Agency plans more restoration for Northeast Oregon forests

1.5 million acres in need of thinning, prescribed burns

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PENDLETON, Ore. -- Mother Nature is moving faster than forest managers and restoration can keep up in the Blue Mountains.

The U.S. Forest Service figures it has a backlog of 1.5 million acres here in need of tree thinning, prescribed burns and other work to maintain a healthy ecosystem. At its current pace, the department reaches about 50,000 acres per year.

That means local foresters have at least 30 years of work ahead just to catch up.

But Bill Aney, newly appointed eastside restoration coordinator for the Pacific Northwest Region, is assembling a team to help come up with a plan to substantially increase forest restoration efforts.

"Accelerated restoration" would identify and plan projects on a much larger scale -- looking at blocks up to 300,000 acres at a time, instead of 30,000 acres -- while working with groups interested in environmental and economic impacts on the forests.

Aney took on the job in February, under the direction of regional forester Kent Connaughton. They will focus on restoration in four national forests in the Blue Mountains including the Ochoco, Umatilla, Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman.

The planning team, which Aney hopes to have in place by June, will gather expertise in everything from fire ecology to hydrology and wildlife.

"Mother Nature has already lapped us once, and she's going to lap us again if we don't do something about it," Aney said. "We're getting further behind. Forests are developing faster than we are managing them."

Years ago, a fire in ponderosa pine forest would burn each spot of ground every 10 to 20 years, Aney said. Now, in some places, there is 100 years of growth with enough fuel for high-intensity blazes.

Smaller trees and brush near larger trees also create the potential for "ladder fuels," where flames climb upward into the forest canopy. Aney said those intense fires can have severe effects, like burning trees hundreds of years old and damaging soil.

"Our objective is restoration and trying to set up (tree) stands for fire, so that when a fire comes through it doesn't take out the whole stand," Aney said.

In addition, thinning trees could lead to an increase in production for the timber industry.

"I think we can come up with some projects that do the restoration, while also producing material for the industry," Aney said.

Removing some of the larger pines could open up more space and habitat for aspen trees to grow. David Powell, silviculturist with the Umatilla National Forest, said shade from the big conifers can cause aspen numbers to decline and decrease biodiversity.