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Applegate Community And BLM Try To Overcome Mistrust And Hard Feelings

Relations between federal land managers and residents of the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon have long been strained by disputes over the Bureau of Land Management’s forest plans. With another large forestry project now under consideration, JPR’s Liam Moriarty recently went on a field trip with BLM staff and Applegate residents to look at the proposed Nedsbar timber sale on Bald Mountain.

Kristi Mastrofini, a field manager in the Medford office of the Bureau of Land Management, points the group toward our destination.

“We’re going to be going up to the end of the road and hiking in … the trail that goes across the top.”

Mastrofini and several of her staff have joined about two dozen locals for this hike. We’re here to get a first-hand look at some of the more than 70 units where a variety of thinning, fuels reduction and commercial logging treatments are being proposed as part of the 3,400-acre Nedsbar Forest Management Project.

Mastrofini tells the group, “Today is about hearing a conversation about of each of these units that we visit today that will help me as I consider a decision for this project.”

As we climb to a ridge, the views are sweeping, and you can see the impacts of past logging projects across the valley, in various stages of re-growth.

One unusual aspect of this field trip is that among the three “action alternatives” the BLM is considering is one offered by the Applegate community. The community alternative would involve substantially less logging than either of the BLM proposals.

Luke Ruediger is one of the locals who put that alternative plan together. As we pause on the ridge, Ruediger tells the BLM folks why the community believes this area needs to be handled carefully.

“It’s a relatively small area but it’s really ecologically diverse,” he says. “There’s a lot of rare plant populations up here. And in terms of connectivity habitat, this is really vital for movement across the landscape for wildlife species, for plant migration back and forth.”

Soon, we descend a steep hillside into a forest dominated by large Douglas firs. This is one of the units that the BLM has proposed for thinning. BLM forester Lisa Meredith explains.

“In this particular stand, based on the habitat type, and our Northern Spotted Owl considerations, we are leaving this at 60 percent canopy cover,” she says. “So it’s a lighter thinning for us. And this is just to reduce densities.”

Meredith says that by removing some of the trees, the remaining trees will get more light, water and nutrients. She says this will make the stand healthier and more resistant to drought and disease.

But Luke Ruediger isn’t buying that. He says the two local areas that are now the hardest-hit by beetles were thinned about 20 years ago.

“That’s what we were sold, what we were told,” he says. “That this would increase resilience to insects, this would increase resilience to drought, this would increase resilience to fire. The opposite is taking place.”

Ruediger says the BLM hasn’t followed up on past timber projects to see if they’re actually accomplishing the stated goals.

Gary Lisman, a 46-year resident of the Applegate, says he doesn’t understand how thinning is supposed to improve this grove.

“To me, this is a forest that’s doing very well, and probably has been for hundreds of years,” he says. “And I don’t really see that a lot of management is needed, unless you’re managing for timber production.”

And this gets to the crux of the matter. Kristi Mastrofini says her office is required by law to manage these public lands for a variety of purposes, including timber.

“As we manage to provide for treating the high density here, so that we’re helping the trees that would be retained, we’re also producing a product, yes, but it’s not the primary … We’re not just coming in here to cut timber.”

At one point, things get a little tense when one community member basically asks Mastrofini how, as a human being, she can continue to allow logging here.

“So I guess I’d like to stop for a minute,” she interrupts. “It’s starting to get to where I’m feeling personal attacks on BLM employees. And our job here is to manage our Resource Management Plan.”

Another community member counters that people in the Applegate feel their forests are under attack by the BLM.

But Mastrofini says the bottom line is that BLM’s Resource Management Plan for this region designates this land as being in what’s called the “harvest base.” And that means it gets managed for timber harvest.

Later, after touring another area proposed for treatment – and after a few more touchy exchanges – the field trip ends. Gary Lisman – the long-time Applegate resident – says he thinks the trip was worthwhile.

“I think that BLM people are listening,” he says. “I think they are going to take into consideration the desires of the community. I’m not saying that they’re going to accept them all, but I think that it may have some influence of the alternative that is selected.”

Kristi Mastrofini says she may well blend various aspects of the three action alternatives – including the community alternative – into her final decision. She says that decision on the Nedsbar proposal could come by the end of August.

What’s less certain is whether this level of community involvement will result in more public support for BLM projects in the Applegate.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.