NRAC warnsof fire danger on Mt. Howard

This is an aerial view of the north face of the eastern flank of Mt. Howard. The existing mortality of subalpine fir, spruce and lodgepole pine is evidenced by an expanse of red crowns (marked in red). There is an estimated 80 percent mortality within discernable blocks in the photo. Submitted photo

The scenic view at the Wallowa Lake tram is not as scenic as it once was and is not going to improve in the immediate future. The view over the Wallowa Mountains will be the same, but the trees on Mt. Howard, both at the higher and lower elevations, are dying.

Thus was the essence of a message delivered to the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce board of directors by three members of the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Council (NRAC) last Thursday morning.

The NRAC, at the request of the U.S. Forest Service, has been assigned the task of determining options on how to deal with the problem of tree stands on federal land that are near the end of their natural life cycle and being attacked by insects.

Wallowa Valley District ranger Meg Mitchell told the Chamber group that there is an 80 percent mortality rate of trees on Mt. Howard above an elevation of 6,400 feet, and also high mortality below that elevation.

NRAC member Bruce Dunn says the trees in the upper elevation are 130 to 140 years old. Mitchell said the trees are at the end of their life cycle and that it is only natural for them to be attacked by insects.

"This is what this forest does at this stage in its life," said NRAC member John Williams.

"Unfortunately the news for scenery is not good either way, even if we do nothing," said Mitchell.

But in addition to becoming far less scenic, the standing, dead trees and extensive fuel loads on the ground are presenting a fire hazard. By Forest Service estimates there are 40 ton of ground fuel per acre above the 6,400 foot elevation and 60 ton per acre in mixed conifer stands below that elevation.

The Forest Service only brought the problem to the attention of NRAC Sept. 24 and the advisory group has yet to formulate any firm recommendations. The group, however, has ascertained the need to make the problem public and is meeting with a series of public organizations such as the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce board, the Joseph Chamber of Commerce, the Wallowa County Board of Realtors and others.

A series of public meetings will follow, possibly beginning in November, to get additional feedback. The sense of Mitchell and the NRAC is that the scenery at Mt. Howard is a public asset (or problem) and that everyone is invited to share in the solution.

Williams said that an estimated 2,000 acres of landscape is involved. Dunn said that 1,000 acres are alpine fir above the 6,400 foot elevation and, because of the steepness of the terrain and the non commercial value of the wood, are not marketable.

Mitchell said that a prescribed burn was within the realm of possible solutions.

Thinning and slash piling efforts have been underway this summer to create a fire break between the at-risk federal land and private land nearer the lake at the base of Mt. Howard.

Both Mitchell and Dunn spoke of the fire potential not as "if" it would happen, but "when" it will happen.

The goal of the NRAC is to provide the Forest Service with a countywide recommendation on how to best address the problem.

The land in question is U.S. Forest Service land, but not in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

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