Years of drought coupled with extreme temperatures indicative of climate change has stressed our local forests, causing high levels of tree die-off and a concerning increase in fire danger.
Continuing decades of ecological stewardship on 1,100 acres of community-owned forests governed by the Ashland Forest Plan and the 2023 Climate Change Adaptation Addendum, the City and Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission have evaluated forest health and developed a plan to reduce developing fire danger, help forests adapt to a changing climate, and address hazards along trails and roads.
Douglas-fir Decline Spiral: Action Needed An aerial survey of our community forests summarized the extent of dead and dying Douglas-fir, a species poorly adapted to extreme heat and drought. The report shows over 20% of Doug-fir are dead or dying from an insect called Douglas-fir flatheaded borer, in what researchers call a “decline spiral”. Data collected by local scientists suggests that ongoing insect attacks on Doug-fir may be affecting an additional 25% or more of trees that appear to be green and healthy now.
With more dead trees accumulating, fire danger is quickly increasing in areas next to homes and at the base of our municipal watershed. Quick action is critical to community and firefighter safety, and the sustainability of our beloved local forests.
What is the Plan? Research clearly shows the need for proactive stewardship to avoid severe wildfires that have myriad of negative impacts on communities and ecosystems. Specific activities under this plan include selective thinning of dead, dying, and trees likely to die in the near future. Crowded forests will be thinned to promote health where possible. Trees with economic value will be removed by helicopter and sold to local mills, offsetting a portion of the cost. Trained crews will pile and safely burn branches and smaller wood as conditions allow...a critical step to reducing fire danger.
Waiting until fall would expose our community to increased fire risk over the summer and trees would lose an estimated $400,000 in value due to rot and weathering, which would cost the City more and reduce the area where work would take place.
Some dead trees (called “snags”) will be retained for habitat in places where they’ll be safer for firefighters, trail users, and nearby homes. All drought tolerant species will be left, and some areas will be planted with species more resilient to impacts of climate change, to accelerate reforestation.
“In southwestern Oregon, forest management that steers toward oaks, pines and other more drought-tolerant species may be warranted in places with less than about 40 inches of average precipitation a year,” retired Oregon State University Extension Forester Max Bennett said. “But some individual trees and patches of Douglas-fir will likely persist on these dry sites at least for a time, so it’s important not to use an all or nothing approach.”
Rainfall does not exceed 40 inches annually on municipal forestlands close to the city.
Adapting our forests to the changing climate is a huge task that demands we act quickly not only to curb developing fire danger, but to do everything we can to keep forests intact for as long as possible. Some areas of the west are already losing forests for good due to tree die-off and severe fire, and we can avoid that if we are proactive,” said Chris Chambers, Forestry Officer at the City of Ashland.
Work to mitigate increasing fire risk from dead trees is already underway, with projects co-managed by Ashland Parks and Recreation and Ashland Fire & Rescue on the Lithia Park hillside, Hald-Strawberry Park, and at the Red Queen trailhead at Terrace Street and Ashland Loop Road. Trees have been cut for road and trail safety in these projects, with the Red Queen project resulting in five log trucks of dead trees removed.
“The forest we see and know is not the same forest we’ll see in five to ten years, and certainly not in 25 years. We want to maintain intact forests through periods of intense heat, drought, and fire and embracing change is critical. Guiding our forests through change is critical to our safety and ecosystem resilience,” Chambers concluded. A guide about climate adaptation and restoration for the public and forest landowners was recently published by Oregon State University Extension Service.
What is the Process and Timeline? In December 2023, the City Council approved a contract with long-time partner Lomakatsi Restoration Project to move ahead with marking trees that need to be removed, following the City’s detailed plans that take into account fire, tree health, habitat, erosion, and recreation. Tree marking started in late January and will continue through February. All trees to be removed will be tallied by size, species, and live or dead.
Some live trees need to be selectively thinned where they are showing signs of insect attack, forests are too dense, and in fire suppression emphasis areas. The tally will be used to estimate the amount the City will pay for the logging, as well as for bids from local mills that will allow the City to recoup a portion of the work costs. Making money is not a goal of local forest management; a healthy forest, watershed, and safe community are the driving factors.
Public Engagement On the heels of the most intense wave of tree mortality that occurred this past spring, coupled with the results of the aerial survey done in July, City staff and volunteers from the City Forestland Committee collected public sentiment and values that were taken into account during planning. In March 2023, the City Council approved a Climate Change Addendum to the Ashland Forest Plan, a process that involved public field trips, public review of the document, and opportunities for testimony. There were further comment opportunities, two more field trips, and a weekly booth at the Farmer’s Market this past fall to provide additional opportunities for the public to learn about the project and provide input. The vast majority of feedback was in favor of the project proposal and there was some helpful input that improved the plan. Additional public comment was also received during a presentaiton at the City Council.
What to Expect If you frequent our local forests, you’ll see trees with blue paint on them starting in February. Blue flags on trees are boundary markers, not trees to be cut. By March, we’ll be setting up contracts and logistics, anticipating the start of tree cutting by the middle to end of the month, with helicopter operations scheduled for April and May. Exact schedules with locations will be published as soon as possible.
Once tree falling starts, trails will have to close for public safety, and stay closed until the helicopter removes the felled trees. Cut trees are likely end up blocking trails, leaning up against other trees, and with branches hanging in the canopy…known as “widow makers” by loggers (creating unstable and unsafe conditions). There are almost 1,000 dead and dying trees within 100 feet of trails! Trail safety is important, so more trees will have to be cut around trails, an unfortunate trade-off for habitat and the visual experience for trail users.
Noise and traffic will be noticeable from both the helicopter and log trucks. Log trucks will be using Granite Street through downtown, North Main, upper Walker Avenue, Siskiyou Boulevard, Pinecrest Terrace, and Timberline Terrace. Please drive slowly around log trucks and give them space. Helicopter operating hours will be limited to 7AM on per the City's noise ordinance, though most of the community will not be impacted.
Trail Closures We will try to avoid as much disruption to recreation as possible. The busiest trails are the priority for staying open and being re-opened. That includes BTI, Jabberwocky, Alice in Wonderland, Bandersnatch, Red Queen, and Snark…among others in that general area. During some of the operation, the Ashland Loop Road to White Rabbit Trailhead will also close due to trees being cut on the roadsides and the helicopter removing cut logs. Though trails downhill and west from White Rabbit Trailhead will be closed, traffic going uphill to Lizard, Caterpillar, and further south will be open when the Loop Road is open at the gate just above Morton Street, and as accessed from Four Corners and Toothpick Trail.
Trails in Siskiyou Mountain Park will also close, including White Rabbit, Mike Uhtoff, and Queen of Hearts until work is completed and all trails are inspected for safety.
The closure period will last as long as the work is ongoing, which is subject to weather and operations. Plan on trails being closed for 3-6 weeks, depending on the trail. Updates will be posted regularly on the City’s web page News section, and on this website.