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Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative and Northwest Forest Plan Federal Advisory Committee discuss impact of plan on Oakridge/Westfir area

Image: Tour participants at the Oakridge Industrial Park. Photo provided by the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative.

The Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative Steering Committee hosted the Northwest Forest Plan Federal Advisory Committee for a field tour:  Answering the question: What is the impact of the NWFP on Oakridge and Westfir Communities and is there room for improvement?

Introduction and Background

On January 29th, 2024, the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative (SWFC) steering committee had the privilege of hosting a field tour for the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) Federal Advisory Committee (FAC). The Northwest Forest Plan was a negotiated agreement created in 1994 as a landscape approach to federal land management to protect species like the Spotted Owl and keep a steady level of timber harvesting.

The FAC committee is composed of various experts throughout Washington, Oregon, and California who are tasked with creating advisory recommendations for amendments to the NWFP. The FAC committee’s focus areas include addressing climate change and fire risk, incorporating Indigenous knowledge in land management decisions, conserving mature and old growth forests, supporting communities, and protecting wildlife.

This tour brought together the FAC committee with the SWFC steering committee, local leaders (including Mayor Williams, Mayor Cutchen, and City Administrator James Cleavenger), and Forest Service specialists.

The FAC committee requested this field tour to learn how forest management within the Northwest Forest Plan impacts the communities of Oakridge and Westfir. Oakridge and Westfir are unique areas to consider because they are surrounded by public land. Much of this bordering land is a land allocation designated as Late Successional Reserve (LSR). LSR’s serve several purposes, including protection of species– such as Spotted Owls– and protection for old growth habitat.

While the benefits of these allocations include species protection, visual appeal, and maintenance of old growth habitat, it also means that these areas have complex regulations for activities that can and cannot happen on the land and specific guidelines for analyzing activities. This presents challenges in planning for activities such as prescribed burning, maintaining roads and other forms of fuels reduction. These activities have an important role in protecting communities, preventing large scale wildfires and creating opportunities for safer and easier fire suppression.

 Fire History

The field tour began with an overview of SWFC and its mission, emphasizing the collaborative approach taken by various partners in addressing forest management challenges. The afternoon started with a presentation on the Willamette Fire History Study by fire ecologist James Johnston. During this presentation, the FAC committee learned the frequency of historical fires on this forest dating back to the 1500’s.

The data indicates that, contrary to conventional belief, frequent fire occurred on the landscape of the Willamette up until about the 1800’s, when evidence of fire dropped off with the increase of settlement. Another important take away was the role of fire on the development of old growth forests and that megafires, like we’ve seen in recent years, were historically rare.

Following this presentation, the tour traveled through Oakridge and Westfir, stopping at two important locations: the 2014 Deception Creek fire, and the Oakridge Industrial Park. During these stops, the SWFC steering committee directed conversation on several key topics.

Stop #1: 2014 Deception Creek Fire

Wildfire Landscape Resilience: The 2014 Deception Creek Fire overlook was the perfect opportunity to discuss historical fires in Oakridge, and to delve into the strategies and the importance of creating fire resilient landscapes, especially near values at risk such as communities. The Deception Creek Fire largely burned within an LSR, and posed an immediate threat to community infrastructure. It is also important to note that this fire was not ultimately stopped because of human intervention, but because of a change of weather.

The following conversations that came up at this stop included:

  • The role of potential operational delineations (PODs) and potential control lines (PCLs) in protecting landscapes
  • Challenges faced by the Forest Service, including complex policies that limit the ability to work within Late Successional Reserves.
  • Collaboration with partners and streamlining planning processes were emphasized.
  • The need for more flexibility and adaptability of the NWFP, possibly including protective buffers within LSR’s around communities to allow for easier management

Logging practices were explored as a means to mimic historic fire patterns

The importance of protecting old growth for fire resilience and wildlife habitats; And the challenges and history of air quality concerns in the community and smoke regulations.

Stop #2: Oakridge Industrial Park

Economic Development and the Northwest Forest Plan: The tour highlighted the Oakridge Industrial Park, discussing how wildfire fuel reduction efforts contribute to economic sustainability. Local firewood vendor Brock Buchmeier talked about successes and challenges of working within Forest Service and NWFP regulations and creating a sustainable business in the biomass industry, including the challenges of maintaining source stock.

Community Resilience and Recreation: Michelle Emmons with Oakridge Trail Alliance spoke of the significance of community efforts and the need to consider trail placement in enhancing resilience and socio-economic environments. Equity and accessibility were key themes, emphasizing the importance of connecting the community to the National Forest, recreation, and the Oakridge Parks & Trails Strategy. Also discussed were the economic benefits and challenges of a recreation-centered community.

Sharing Community Input

At the request of the FAC committee, the SWFC steering committee used this tour as an opportunity to share input from community members on their experiences with the NWFP. Input was gathered from a survey offered within the Oakridge and Westfir communities, highlighting the impacts related to the NWFP. This provided valuable perspectives for the FAC committee to consider. The following chart displays the themes of the responses on this survey.

As the tour concluded, it became evident that the NWFP has had profound impacts on landscapes and on rural communities such as Oakridge and Westfir. Throughout the tour, the importance of flexibility in forest management and the need for ongoing post-fire landscape management were recurring themes.

Overall, participants felt like the tour was a helpful learning opportunity. It was an excellent opportunity to provide the FAC committee an on-the-ground up close view of how the overarching policies of the Northwest Forest Plan have impacts on communities.

The Federal Advisory Committee will continue to meet and develop recommendations to amend the Northwest Forest Plan. To learn more about this process, visit the committee’s webpage here.

Written By: The Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative

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