As summer and warmer weather approach, eastern Oregon is watching with concern at the outlook for the upcoming fire season. Recent predictions from federal meteorologists warn of elevated fire risk again this year.
Eastern Oregon is at risk along with many other areas of our nation's forests and rangeland. An estimated 190 million acres of Federal forest and rangelands in the lower 48 States have a high-risk of catastrophic fire. Accumulation of dense undergrowth and brush, along with drought conditions, insect infestation and disease, and weed invasion all contribute to make our forests and rangelands vulnerable to these destructive wildfires. In 2003, more than 42,500 wildland fires burned over 2.4 million acres.
On the whole, our firefighters are very effective, controlling 98% of fires on initial attack. Despite our best efforts, we are unable to control all fires. The severity and magnitude of these fires, and the continued threat they pose into the future, must be addressed with proactive fuel reduction treatments.
The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is actively managing our public forests to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.
During the past ten years, we have implemented numerous projects near communities and in strategic areas across the forest.
The purpose of the work is to reduce hazardous fuels, improve fire prevention and suppression, increase firefighter and public safety, and restore fire-adapted ecosystems.
These projects include mechanical thinning (110,000 acres in the last decade) and prescribed burning (in recent years 10,000-15,000 acres per year). Our objective is to thin forest stands, thereby removing ladder fuels and retaining the largest, most fire-resistant trees.
The goal is to favor tree species that are relatively fire tolerant, such as ponderosa pine and western larch, and to eliminate much of the accumulated surface fuels, brush, and slash. We will continue and expand these proactive thinning treatments to reduce wildfire intensity and size.
Some of the project areas where fuel reduction work has recently been accomplished on the Forest include: Baker County - Baker City Municipal Watershed, Sumpter Interface, McCully; Union County - Starkey; Wallowa County - Buck, Wallowa Lake, Lostine River Corridor.
There are new tools available to help us implement fuel reduction projects. The Healthy Forests Initiative (HFI), launched in 2002, provided improved regulatory processes guiding forest health activities and helped to ensure more timely decisions.
In December 2003, Congress made a strong bipartisan commitment to decrease the risk of catastrophic wildland fires to communities and restore our nation's forest and rangelands by passing the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA). Members of the Oregon
Congressional Delegation were key players in the development and passage of this critical legislation. HFRA is targeted for at-risk communities in the wildland-urban interface; high-risk municipal watersheds; areas that provide habitat for threatened and endangered species; and areas that are susceptible to insect infestation or disease epidemics.
Together, HFI and HFRA will expedite administrative procedures for hazardous fuel reduction and ecosystem restoration projects on Federal lands. All existing environmental statutes remain in place. Public involvement is encouraged through collaboration during the project prioritization process and through early involvement during review and planning for specific projects.
Citizen-based boards and committees in our local counties have been actively working with interested parties and District Rangers to identify and prioritize restoration work.
Projects being planned or implemented using HFI and HFRA authorities include: Baker County - Foothill, Pine Valley Interface; Grant County - Granite; Union County - Cove, Moss Potters; Wallowa County - Biomass III, Fire Ridge, Upper East Side, Mount Howard.
The Stewardship Contract is another tool the Forest is using to implement fuel reduction and restoration projects. Stewardship contracting was first used on the Wallowa-Whitman to implement work in the Baker City Municipal Watershed in 2000.
The Buck project, located in Wallowa County, soon followed. In December 2002, Congress enacted legislation expanding stewardship contracting authority, which allows the Forest Service to enter into long-term contracts with small businesses, communities, and nonprofit organizations to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health.
As applied to a fuel reduction project, the new authority allows the value of the woody fuel removed to be used to offset the cost of other services to be performed, which could include additional fuel reduction work, or other restoration work, such as fisheries or wildlife habitat improvement. One such project is Sprinkle, which is being implemented by the La Grande Ranger District. Commercial thinning and salvage will occur on 2108 acres. The value of this wood will be used to pay for thinning of non-commercial sized trees, fireline construction, soil restoration, slash piling,wildlife habitat improvement, and road decommissioning.
Many of the HFI/HFRA authorized projects identified above will be implemented in stewardship contracts. In addition, stewardship projects planned under other authorities include: Baker County - Stices; Union County - Mt. Emily, Dark Meadow, McMeadow; Wallowa County - Spooner, Upper Joseph.
At national, regional, and local scales we are coordinating our efforts to integrate all of our vegetation management programs to focus on accelerating vegetative treatments to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic wildland fires.
We are developing a 5-year strategic fuels and vegetation plan to make sure we are prioritizing work where it will be most effective.
We will continue to support the efforts of the Oregon Department of Forestry, County and City Governments, and citizen groups to develop Community Fire Protection Plans designed to help protect communities at risk.
We have already accomplished a lot, and there is much more work to be done. We are fortunate to have community partnerships and support, as well as a dedicated workforce, to help get this important work done.
I encourage you to become involved in the local planning efforts and be a partner in the restoration of your National Forest.