LOSTINE CANYON — Despite past controversy, hard work and uncertain weather, the Lostine Corridor Public Safety Project is well underway, just past the halfway point in efforts to remove hazard and diseased trees, improve public safety and improve forest resources in the area.

“It’ll be completely dependent on what the weather does for us,” said David Schmidt, owner of Integrated Biomass Resources in Wallowa, which successfully bid on the timber harvest portion of the stewardship contract in September 2018.

The harvest is slated to conclude Feb. 28, 2023, he said, though it could qualify for an extension.

But the logging must be done under “winter conditions,” said Jim Zacharias, a member of the Wallowa Resources Board of Directors.

Schmidt said those conditions require 6 inches of frost or 12 inches of snow on the ground for logging equipment to operate on.

The approximately 2,110 acres of timberland along 11 miles of the Lostine River is being thinned of hazard trees and underbrush to make the area safer for recreationists and residents of the Lostine Canyon. The hazard trees appear the greatest threat to public safety, the experts said Thursday during an interview in the canyon.

“The Forest Service spends an abundance of time and effort trying to keep this corridor open safely to the public,” said Mark Moeller, U.S. Forest Service assistant fire management officer. “That consists primarily of falling hazard trees that present a danger to the public.”

A decision memo by the Forest Service dated in 2017 included photographs of those hazard trees that had fallen on tables in campgrounds and across roads, backing up the Forest Service claim of the necessity of their removal.

In addition to tree removal, the project also includes installing a helicopter pad, re-decking the bridge at Lake Creek and removing slash leftover from the logging work. Some of the slash will be burned, while some will be masticated — ground into mulch for the forest floor. Some slash will be left for use by campers as firewood.

“The purpose of this project is to reduce the risk of these forest stands in the corridor to future insect and disease impacts (such as falling trees), which, in turn, reduces the risk to the people who use this corridor, the improvements in the corridor to private land and the resource in the canyon including the riverfront,” said Matt Howard, of the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Wallowa Unit.

In addition to public safety, the timber harvest portion of the stewardship contract is seen as a benefit both for safety against wildfires and economically.

Moeller estimated there would be a total of 4 million board feet of timber harvested. Pro Thinning Inc., operated by Zacharias’ sons Tom and Seth Zacharias, has been contracted to do the harvesting.

“This number is a ‘total,’ and lumber is only one of numerous forest products that may be produced out of this total,” Moeller said.

The smaller logs are going to Schmidt’s IBR mill in Wallowa, while larger “saw logs” will be sold on the open market. Schmidt said some are going to Jim Zacharias’ Jay Zee Lumber in Joseph, some to the Boise-Cascade mill in Elgin, some to Woodgrain in La Grande and some to Idaho Forest in Lewiston, Idaho.

Nils D. Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources, said the project has been sought for more than 15 years.

“When I chaired the county’s first community wildfire protection plan processes back in 2005-06, this area was one of four areas that emerged as the highest priorities based on the risk of fire, and the potential consequence that a wildfire would have on people’s lives, our community and a wide range of environmental values at risk,” Christoffersen wrote in an email. “That risk assessment, and the potential consequences in the Lostine Corridor, have not changed — if anything they have risen. If a fire broke out in the corridor last summer, when the parking lots were filled beyond capacity (from recreationists) and hundreds of additional cars were parked along the side of the road, it could have been catastrophic. Evacuation routes would have been clogged, and access by firefighting crews blocked.”

Howard, of the ODF, agreed. Earlier he noted that it’s not “if” wildfire comes to the area, but “when.”

“We’re a fire-dependent ecosystem; we have wildland fires in this county every year. The Lostine Corridor is not free from that,” he said, noting that “fire-dependent” means fire helps maintain forest health.

“As long as summer thunderstorms keep rolling through, we’re going to have fires, and fire’s a normal part of the ecosystem,” he said. “When we say ‘fire-dependent,’ we mean our forests depend on that as part of their normal cycle.”

But neither recreationists nor landowners want to see a wildfire get out of control.

In a Chieftain story from February 2020, Michael Eng, of the Lostine Firewise Community, said approximately 110 properties with 120 structures make up about 15 square miles, or 9,600 acres, south of Lostine. About 45 landowners are participants in that Firewise Community.

“Fire is good for the ecosystem but when you put ‘catastrophic’ in front of it, that’s a whole new formula,” Howard said.

But the project hasn’t been without controversy. Earlier in the process, two environmental groups — Oregon Wild and the Greater Hells Canyon Council — went to court to stop it because they said they objected to some of the aspects of the then-proposed project and to some procedural concerns.

Rob Klavins, Northeast Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild out of Enterprise, said the environmental groups — and some area residents who opposed the project — were in favor of the aspects involving removing hazard trees, adding natural firebreaks, the helipad and thinning around structures. But portions appeared to be going too far.

“Concerned about a majority who seemed more about getting logs to mills than safety concerns,” Klavins said last week.

He said the procedural concerns involved including “really important stakeholders, ourselves included,” in the decision-making process that he believed were overlooked.

As a result, the groups took their objections to court, ultimately seeing an unfavorable decision in the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals.

Klavins called the project “a dramatic overreach from their stated purpose.”

He also said his group only went to court reluctantly.

“If they had done this properly, there were lots of portions of the project we could’ve supported,” he said.

Klavins said after they took it to court, the Forest Service scaled back the project. He said he plans to go up there this week to see what changes were made.

Still, the project remains multifaceted.

“Everything we’re doing here on the federal side, it fits to a ‘T’ into our community wildfire protection plan … the common pieces are fitting together,” Moeller said. “The primary goal of this project is public safety. Preventing catastrophic wildfire is a piece of that, but that’s not the sole purpose of this project.”

Schmidt agreed that the hazard trees remain the most constant danger. He and his family often recreate in the area and told of a time last summer when high winds added to the danger.

“It was scary as hell; trees were falling all around us,” he said, adding that a woman packing stuff out on her horse was four hours behind because she had to cut trees that fell across the trail.

Jim Zacharias, in his capacity with Wallowa Resources, spoke highly of how the project fits into that group’s mission.

“Wallowa Resources is really community oriented. We really support what this is designed to do,” he said. “Plus, it’s supporting the local economy in creating jobs. Wallowa Resources is about the human resource, too. With Pro Thinning, there are five people directly on their crew, plus a half-dozen truck drivers who are hauling the logs and David (Schmidt)’s operation that has 30-something employees. Then there’s a trickle effect: They’re all eating at M.Crow store and buying Copenhagen at the Little Store.”

Zacharias was pleased with the results he saw in areas that had been completed.

“It’s going to look like a park,” he said.

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