Infected trees near Walton Lake pulled from chopping block (copy)

Brent Oblinger, a plant pathologist with the U.S. Forest Service, examines a section of root he dug up from the base of a Grand fir tree that shows signs of the laminated root rot disease near Walton Lake in 2017.

The U.S. Forest Service will move forward on a long-delayed project to thin and sanitize forests around Walton Lake, a popular recreation area located in the Ochoco Mountains, 30 miles east of Prineville.

The decision, authorized on Monday by Ochoco National Forest Supervisor Shane Jefferies, permits 35 acres of sanitation harvest, 143 acres of thinning, and the planting of conifers, hardwood trees, and shrubs.

“Within the Walton Lake Developed Recreation Management Area, forest health issues can affect both the recreational setting and public safety,” said Jeffries. “Taking steps to improve forest health can have short-term effects on the scenery and other resources, but in the long-term will better meet the management objectives of the area.”

Walton Lake is a popular destination for fishing, boating, swimming, and hiking. Trail users can explore meadows and old-growth forests, but in recent years signs have been posted warning of the possibility of falling trees due to laminated root rot. This disease weakens the root systems of trees, making them susceptible to falling over.

“Walton Lake is an important recreational asset in our community that is enjoyed by residents and visitors throughout the year, yet an unhealthy forest puts these visitors in danger,” said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford.

The sanitation harvest will occur in an area southeast of the lake where the vegetation is moist mixed-conifer.

The goal in this area is to curb the laminated root-rot infestation, provide a healthy stand of resistant tree species and increase public safety, according to the decision notice.

Grand fir and Douglas fir of all ages and sizes will be removed during the harvest. The area will be restocked with ponderosa pine, western larch, and a variety of hardwood species. Ponderosa pine already located within the area to be sanitized won’t be cut as these trees are not typically a host for laminated root disease.

T2 Inc., a Sweet Home-based timber company, was awarded the service contract in 2015 to conduct the thinning and sanitation work. While the work stalled due to litigation, T2 still holds the service contract.

“Conditions have changed in the project area since that time, and we will work with our contracting specialists to ensure the stipulations in the Decision Notice are able to be met regardless of the implementation tool,” said Kassidy Kern, public affairs officer for the Ochoco National Forest.

A sanitation harvest differs from a clear-cut because it removes all species that serve as hosts for the disease but retains trees that are not affected. In the case of Walton Lake, Douglas fir and grand fir would be removed while ponderosa pine and western larch would stay.

“This effort will mitigate a public safety hazard while improving forest health in this popular recreation area,” said Nick Smith, spokesperson for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade association that represents more than 100 logging companies.

“We really do appreciate the Ochoco National Forest’s ongoing commitment to this project and hope this effort is not delayed any further by anti-forestry litigation,” Smith added.

The project has invited controversy and litigation in recent years. The Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, an environmental nonprofit based in Fossil, blocked an attempt to remove the trees in 2016 with a temporary court order. Karen Coulter, director of the organization, continues to oppose the project.

“The so-called sanitation harvest is actually a virtual clear-cut that would look like a clear-cut and change the character of the Walton Lake recreation area for the long-term,” said Coulter. “That clear-cut logging would drastically degrade the recreational values of the lake for which it was designated as a recreational area.”

Coulter said a better way forward is to keep the fir trees standing and add more hazard signage around the root-rot area to address concerns for public safety.

“They have already implemented this to keep the campground open,” said Coulter. “This means that they consider this a viable alternative to keep the campground open, yet the Forest Service still persists in planning heavy logging that would degrade the recreational values of Walton Lake.”

Other areas around the lake will be treated with commercial and noncommercial thinning and the burning of slash piles, followed by the planting of trees, shrubs, and forbs.

Thinning is conducted to maintain existing old-growth ponderosa pine trees by reducing stand densities and reducing susceptibility to bark beetles and crown fires. Other goals include maintaining a variety of tree species and size classes to maintain the visual diversity of the recreation area.

The project will promote forest resiliency and reduce the risk of severe wildfire and insect infestations, said Irene Jerome, a forester working with the resource council.

“For several years we have urged the Ochoco National Forest to follow regional guidance for the management of developed recreation areas by taking aggressive action to control laminated root rot,” Jerome said. “The Walton Lake Restoration Project will help contain this disease, mitigate bark beetle attacks, and promote the growth of large pines and other trees.”

An opportunity to object to the decision occurred from late July to early August, and two objections were filed. The Forest Service created changes to the plan in response to the objections.

The changes include not removing large young fir trees in proximity to large old-growth ponderosa pines on about 35 acres of units one and five of the project area.

Another change includes incorporating coordination with the regional landscape architect during implementation to ensure that design features and mitigation measures will serve to reduce visual impacts as much as possible, according to the decision notice.

Implementation of the project is expected to occur in the late winter or spring of 2021, according to Ochoco National Forest Environmental Coordinator Beth Peer. Questions about the administrative review process can be directed to Peer. (beth.peer@usda.gov, 541-516-6463).

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Reporter: 541-617-7818,

mkohn@bendbulletin.com

Michael Kohn has been public lands and environment reporter with The Bulletin since 2019. He enjoys hiking in the hills and forests near Bend with his family and exploring the state of Oregon.

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