In fiscal year 2014, NRCS Oregon funded $1.4 million in contracts with private landowners in Baker and Union counties to perform essential timber thinning practices. Contracts totaled 17 in Baker County and 16 in Union County, with conservation work spanning 3,076 acres.
Landowners worked with contractors, NRCS staff, and the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) to identify tree stands for slashing and thinning. Contractors used a technique called slashbusting—in which a large excavator shreds trees apart, leaving a scattered pile of nutrient-rich pieces behind. Those pieces decompose over time and return nutrients to the soil, which improves soil fertilization and promotes better tree growth.
While the idea of cutting down trees may at first sound harmful to the environment, in this case the opposite is true.
“Dense, overstocked forests pose a higher risk for catastrophic wildfire because the excess vegetation creates a fuel ladder, allowing fire to rise higher into the canopy where it causes the most damage,” said Parker Ussery, district conservationist for the NRCS Baker County field office. “By thinning timber stands, wildfire has less fuel to spread and we improve the overall resiliency and health of the forest.”
Landowners are seeing positive results, including improved wildlife habitat and better tree growth.
“Just by opening the canopy of the trees, you bring tremendous benefits to the land,” said Tim Fisher, a Baker County landowner who signed up for a three year contract with NRCS. “It reduces the risk for wildfire, it helps with soil erosion, the wildlife habitat stays intact, the trees grow taller and stronger, and the wood can become marketable timber.”
This is the first year that work has been completed on private lands under the East Face of the Elkhorn Mountains Partnership. Looking ahead, NRCS plans to continue work with private landowners to enroll an additional 1,700 acres for the 2015 signup. The next sign up deadlines are January 16, 2015 and March 20, 2015.
To sign up or for more information about funding eligibility, contact the USDA Service Center in La Grande: (541) 963-4178 or Baker City: (541) 523-7121 or visit the NRCS Oregon website at:www.or.nrcs.usda.gov.
About the East Face Partnership
The East Face of the Elkhorn Mountains project is funded collaboratively through NRCS and the U.S. Forest Service through the Joint Chief’s Initiative, which provided $2.9 million for Oregon. The project aims to accomplish goals of the Cohesive Wildfire Strategy (CWS) by reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire through forest fuels reduction, restoring and maintaining landscapes, and improving fire response.
The East Face partnership combines the skills and expertise of the NRCS, ODF, the Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These agencies are working together to proactively address wildfire issues in the East Face project area with an “All Hands, All Lands” approach—spanning both public and private lands.
Together, these partners identified more than 47,000 acres in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and BLM lands to target for fuels reduction and forest stand improvements, as well as adjacent private lands. The long-term goal is to minimize impacts of wildfire on private residences, natural resources, and public infrastructure, while also improving overall forest health.
The East Face project will reduce the threat of wildfire and its impact to the watersheds that contribute the irrigation needs of local farmers, and create areas of reduced fuel loadings near the municipal water supplies for La Grande and Baker City. It will also protect key habitat for federally-threatened bull trout, steelhead, and Chinook salmon.
NRCS’ role in the partnership is to provide funding and manage contracts for eligible landowners to implement conservation practices on private lands; while ODF provides technical assistance to private landowners to support developing landowner forestry plans.
The Forest Service is developing a plan to treat federal lands within the East Face project area, with a proposed action scheduled for public release in January. The Forest Service plans to release a final Environmental Assessment (EA) in 2016, which will provide an action plan to reduce fuel loadings and improve vegetative health and sustainability on Forest Service and BLM lands adjacent to state and private lands.
Cohesive Wildfire Strategy – Northern Blue Mountain Area Pilot Project
The East Face project is part of the CWS Northern Blue Mountain Area Pilot Project, which is one of two projects of its kind in the nation, led by ODF. The pilot project encompasses the following goals:
· A Cohesive Wildfire Protection plan that can be incorporated into the Oregon Forest Action Plans.
· An integrated West-wide Wildfire Risk Assessment for the Blue Mountains.
· A plan to coordinate and prioritize fuel reduction projects which utilize existing funds.
· A model demonstration project across all ownerships illustrating benefits of CWS goals.
· An increase in demand and supply of woody biomass in the area and create jobs.
· Processes for cost effectively using woody biomass to ensure highest rates of biomass recovery.