Tribal Forestry and U.S. Forest Service Partner to Reduce Wildfire Impacts

Travel up Johnnie Springs Road, east of Myrtle Creek, in the heart of Cow Creek Umpqua forest lands, and you will find hundreds of piles of trimmed branches, logs, and brush. Though these piles appear to be left behind by logging operations, they are, in fact, part of an ongoing project to return the forests to a healthy state and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire on Cow Creek Umpqua ancestral lands.

The Tribal Forest Protection Act (TFPA) Fuels Reduction Project, a joint effort between the Umpqua National Forest Service and Cow Creek Forestry, aims to create a shaded fuel break for 150 feet on both sides of Johnnie Springs Road and two other connecting roads, a proven firefighting tactic.

“If a fire were to come through the Forest Service land pushing east—the worst fires happen during east wind events—it would hit the fuel break and change the behavior of the fire,” says Wade Christensen, Silviculture Forester with Cow Creek Forestry. “That could let us catch it at Johnnie Springs Road, and maybe let us employ firefighting tactics to reduce the severity and keep the fire contained there.”

Christensen works with the Umpqua National Forest Service to oversee the project. This work, which has already passed the intensive National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review and approval process, began in October.

“Our Tribal trust lands share a border with the Forest Service,” says Christensen, gesturing to the east of Johnnie Springs Road toward Deadman Creek, a north-south drainage. “We’re partnering with them to create protective buffers around our own Tribal lands.”

To create the shaded fuel break, forestry crews are removing all trees and brush less than eight inches in diameter, and limbing trees up to eight feet high. This
“slash” is then gathered in the piles alongside the road for later burning when conditions are right.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the work with this project and with our prescribed burns,” says Christensen. “If a fire does start, it might hit one of our past prescribed burns, and we wouldn’t have to worry about it as much, because all of the pine needles, deadfalls, and other fuels that cause high-intensity fires have already been burned away.”

In fact, Oregon forests are adapted to fire as part of their life cycle. The microorganisms and bacteria that eat the pine needles, fallen logs, and other forest litter can only be active during the small windows of warm, moist weather that occur between hot, dry summers and cold, wet winters. Historically, fires have made up the difference in cleaning out forest duff and maintaining a healthy population of trees, and Douglas Fir and other trees native to the Pacific Northwest have  adapted to low-intensity fire with high-limbed branches and thick, protective bark.

However, changes in environmental forest policies, combined with efficient Forest Service firefighting, have led to drastically more fuels on the forest floors
than the ecosystem had adapted to, and a dense canopy at risk from crown fires. This puts the forest in danger from fires far more intense than the trees
can survive, as well as from invading insects and other disruptions to the ecosystem.

The TFPA is a nation-wide project between the Forest Service and Tribes across the country to improve the health of forests, of which this Fuels Reduction Project is just one part.

Though the TFPA Fuels Reduction Project is specifically aimed at creating the shaded fuel break, Cow Creek Umpqua Forestry as well as Land and Resources teams continue to work alongside other local, state, and federal organizations to improve the health of all ecosystems on Tribal lands. This comes in many forms: commercial thinning, prescribed burns, replanting trees, studies on water temperature and riparian (wetland) buffers, meadow ecological restoration, wildlife studies, and more.

“Forestry and ecology are such a tangled web,” says Christensen. “What looks like something simple is actually much more complicated. While we need to help clear out the forest duff, thin the trees to a healthy level, and do prescribed burns, we are also careful to maintain riparian buffers and nurture habitats with the right trees and plants, because the whole ecosystem could be affected.”

Christensen expects the TFPA Fuel Reduction Project to wrap up in two to three months, though weather and road conditions may extend that period of time.