Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

JOSEPH — Dan Gover is retired from the U.S. Forest Service, but managing nearly 2,000 acres of private forestland is nearly a full-time job.

The former road crew boss owns 900 acres southeast of Joseph, and his absentee neighbors have at least 900 more that he manages by creating fuel breaks in the densely stocked forest.

“We want to keep the fires from coming,” Gover said. “That’s what we are trying to accomplish.”

Gover, 79, said he uses tracked equipment to harvest larger trees and grind down smaller ones and leaves the chainsaw work to others. He said he’s building an attachment for an excavator that can grind up to 10-inch trees.

For years, Gover said, the subdivision surrounded by Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, consisting of parcels that are several hundred acres apiece, had been what he called “high graded” — the large, merchantable trees were harvested without removing any of the understory.

“(Logging companies) took all of the best trees and left all the junk, and that’s what we are dealing with now,” Gover said.

There are some merchantable trees left, and those are hauled to the Idaho Forest Group mill in Lewiston, Idaho.

But making money is not driving Gover’s work, nor does he look at the wildfire mitigation as an investment in his land’s resale value.

“If a person owns ground, he should take care of the ground,” Gover said. “I’m bettering the land. That’s worth some money out of my pocket.”

Some of the work — called pre-commercial thinning, which removes small diameter trees to allow select, larger trees to grow bigger — has been accomplished through a cost-share agreement with the Oregon Department of Forestry. Gover said the state does not allow that grant funding to support merchantable harvest.

Gover said he thins out smaller trees around select ponderosa pines with 18 to 20 feet between trees. He also takes out pine with bark beetle to prevent an epidemic outbreak from killing entire stands of trees.

Tim Cudmore is an ODF stewardship forester. On a tour of Gover and his neighbors’ private inholdings surrounded by national forest, he said Gover has been the instigator of good land stewardship with his neighbors. In 2016, Cudmore said, he inventoried 800 acres of forest and another forester inventoried close to 500 acres this past summer.

“These projects are huge,” Cudmore said. “It is hard to get people engaged and excited, but the iron is hot up here.”

While reducing the risk of property loss to forest fires is a driving factor for landowners, values differ, Cudmore said. While some want a park-like effect with an open timber stand, others want to leave more trees on their property. Merchantable timber versus encroaching conifers vary across ownership, as does elevation, aspect and slope. Timber on flat ground is easier and cheaper to thin than in steep canyon country, and forests on north-facing slopes are more densely forested than those that face south.

The fuel reduction cost-share money comes from the National Fire Plan, a response plan written by the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture staff in 2000 to reduce fire impacts on rural communities and ensure effective firefighting in the future. The funding doesn’t pay for forest work — it is an incentive for landowners to be able to treat more acres than they may be able to alone.

Cudmore said this funding is helpful, but a landscape approach would be better. He said a three-part plan would include Alder Slope outside of Enterprise, the Divide southeast of Joseph, and the lower Wallowa Valley. If approved, incentive funding for landowners will be distributed through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program administered by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service that promotes coordination between state, federal and private partners to help producers and landowners through program contracts or easement agreements.

Abe Clark runs the NRCS office in Enterprise. He said he may know as soon as November if the roughly $3 million in funding is awarded. He said protecting private forestland from being destroyed by catastrophic fires falls into the agency’s mission of soil conservation.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer