Wildfire danger in northeast Oregon ignites action to Improve forest health

Forest technicians training in northeast Oregon

Forests in northeast Oregon have grown dense with shade-tolerant tree varieties, increasing fuel loads and serving as routes for ground fires to reach the tops of larger trees. The lack of frequent, low-intensity fires leaves forests susceptible to more intense and destructive wildfire, but in their current condition, simply letting forests burn isn’t viable.

Forests cover 47 percent of the land in Baker, Umatilla, Union, and Wallowa counties — almost 3.5 million acres. More than 600,000 acres are considered small private forestland – land not owned by a timber company – and these family forests can play a significant role in a landscape’s potential for wildfire.

Natural resource experts and officials are meeting the danger head on. Through collective efforts to prioritize and plan, members of the My Blue Mountains Woodland Partnership (MBMW), which includes the Oregon State University Extension Service, have secured more than $9 million to complete forest restoration and reduce fire risk.

The MBMW partnership connects with private landowners to help them understand the need for forestland fuel reduction, which reduces fire risk and improves forest health. The partners offer educational programs and hands-on training, site visits from professional foresters and other land management experts, and access to financial aid to help get fuels reduction projects completed.

The group is using a new online resource called WoodsCamp to connect with landowners who may not be fully engaged in managing their forestlands, to help them learn about their land, identify their personal land management objectives and get matched with tools and services.

Forest restoration efforts have been hindered by an inadequate number of consulting foresters who have the expertise and time to produce written forest management plans.  A professionally-prepared plan is mandatory before private landowners in the region may receive forest restoration funding from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

To address this issue, OSU Extension foresters John Punches and Paul Oester, teaming with Alyssa Cudmore of Wallowa Resources and consulting forester Chuck Sarrett, have helped recruit and train a group of forest technicians who will help write a basic forest management plan. In conjunction with the Oregon Department of Forestry, NRCS and other agencies, the team developed a plan template and GIS-based data collection tools; provided a series of trainings on forest health and management, landowner engagement, and forest practices rules; and then connected technician trainees with professional mentors as they developed real management plans.

By the end of December 2019, 15 forest management plans are expected to be completed by the five forestry trainees and their forester mentors. Each plan will cover a forest ranging from 10 to 3,000 acres in size. The program is ongoing, and the technicians are now available to help consulting foresters meet an anticipated need for 260 plans over the next two years, and the many additional plans that are being requested as landowner outreach continues.

“A written forest management plan is an essential tool for family forestland owners – it helps them organize and get the on-the-ground work done to improve forest health, reduce fire risk, and achieve their other objectives,” Punches said. “The MBMW team jumped at the opportunity to build the professional capacity to help landowners obtain plans fitted to their individual stewardship goals, and we were fortunate to recruit an extraordinary cadre of forest technicians. They’ll be a tremendous resource in northeast Oregon for years to come.”

Partners in MBMW include the American Forest Foundation, Wallowa Resources, U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Forest Resources Institute, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Oregon Department of Forestry and the Blue Mountains Cohesive Wildfire Strategy.

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