Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Big Windy Fire Report

Big Windy Fire Report: Wildfire on the Wild Rogue
An analysis of fire effects, fire suppression impacts 
and management implications 
  
A view into the Big Windy Fire, looking down Howard Creek in the Zane Grey Roadless Area
From the introduction to the Big Windy Fire Report: 
     
On July 26, 2013 lightning crashed down on northern Josephine and southern Douglas Counties in Oregon, starting numerous wildfires in the Cow Creek and Rogue River Watersheds. Three small fires were lit in the tributaries of the Wild & Scenic Rogue River. These three fires—west to east—including the Calvert Peak Fire, the Jenny Fire, and the Big Windy Fire, all burned in relatively remote and inaccessible terrain. In early August 2013 these three fires were declared a “complex” with one extensive fire perimeter; later these fires merged, yet in some places never burned to the officially declared fire perimeter.

The fires, burning low and patchy, were busy doing what fires have always done: they burned fuel, sculpted landscapes, and turned biomass into mineral-rich ash. The fires burned in wild and roadless forest, partially cut, roaded terrain, and in managed plantation stands. One look at the fire severity maps will reveal square, red blocks scattered across the roaded landscape denoting high severity fire effects. These square, red blocks coincide with plantation stands created through clear-cut and heavy shelterwood logging techniques in the decades between the 1950s and 1990s. Another look at the more intact canyons and ridges demonstrates another pattern. Here you see a predominantly low to moderate severity fire with vast areas of unmanaged forest burning in the understory and large areas remaining entirely unburned within the fire perimeter. According to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fire severity map, 90 percent of the Big Windy Fire Area either did not burn at all or burned at low to very low severity. Only one percent of the fire area experienced high severity fire effects, and the majority of this high severity fire is located in previously harvested plantation stands.

The fire would flare up occasionally toward a ridgetop, on a harsh exposure, or when the wind and the canyon lined up just right, making uphill runs. The brush fields, some of the live oak groves on steep gravelly soils, and most of the plantations were torching, while the ancient forests and unmanaged wildlands burned less intensely. The head of the fire smoldered to a stop as it approached more coastally influenced forest, never reaching closer than two miles from the western fireline. With the weather conditions changing and rain falling throughout the fire area, the incident command team began an intrusive and damaging suppression strategy of extensive dozerline surrounding nearly the entire fire area and beyond. On August 5, 2013 firefighting personnel also began a large-scale backburning operation, which included much of the area adjacent to Bear Camp Road and the Mt. Peavine Road. 

The Big Windy Fire at the mouth of Big Windy Creek
Active fire spread came to a halt as the backburning began due to high humidity, low temperatures, and a few days of periodic rain. Backburning operations were also stifled by unfavorable fire weather. Slowly the fire was subdued by weather conditions rather than the efforts of firefighting personnel and agencies, including five days of rain in August and eleven days of rain in September. At a cost of $27 million, the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and BLM caused severe damage to the Wild and Scenic Rogue River, the Zane Grey Roadless Area and the widely supported additions to the Wild Rogue Wilderness. They poured money, fire retardant and water buckets on the flames, they bulldozed ridgelines of ancient forest, cut thousands of old-growth trees, and built log decks for the timber industry with emergency firefighting funds. Despite their efforts, it was natural weather conditions that allowed for containment of this fire, not fire suppression efforts. 

Read the entire Big Windy Fire Report

By Luke Ruediger
April, 2014 


 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

MT. ASHLAND SKI AREA: STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE, FAILING TO EXPAND


A view into the proposed Mt. Ashland Ski expansion area in the winter of 2011. The lack of a deep snow pack this season has brought the ski resort to the brink of financial collapse, ensuring they won't have the funds to expand anytime soon.

       For many years now the Mt. Ashland Association (MAA), owners of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, have proposed expanding their operation by building new ski runs and chair lifts in the McDonald Peak Roadless Area and the municipal watershed for the town of Ashland, Oregon. The expansion would include over 70 acres of new ski runs, clear-cut into old-growth forest at the headwaters of Ashland Creek. The area in question includes numerous rare plant species, including Henderson's horkelia (Horkelia hendersonii), the Siskiyou Mountains' only stand of Engelman spruce (Picea engelmannii), and the world's only population of the Mt. Ashland lupine (Lupinus lepidus var. ashlandensis). The forest is also home to the rare Pacific fisher. 

     Serious issues of slope stability, as well as impacts to water quality, connectivity and wilderness quality habitat would follow any development into the wild and fragile Middle Branch of the East Fork of Ashland Creek. With the ski expansion currently approved by the Forest Service and nearly all legal avenues exhausted, the only hope for a wild Mt. Ashland may be for the existing ski resort to either fail to generate the funds needed for expansion, or for the ski resort itself to go out of business, forcing the plans to be dropped all together. A timely natural catastrophe for the MAA could be more effective than all the efforts of environmental activists and organizations combined. If mother nature cooperates by refusing to snow, she could very well save the McDonald Peak Roadless Area from destruction. Unfortunately, the situation leaves me praying for drought and a low snow pack.

     As the Siskiyou Mountains wait for a significant winter snow pack, the high summits of the Siskiyou Crest remain virtually snow-free. Mt. Ashland is the highest summit in the Siskiyou Mountains, at just over 7,500'. As I write this blog post the mountain has a mere 16 inches of snow and the ski resort has yet to open for business due to the lack of snow. It seems possible that the resort will not open at all this season, and it has already surpassed the previous latest season opening of February 17, 1977. The situation has stressed the already marginal ski resort financially. General manager Kim Clark recently made the following comments, regarding the lack of snow on Mt Ashland, to the Ashland Daily Tidings: "It could potentially close the area. Could any business survive a year without income? We continue to watch our reserves dwindle." 

     Bad news for the ski resort is good news for the Siskiyou Mountains. The difficult financial situation demonstrates the resort's precarious existence and the mountain's relatively poor location for a downhill ski resort. Given the financial and climatic realities expansion should be out of the question, especially when the new runs would extend to significantly lower elevations. The Siskiyou Mountains' tendancy for extended drought and minimal winter snow pack has plagued the ski area now for 50 years, leading to three past bankruptcies. Climatic conditions have historically played a major role in the viability of the resort and will continue to do so in the future, especially as we feel the increasingly pronounced impacts of climate change.   

     Within the last couple years it looked as though the ski expansion would move forward. The MAA threatened to begin clear-cutting the new runs and develop the expansion area in a phased approach while they raised funds to implement the project piece by piece; however, this approach would leave the association vulnerable to an over-extension of financial resources, especially given poor winter snow conditions. The worst case scenario predicted by many expansion opponents could very well have come true during this time. The expansion could have been partially implemented, the roadless area heavily impacted, an ancient forest lost, and the ski resort bankrupt, leaving lasting and irreversible impacts to the McDonald Peak Roadless Area, the biodiversity and connectivity of the Siskiyou Crest, and the municipal watershed. Luckily this hasn't happened yet.

     Instead of full-fledged expansion the association implemented a series of "improvements" this summer and fall, including the development of a large number of new parking spaces, re-contouring of the beginner's run, and widening of the existing runs by logging many large, old trees. The project went nearly $200,000 over-budget and the MAA is currently trying to recoup losses with a fund raising campaign based on financial donations.

     The Mt. Ashland Ski Area has also sold over 2,500 season passes for the 2013-2014 ski season, yet have been unable to offer a single day of skiing to date. Each season pass costs $289.00, amounting to over $700,000 in gross revenue. With the mountain remaining closed many season pass holders are asking for a reimbursement of funds. The Ski Area, thus far, has refused to consider that option, instead they have chosen to pray for snow and hope the mountain will open in the near future. With the MAA strapped for cash and the snow simply not materializing it is likely that the proceeds from these season passes will be kept by the MAA, having a detrimental impact on pubic relations. 

     This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area. Now is the time for committed activists to continue their efforts; with the MAA vulnerable we must increase the pressure, advocate for a boycott, reimbursement of season pass proceeds, and question the very wisdom of expansion in light of the financial and climatic realities. Write letters to the editor, contact City of Ashland officials, encourage the Forest Service to re-analyze the ski expansion with the new information now available regarding climate change and the resort's financial instability. Finally, as strange as it may sound, pray for drought, the future of Mt. Ashland may depend on it.  

To read interesting articles about the Mt. Ashland Ski Area's financial difficulties and lack of snow visit the following:

Ashland Daily Tidings article on 3/8/14 

Bend Bulletin article on 2/12/14 


Friday, January 31, 2014

ANNOUNCING THE SECOND PRINTING OF THE SISKIYOU CREST: HIKES, HISTORY & ECOLOGY

I am pleased to announce that the first printing of  The Siskiyou Crest: Hikes, History & Ecology sold out and that the second printing has been completed and is now available for sale.
Luke Ruediger, January 31, 2014








 
Books are available through this blog and at the following retail stores:

Medford, OR
The Northwest Outdoor Store

Ashland, OR
Bloomsbury Books
The Northwest Nature Shop
The Ashland Outdoor Store

Grants Pass, OR
Oregon Books & Games
Aquarius Books & Gifts

Cave Junction, OR
CommuneITea

Eugene, OR
Tsunami Books
Backcountry Gear, Inc.

Crescent City, CA
Jefferson State Books

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Black Salamander — Aneides flavipunctatus

Photo by Luke Ruediger
The Black Salamander is relatively rare in the Siskiyou Mountains. Unlike the restrictive range of the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander (Plethodon stormi), which is centered mainly around the mountains of the Applegate Valley, the Black Salamander (Aneides flavipuntatus) has a range that extends from Sonoma County, CA in the south, up to Jackson and Josephine Counties, OR at the northern end of its range. There is also a disjunct subspecies (Aneides flavipunctatus niger) in the Santa Cruz area. Experts are currently debating a further separation of the species into four subspecies, with the northwest lineage—including the Siskiyou Mountain population—given its own subspecies. Currently there are only 17 documented sites in Oregon, 14 of which are found on federal lands, including the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the Medford District BLM. 93% (or 13) of the known sites are found within the Applegate River watershed.

The Black Salamander occupies low-elevation, mixed conifer forests, woodlands, grasslands, meadows, and forested riparian sites. The species seems most abundant in mature or old-growth forests; although, especially in interior locations, the species is often associated with intermittent streams, springs, or seeps. The Black Salamander often lives in mossy talus habitat beneath a forest canopy. This is especially important because, like our endemic Siskiyou Mountains Salamander, the Black Salamander is lungless and breaths through its skin, making it very susceptible to changes in micro-climate and canopy conditions.

Threats to the Black Salamander in Oregon appear to be mostly associated with timber harvest due to changes in micro-climate, ground disturbance, and canopy cover. To the south, the species appears to be impacted by habitat conversion from grassland, woodland, mixed hardwood, and mixed conifer forests to vineyards or other forms of agriculture. Other impacts include habitat fragmentation, rock quarry development, climate change, uncharacteristic fire, and exposure to chemicals such as herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and fire retardants.

Although relatively little know and little understood, the Black Salamander, at the northern edge of its range in the Siskiyou Mountains, is an important portion of the region's biodiversity. The Siskiyou Mountains represent a unique habitat for salamander species, where species often reach either the northern or southern extension of their range. The diversity of habitats and the distinctive blending of habitats allow for many species of both plants and animals to exist within the Siskiyou Mountains at the margin of their range. For millennia the Siskiyou Mountains have been a climate refuge; with the instability of future climatic conditions these mountains may once again shelter a wide variety of species. The protection of wildland habitats and the maintenance of biodiversity in the region will allow the Siskiyou Mountains to continue providing such habitat.

The photos on this post where taken in early December on my property in the Siskiyou Mountains.

 

Photo by Luke Ruediger
Photo by Luke Ruediger

 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Winter Photos of the Siskiyou Crest


Many creeks froze over in the recent cold snap


Little Greyback Roadless Area


View of the Red Buttes Wilderness


"The Octopus Tree," a large canyon live oak in the Applegate foothills


Icicles on moss in the Upper Applegate


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Historic Osborne Photos

Bolan Lake from the Bolan Peak Lookout-1934
The historic Osborne photos highlighted on this post are just a few of the many lookout photos taken in the 1930s from Forest Service lookouts all across the Northwest. William Bushnell Osborne, a Forest Service employee and inventor, developed the Osborne Firefinder in 1911 for use at fire lookouts, and in 1932 developed the Osborne Swing Lens Camera. With his Swing Lens Camera he traveled the Northwest photographing the landscape from fire lookouts on National Forest and Park Service lands. 

The photos are an excellent representation of historic forest conditions and patterns in the early part of the 20th century. The photos can be used to not only document and analyze historic conditions, but can also be used to contrast historic conditions from those that exist today. The photos document the influence of fire on the landscape in an era when fire suppression in the Siskiyou Mountains was still fairly ineffective, and landscape change associated with fire suppression was not nearly as evident as it is today. The photos also document the impact of industrial forest management, road building and clear-cut logging, that although mostly non-existant in the 1930s, is very evident today. The photos represent historic conditions across the Siskiyou Crest region in the 1930s.


Applegate foothills from the old Stein Butte Lookout-1934


Looking southeast into the Siskiyou Wilderness from the old Sanger Peak Lookout-1934


View from the old Whisky Peak Lookout-1933



The Red Buttes Wilderness from the old Windy Peak Lookout-1934