Oregon’s Grant Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is using a $1.6 million state grant to assess and treat about 23,000 acres of range and forest lands in an effort to reduce wildfire risk in the John Day watershed.
“Overall, the fires we’re seeing in the West are getting to be more catastrophic, and I think it’s because we have more vegetation growing in the forest each year coupled with dryer conditions,” said SWCD District Manager Kyle Sullivan.
“We’ve been watching invasive, annual grasses encroach for the better part of the past couple of decades – it’s the elephant in the room,” said Sullivan. “We see the problem, but until now, we didn’t really have any truly viable solutions.”
The grant through the Oregon Department of Forestry’s (ODF) Landscape Resiliency Program will help the district reduce fine fuels such as cheatgrass, medusa head rye, and African wire grass, which has been increasing in the area.
“We’ve treated some of the other heavier fuels so it’s a natural progression for us, and we thought it would be a good time to complement the work we’re already doing,” Sullivan said of the Upper John Day Resiliency Project. “It’s a large area to work in, so we’re starting in the headwaters and are going to keep working down the valley.”
The district has been working through a regional partnership which includes private landowners, NRCS, ODF, Malheur National Forest, Bayer Corporation, Blue Mountain Forest Partners, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, and Oregon State University to treat dense conifer stands and juniper the past couple of years. In July and August, the district plans to move in behind those practices and add the fine fuels treatment for an overall result, which will include wildlife habitat benefits.
“We also have a lot of bull trout and steelhead fish here that are endangered, so if we can make things healthier, the watershed will do its job and the water will be healthier,” Sullivan added. “Healthier grasses are better for the wildlife, the livestock – there’s a lot of benefits.”
The challenge is completing the treatment by June 2023, a quick turnaround time for such projects, he said.
While the district has worked on wildfire resiliency in the past, it didn’t come to the forefront until 2015 after the Canyon Creek Complex Fire moved in. The wildfire was caused by two lightning strikes and traveled nearly 35,000 acres in a day. Lasting several weeks, it caused Prairie City – where the majority of the treatments will take place – to partially evacuate.
More than 110,000 acres burned, with the most intense burning in the sub-watersheds of Canyon Creek and the Prairie City-John Day areas.
“It was a real wake-up call; it showed us the severity of wildfires and that there were some things we could probably start addressing with landowners right away,” Sullivan said.
Shortly thereafter, the district received interest from several landowners who agreed to work with the SWCD on fire resiliency, and funding through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program was used to treat dense conifer stands and juniper. Those efforts continue today, and now will be supplemented with the fine fuels treatments.
The herbicide treatments utilize a newer product, Rejuvra by Bayer Corporation, which Sullivan said has been tested and shown to provide more impact than that of previous efforts with bacteria and different, fall herbicide applications.
Though the majority of the $1.6 million grant will focus on fine fuels treatments, there are also two other aspects of the grant: Oregon State University’s rapid assessment of forest and range conditions on private lands for future conifer and fine fuels treatments; and the creation of a story map with videos, interviews, and writings to “tell the story” of the treatments, Sullivan said.
The combination of dense treatments coupled with the fine fuels treatment will open up an opportunity to have healthy, native perennial grasses take over.
The herbicide treating the fine fuels will last for about three to five years, giving the hardy perennial grass time to grow without being crowded by the annual grasses. The sprouts from those perennials will then have time and available moisture to grow, hanging in longer and providing more options for wildlife.
The fuels resiliency grant came under Oregon’s Senate Bill 762, enacted last year, which provides funding to assist state agencies in improving wildfire preparedness, including working with landowners to create fire-adapted communities that ultimately will save structures.