A 40-acre stand of disease-infected trees located near Walton Lake in the Ochoco National Forest has been given a second chance to exist, even as the roots below the surface of the forest floor will slowly erode and topple the giants above.

The fate of the trees, which had been slated for thinning, will undergo an extensive review process and public engagement program to determine how best to balance the needs of the ecosystem and the human visitors to the area, said Patrick Lair, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Susceptible to collapse due to laminated root rot, the trees are considered a threat to visitors passing through the forest. But they are also an integral part of the physical environment — needed by wildlife for cover and by people who visit Walton Lake expecting to see a forest in its natural state.

“What we had previously proposed was removing many of the diseased trees for public safety reasons. Now we want to hear other options,” said Lair.

The infected stand may now be saved because taking them down would diminish the aesthetic value and visual quality of the Walton Lake area, which is a developed recreation site, said Lair. Wildfire potential, forest health, and the needs of wildlife are other considerations facing the Forest Service and the public.

The review process has “gone back to square one,” said Lair. A prescribed burn, tree-thinning and continued closure of the area — the size of about 30 football fields — are a few of the options on the table, he added.

“We have to follow a management plan and manage for visual quality. In order to log a bunch of infected trees we need to amend our forest plan and we need to work with the public to get there,” said Lair.

Laminated root rot affects grand fir and Douglas fir trees but does not affect ponderosa pines or larch trees. The spread of the root rot is contained because fir trees are only located in the shady or “moist” side of Walton Lake, said Lair. Drier parts of the area are home to mostly pine trees.

The Forest Service initially reported the tree disease problem in May 2017. The stand was closed to the public for safety concerns and has remained closed as members of the public and Forest Service officials mulled options to resolve the matter.

The 25-acre Walton Lake, located 37 miles east of Prineville, is a spring-fed artificial pond surrounded by forests and meadows. It’s a popular weekend destination for campers, hikers and picnickers.

The lake is stocked with rainbow trout and the surrounding forests protect mule deer, elk, bald eagles, black bear, chipmunks and squirrels, among other creatures.

In order to better engage the public during the decision making process, the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative, along with the Bowman Museum in Prineville, has launched a photo and essay competition. Prizes for the entries that best describe the beauty and wonder of the area are offered. The deadline for entries is Oct. 1 — details can be found on www.ochocoforest.org.

A forum to collect public feedback and ideas was held in Prineville last month, and the Forest Service is now planning a multioption proposal for the public to review, possibly by the end of the year, said Lair.

“Our plan was to cut down most of the trees with some kept for wildlife cover,” said Lair. “If there are other ideas that people have, we’d like to hear them. We will present issues and challenges and accept ideas and input.”

Lair reminds the public that Walton Lake remains open despite the closure of the infected area.

“Recreation is still accessible in many other parts of the lake,” said Lair.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com