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Funds available to help landowners reduce risk
Almost $1.7 million is available to help private landowners reduce the risk of wildfire on their forest properties along the east side of the Elkhorn Mountains in Baker and Union counties.
The money is part of a joint federal project that also involves the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the Oregon Department of Forestry.
The Forest Service will receive $1 million to cut small trees and do other work on public land in the same area on the east side of the Elkhorns.
The Elkhorns project is one of 13 that federal officials announced last week, and the only one in Oregon.
The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will work with the Oregon Department of Forestry to award grants to private forest owners, said Parker Ussery, district conservationist at the NRCS office in Baker City.
The NRCS has mailed a postcard to forest owners to alert them that money is available for forest health projects, Ussery said.
The project actually extends beyond the Elkhorns, starting at Pine Creek northwest of Baker City and continuing north for more than 25 miles to just west of La Grande.
The basic idea is to help private forest owners, as well as the Forest Service, do “precommercial thinning,” Ussery said.
That means cutting trees that are too small to be sold to mills. Precommercial thinning reduces the amount of wood available to fuel a wildfire, and by curbing competition for water and nutrients it can also help the remaining, larger trees grow faster and better resist insects and disease.
For the past 10 years, Baker and Union counties have worked with a small funding pool to do this kind of work on private land — about $1 million over the decade, said Mike Burton of the NRCS office in La Grande.
“This project is greatly accelerated and will make changes on a watershed scale level,” Burton said.
One goal with the Elkhorns project is to ensure work is done both on private land and adjoining public forests, rather than concentrating on only one side of the private/public boundary, Ussery said.
Besides reducing the fire hazard and aiding the forests, the project is designed to improve the quality of wildlife habitat, Burton said.
“Wildlife and fire don’t know property boundaries,” he said.
Northeastern Oregon has been a model for this kind of collaborative project for a number of years, Burton said.
On the Upper Grande Ronde River, the Department of Forestry has worked on conservation implementation and forest practices; the Umatilla tribe is doing a lot of instream work for fish habitat; the Farm Services Agency works with the conservation reserve enhancement program which focuses on riparian areas; and the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries prioritize areas for improvements that benefit chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout.
“Collaborative projects are just the way we do things,” Burton said. “It’s good business for all of our parts.
Private forest owners who apply will have their projects rated based on several criteria, and money will be awarded on a competitive basis, Ussery said
The project probably will continue over several years.
Burton said the agency partners are getting ready to schedule meetings with state and federal agencies, community leaders and environmental groups.