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He's fired up over forest options.

Byline: SCOTT MABEN The Register-Guard

RUCH - A lightning-sparked blaze last month raced around a hillside a few hundred yards above Matt and Donna Epstein's roomy log house and threatened to wipe out their corner of heaven.

But firefighters were able to knock down the 3,000-acre Squire Fire as it skirted 200 homes - testament to years of aggressive brush removal and forest thinning by Applegate Valley residents and state and federal land managers.

"We might have had toast around us, but I knew the house was pretty well defended," Matt Epstein said Wednesday, surveying the fire scars above his 10-acre Eagle Canyon lot.

When he meets with President Bush this morning and tours the doused fire scene about a half-mile from his home, Epstein hopes to preach a four-point prescription for forest management:

Thin to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk.

Harvest burned timber while it still has commercial value.

Log federal lands in a sustainable fashion to ensure that local communities have good-paying jobs in the wood products industry.

Limit the ability of environmental groups to block such projects.

"Right now a 37-cent stamp can stop a multi-million-dollar salvage activity," Epstein said.

That's a message Bush has already taken to heart as he uses the backdrop of this year's blistering wildfire season to lay out a plan to ease administrative rules for thinning and logging in fire-prone national forests.

The administration Wednesday said "needless red tape and lawsuits" delay forest health projects and efforts to avoid catastrophic fires across the West.

While the timber industry cheered the attempt to streamline forest management activities, local and national conservation leaders accused Bush of trying to capitalize on fire fears to win support for a policy that panders to timber interests - which contributed heavily to his 2000 presidential campaign - while sacrificing old-growth trees and ecosystem health.

"Everybody agrees that we need to focus on protecting communities from forest fires," said Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, an Ashland-based group. "Where the agreement ends is some folks think we need to fund these activities on the backs of big old trees."

The president's planned tour today of the Squire Fire site signals the administration's interest in highlighting examples of grass-roots efforts to reduce fire hazards in populated areas.

In the arid Applegate Valley, more than 12,000 people are spread along windy rural roads surrounded by steep, thick slopes of ponderosa pine, white oak, madrone and manzanita.

Hundreds of residents have cut back thickets of small trees and removed piles of brush in hopes of making their homes and the surrounding pockets of forest less susceptible to wildfires. Many do it on their own; others consult with state foresters and local fire officials.

Brett Fillis, chief of the Applegate Valley Rural Fire Protection District, advises homeowners how to thin and make it possible for his crews to protect the structures from advancing flames. Scores of residents have qualified for National Fire Plan grants of about $300 each to help pay for the work.

The efforts saved many homes from being lost in July's Squire Fire, Fillis said. He pointed to an aerial photo of scorched earth nearly surrounding a house that survived unscathed.

"Everything he had done paid off - paid off big time," Fillis said.

Jack Shipley, a 33-year resident, helped found the 10-year-old Applegate Partnership that is credited with bringing together private landowners, state and federal agencies, loggers and environmentalists to break the gridlock over natural resources management in the watershed.

Forest thinning and restoration work has been a focal point of the unique alliance, and it's a goal Shipley pursues on his 52 acres nestled along a scenic drainage. He has cut, stacked and burned small trees, brush and dead wood, opening up stands that were so thick "you couldn't even crawl through it," he said.

But he adds that treatments must be tailored carefully to the land. "It's a model process, but it's not necessarily a model prescription," he said.

At the same time that more private landowners embrace thinning, federal forest managers have stepped up larger thinning projects on adjacent public lands. The Medford district of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to thin up to 23,000 acres this year, more than twice as many as last year and up from just less than 1,200 acres in 1996.

The work is essential, said Epstein, who has labored for years to create a "defensible space" from fire on his land and on 10 acres of BLM land next door.

Still, he looks around his property, hugged by federal forests on three sides, and sees pockets of stunted trees competing for scarce water and nutrients. The stands grew dense in the absence of the beneficial grooming that fire once provided the woods every 12 to 15 years, he said.

When wildfire hits these unhealthy forests now, Epstein said, the intense heat and flames do far more damage than good.

"You've got a choice," he said. "You can either let it burn and continue to spend money fighting fires, which means fighting nature, or you can develop a longer-term plan to manage federal lands on a sustainable basis and minimize exposure to catastrophic fires and the loss of homes and firefighters."

And the work never ends, Epstein said.

"There is no one-time inoculation and you're set for life," he said. "You treat it once and sign up for a lifetime of treatment."

CAPTION(S):

Jack Shipley, of the Applegate Valley, helped start the Applegate Partnership, which brings together government and private stakeholders to manage forests for wildfires.
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Title Annotation:Ruch man hopes to bend the president's ear on timber policy; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 22, 2002
Words:933
Previous Article:Increase in taxes still out of favor.
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