Easy, Summit fires take center stage

Alex Conley of the Monument area strolls through the Summit Fire area north of Prairie City. Photo by David Carkhuff.

PRAIRIE CITY - The diversity of landscapes was matched only by the diversity of opinions during an Aug. 31 forest tour.

A forester, a former extension agent, a Nature Conservancy preserve manager and a wildlife biologist joined about 15 other citizens to eyeball Grant County forests where fire had left its mark.

This summer's Easy Fire on Dixie Summit came into view from the bus tour. The Forest Service allowed We the People, organizers of the tour, to usher the first group of non-firefighters into the Easy Fire area to see the aftermath of this 5,692-acre blaze.

"If we leave it to itself ... we're going to live with these consequences," warned Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds, a forester by training, as he surveyed the charred hillside.

Reynolds repeated his belief that land managers should "mimic Mother Nature to the benefit of mankind."

Arleigh Isley, a former extension agent, likened forest management to ranch management. Culling, or selectively removing, inferior cattle can improve a herd, he said.

"If you want to have a good stand of timber, you continue to cull them out," he said of the inferior trees.

Isley also warned against allowing forests to become overstocked. He cited basal area, the formula of wood material within a given space.

"Our maximum basal area exceeds the carrying capacity of the land," he warned.

Ken Rutherford, wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said fire can provide benefits.

"The effects of fire on Summit has been beneficial to a number of species," he said.

Jeff Fields, manager of the Nature Conservancy's Dunstan Preserve on the Middle Fork John Day River, agreed that fire suppression has allowed woody material to build up in forests.

"How many fires have been put out to get this forest in this condition?" he wondered.

Fields added that collaboration can bridge the gaps between anti-logging and anti-conservation extremes.

"I see the middle ground where people can do things intelligently as being about a mile wide," he said.

Gene Emery, former Forest Service employee and tour leader, showcased vast stands of dead trees where the 37,961-acre Summit Fire scorched 28,286 acres of Malheur National Forest in 1996.

The Summit Fire Recovery Project decision of Aug. 26, 1997, was withdrawn by then-forest supervisor Carl Pence following appeals by environmentalists. Pence acknowledged at the time "the impact that this delay will have on the quality and value of the fire-killed trees, even to the point that much of it will no longer have any commercial value." Originally, Pence proposed 11 timber sales. On the tour, Reynolds voiced his disgust with this outcome, saying that the concern with shade for eight subwatersheds of the Middle Fork was short-circuited by the process. Reynolds asserted that 97 percent of standing green trees in the fire site's riparian areas succumbed to insects due to delays in management.

Emery noted that the Malheur is re-evaluating grazing allotments in the area following a five-year post-fire moratorium on cattle. He promoted resumed grazing to manage fire risk on the forest floor.

"We can't have 22 inches of grass that's cured and ready to burn," he argued.

However, Rutherford cautioned that cattle re-introduction might undermine efforts to recover aspen stands. Pointing to fenced plots of aspen, he promoted "landscape scale protection" of aspen from wild ungulates and livestock.

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