While poor forest health poses serious wild fire danger throughout the forests of Wallowa County and northeastern Oregon, the threat of fire on landmark Mount Howard was the focus of a public meeting attended by 60 people at the Joseph Community Center last Wednesday night.
"It's not a matter of if, but when Mount Howard will burn," was the message repeated several times by natural resource managers during the evening. The public was asked to express concerns and ideas in a search for solutions to the problem.
A panel presentation was followed by those present breaking into three small groups, with ideas, issues and concerns written down by moderators.
The Mount Howard issue was made public earlier this fall when members of the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Council and the U.S. Forest Service reported that 80 percent of the subalpine fir and other species above the 6,400 foot elevation was dead or dying, and a heavy fuel load on the ground contributed to a high fire danger at all elevations.
Meeting facilitator Mike Hayward, chairman of the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners, said that Mount Howard "rates as the highest area of concern for both residents and tourists" from ecological, social and economic points of view.
Hayward noted that in the past the Forest Service has usually come up with a list of alternative actions when it designs a project, and then held public meetings.
"Here we have a chance to get involved from the ground up, rather than just comment on a list of alternatives," he said.
Both Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and Eagle Cap Wilderness rangers, Meg Mitchell and Kendall Clark, respectively, were at the meeting.
Mount Howard is the home of the Wallowa Lake Tramway, which operates by a special use permit in the Wallowa-Whitman adjacent to the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area. The steepest four-passenger gondola lift in the United States takes some 30,000 passengers a year up the side of the mountain, traveling from 4,500 foot elevation to a spectacular 8,200 in 15 minutes.
Mount Howard also looms over the unincorporated resort community of Wallowa Lake, with its national forest interfacing with private land. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and other partners have been working on fuel reduction projects to ease the fire danger to private property and Wallowa Lake State Park the last two years.
Paul Survis, silvaculturist with the U.S. Forest Service, was part of a panel at last week's meeting that outlined Mount Howard issues. Using slides, which included historic photos of the Mount Howard 100 years ago, Survis pointed out that what is happening on the mountain is part of a natural cycle, that a century ago the forest was much less dense and extensive. He said that much of the forest is nearing the end of its life cycle, and that the situation has been aggravated by ten years of drought, making it susceptible to insect invasion. "The whole system is in stress up there," he said. "Insects are having a field day."
A particularly veracious bug relatively new to the mountain, the Balsam Wooly Adelig, for which there is no know control, is the major culprit at the above-6,400 feet elevation, with the Western Balsam Bark Beetle a secondary pest.
Dense stands and extremely heavy fuel loads on the grounds contribute to the danger, said Survis.
"We've been lucky," said Nick Lunde, zone fire manager for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, about the Mount Howard Burn which in 1992 consumed 50 acres of the subalpine forest on the mountain before it was suppressed. "If it's been one thing we've been it's fire suppression." However, Lunde said that the changes Survis has talked about will affect the ability to keep the fires small in the future. Under the wrong conditions, he said "if it gets started, we're not going to be able to stop it. We'll just have to evacuate people," he said.
"We do have options," he added. Lunde said that controlled stand replacement burning is one tool that must be considered. It differs from prescribed burning now being used to reduce ground fuel loads. "This is a different animal. It must be done carefully under certain conditions," said Lunde. "It can look like a wild fire. If we get in a burning program, we'll get a lot of flame and smoke." He said the idea would be to start at the top and work down in the dead subalpine stands, a block at a time.
"We need to have public acceptance. ... It would take careful management and we'd need a lot of public support," said Lunde.
Both Survis and Lunde agreed that there was very little marketable timber above the 6,400 foot elevation on Mount Howard, but there were more management options in the mixed conifer stands below that elevation.
Other panelists were Andy White of ODF, who talked about the agency's fuel reduction efforts in the Wallowa Lake area, and Floyd Hoofard, Wallowa Lake landowner and board member of the newly formed Wallowa Lake Rural Fire District.
Among issues brought to the table by the three discussion groups after the panel presentation included: making the salvage of marketable timber a priority; weighing fast action against the delays a more complicated project will bring; the liability involved in actions the Forest Service might take versus taking no action; and the need to be pro-active when it comes to dealing with the Mount Howard fire problem.
Group facilitators included John Williams, Nils Christoffersen and Andy White, all members of the county's natural resources advisory group.
Forest rangers Meg Mitchell and Kendall Clark traveled from group to group, and at the end of the work groups sessions summed up what they heard from the public.
"I hear you," said Clark. "We don't want to wait and have it catch us without at least trying to address the issue. "A combination of tools needs consideration, but the use of fire nevertheless needs to be in the tool box."
"It's complicated with a lot of public values at stake ... We want this to be an open discussion, and work through controversy upfront, " said Mitchell.
In response to a question, Mitchell admitted that because funding has not yet been secured for a fire reduction or environmental study, "we're probably looking at two years before any action would start."
"By that time we may not have to worry about it, it might go up in smoke," commented photographer Walt Klages, a member of the public from Enterprise.