could be likened to home schooling: A daunting breadth of knowledge is required to make a decent job of it. For the technical know-how to ensure their tree stands are healthy and fire-resistant, many forestland owners turn to the local Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) stewardship forester.
 
And although the details remain to be worked out, federal economic stimulus efforts could provide an infusion of dollars to help landowners with forest health and thinning projects.
 
Stationed in small communities throughout the state, ODF forestry professionals advise landowners on everything from how to gain tax credits for converting underproductive lands to forest, to thinning an existing forest to boost tree health and lower wildfire risk.
 
Ed Keith, stewardship forester based in Prineville, focuses on good forest health, knowing that other benefits will follow when this goal is attained.
 
“For landowners on the eastside, one of the biggest concerns they have is keeping their trees healthy,” he said. “We go out with the landowner to identify stands at risk of mortality from bark beetles, and then help them lay out thinning projects.”
 
In the dry forests east of the Cascades, trees killed by insects or disease and left standing create a fuel bed that can propel an otherwise manageable wildfire into a major incident.
 
Once foresters help plan a thinning, they assist the owner in the crucial step of securing funding. Many of the stands are not commercially harvestable, Keith said, so without financial assistance, fuel-reduction projects are often too costly to carry out. He helps landowners overcome this obstacle by writing applications for federal grants.
 
In southwestern Oregon, stewardship forester Steve Wetmore sees his role with small forestland owners as “a bridge to education and resources” that can help them achieve success.
 
“An example is the tax credit program that they wouldn’t likely learn about on their own,” he said. “We advise them on how they can convert underproductive lands to conifer forest and get a financial break for it.”
 
The state program offers landowners an incentive to establish tree cover in place of brush and weeds, which increases the value of their property.
 
The Grants Pass-based forester cites a recent forest thinning initiative as a gauge of small woodland owners’ desire for technical assistance.
 
“Just in the last three months, I’ve signed up 35 landowners for thinning their lands, with the projects ranging from five to 15 acres,” he said. “That’s a service that wouldn’t be there without stewardship foresters.”
 
As in central and eastern Oregon, the hot, dry summers of the southwestern region of the state historically have spawned large wildfires that destroyed timber, damaged streams, sterilized soil and razed homes and businesses. While wildfire will always be a part of life there due to the California-like climate, a fire start in a forest that has been kept in healthy condition is easier to control and less likely to expand into a catastrophic incident.
 
The department’s Joe Hessel noted that up to $1 million could soon be awarded to reduce fire hazards and enhance forest health on Baker County’s private forestlands as part of the federal stimulus package. In Baker County as elsewhere, the department is working to determine how to administer such projects while facing needed budget cuts that could roll back the number of foresters such as Hessel.
 
The stewardship forester said that over the past five years he and his co-workers have written federal grant applications that secured about $1.7 million for landowners in the department’s Baker City Sub-unit. A county committee identified dozens of landowners to receive the dollars for forest thinning work aimed at reducing wildfire risk. Like Wetmore, Hessel is gratified at the enthusiastic response from the local landowner community.
 
“I have administered nearly 350 individual forest health and fuels reduction projects to date from 10 individual grants that made up the $1.7 million total,” he said.