Katy Nesbitt
The La Grande Observer

Decades of large wildfires cross the West have a local U.S. Forest Service District staff putting a critical eye to protecting the wildland/urban interface.

More than half of the Forest Service budget goes to fire suppression, a new normal for the 113-year-old agency. Nathan Goodrich, fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest North Zone, said large wildland fire management is becoming less about protecting public land.

“Three-quarters of the time we are essentially protecting private land and private improvements,” Goodrich said. “Doing that in a landscape that hasn’t had any treatment, and trying to put in a fire line or defensible space, is like starting from scratch. When you are looking for a place to catch a fire at the base of the slope, you can’t do that because of private land and structures.”

The problem area along the Wallowa Mountain front is generally at the base of the slope — a thin sliver of land running from Bear Creek west of Wallowa to Sheep Creek east of Joseph. In all, about 1,800 acres are spread across 40 miles sandwiched between private land and the wilderness.

Goodrich said when funding through the Natural Resource Conservation Service created 50/50 cost-share opportunities for private landowners to reduce the number of standing trees per acre on their property, the Forest Service was asked to do the same on its side of the line.

“Our Wallowa Front Wildland/Urban Interface project covers everything considered high priority along the whole face of the Eagle Caps,” he said.

Much of the private land along the Wallowa Mountain front is directly adjacent to the Eagle Cap Wilderness line where no harvest or fuels treatment is allowed. Complicating matters, Goodrich said, some of the land not included in the wilderness is not accessible by vehicle.

“For decades there were parcels of ground bordering private land we couldn’t manage because they were isolated and there was no way to get there but to hike in,” he said.

But when push came to shove, hike in they did, to burn up brush piles and dead and downed debris along the public/private border.

However, the unique project didn’t attract any supplemental funding, so Goodrich said he has to be prudent when deciding where he sends crews to thin, pile and burn.

“We are not going to do all the acres, but concentrate on the lower 300 feet from the private boundary,” he said.

Reducing the number of small trees on both sides of the public/private border is a priority outlined in the recently updated Wallowa County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan divides the county into zones, highlighting areas particularly at risk.

The Protection Plan also designated the area called The Divide as another high priority wildland/urban interface where private inholdings, some of them hundreds of acres, abut the national forest northeast of Joseph.

In response to the county’s Protection Plan and the Good Neighbor Authority — a program under the 2014 Farm Bill that allows the Forest Service to enter into contracts with state forestry departments to perform forest management services on National Forest System lands — the Wallowa Mountains Office is looking at treating a 25-acre unit completely surrounded by private land. District Silviculturist Clint Foster explained how federal land managers, state foresters and private landowners work together.

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer