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No Pain, No Gain 

Central Oregon forests are out of whack. Setting things straight, though, won't be fun.

Kevin Larkin, Bend-Fort Rock District ranger, is asking community members for patience, understanding and that they "maintain the long view."

Last week, while addressing a comfortable City Club luncheon inside a St. Charles meeting hall, Larkin spoke honestly and earnestly about an uncomfortable subject: Larkin, and others who presented at the midweek event, explained how the forests west of Bend have become an unhealthy and homogeneous tinderbox, susceptible to explosive large-scale fires, insect infestation and disease. Thinning is needed, nearly everyone agrees, but it'll come at a cost to the throngs of mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers, horsepackers and Nordic skiers who recreate daily in those woods—a tricky price tag to place on any item, no matter how necessary, in Central Oregon.

Prescribed burns, logging and mowing are scheduled for a 25,600-acre swath of Forest Service land west of Bend—a targeted area that reaches east from Phil's Trailhead, west to Swampy Lakes Sno-Park, north of Skyliner Road toward Mrazek Trail and almost as far south as Dillon Falls by the Deschutes River Trail. The mechanical work for the project, dubbed the West Bend Vegetation Management Project, is slated to begin this fall and could take at least two years to complete. The prescribed burns, Larkin adds, will occur annually for years to come.

Experts, like Larkin and Nature Conservancy forest ecologist Pete Caligiuri, who also presented at the City Club forum titled, "How Do We Fix Our Forests?," say the forests' issues stem from decades of human abuse. At the turn of the century, Central Oregon forests were aggressively clear-cut, and old-growth trees were carted off with abandon. And, for decades, naturally occurring, low-heat ground fires—necessary for balancing a forest ecosystem—were obsessively suppressed.

In the wake of such destruction, and instead of a diverse, open forest filled with towering ponderosas and their naturally fire resistant thick bark, smaller, more densely packed black bark pines and scrubby underbrush now dominate. And the trees and vegetation are all dangerously close, making high-heat, fast-moving treetop fires (so-called "crown fires") a greater threat. Obviously, some work is needed, and the intensive thinning planned for Bend's wooded playground will have an enormous impact on recreation.

But it's not as bad as it sounds.

Lev Stryker, co-owner of Cog Wild, a mountain bike tour company, works and plays in the West Bend forests almost daily. He points to the recent work done near Skyliner Trail as an example of thinning's positive impacts. What was once choked with underbrush and small scrubby trees is now an area that's open forest with tall, mature ponderosas separated by feet instead of inches. Plus, he says, he's talked to Forest Service reps and he's convinced the West Bend project will be carried out appropriately and with plenty of warning.

"There's lots of trails and they're going to be doing it in sections," Stryker explains of the proposed work. "It's not like you're going to be locked out of the forest. You'll just have to go ride a different trail." The Forest Service intends to update trail users about specific closures several weeks in advance, via the Web.

The Forest Service-initiated West Bend project is supported by an impressive array of stakeholders and community members, including Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden's office, the Sierra Club and various timber companies. The Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, an advisory and steering committee, was created to help guide the years-long forest restoration project. Steering Committee member Tim Lillebo, the Eastern Oregon representative of Oregon Wild, is fully on board with the project.

"The goal is to help reduce risk of wildfires to the community," Lillebo says. "To try to bring back larger trees with thicker bark that are more fire-resistant. We're trying to thin and gain that old diversity."

Lillebo did say he had some concerns about the logging process—namely, the construction of new roads. There are already plenty of service roads in the Deschutes Forest, he says. He's relayed that message to the Forest Service and says it has been well- received. Timber mills, like Gilchrist's Interfor Mill (managed by former Republican state Rep. Chuck Burley), do stand to gain from the harvested trees, but the money the Forest Service makes from timber sales will support future area projects, say Forest Service representatives. The West Bend project will gain additional funding, about $1 million a year for 10 years, from the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, a congressional act that creates funding to develop ecologically desirable conditions.

It is a lot of time, money and effort for a project that's bound to create some headaches and heartburn for recreationalists, environmentalists and even local businesses. But most members of those groups are on board with the project, in part because the Forest Service has promised to emphasize "recreation and tourism values." The short-term trade-off will net Bend a healthier, more diverse forest, they say.

"Open forests with more gaps in the canopy," District Ranger Larkin concludes, "that will be a definite reality from the day we finish up."

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