Lomakatsi summit at Sun River focused on fire

Inside the Homestead Conference Hall at Sunriver Resort in central Oregon last week, six Native Americans sang, danced, and drummed with volume enough to rattle windows. The powerful performance by the Mountain Top Singers of the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe kicked off two days of panel discussions, networking events, and cultural celebration for tribal and nontribal guests at a Lomakatsi fire learning summit.

Leaders and youth representatives from 17 tribes in the Pacific Northwest were involved in the event, according to a Bend Bulletin report. Participants focused on improving ecological health of Pacific Northwest forests, mainly with the knowledgeable and responsible use of fire.

For more than a century, immediate suppression of wildfire was the go-to solution enacted by the Forest Service and other agencies  after lightning ignitions or human-caused starts. Wildland officials and scientists now agree that over-suppression has caused forest health to decline and has set the stage for the megafires that now rage across the West, killing humans and destroying homes and burning huge swaths of land from Mexico to northern Canada.

Jefferson Public Radio recently reported that even people who disagree vehemently about the details of the best ways to manage forests can always find some ground on managing wildlands to be more fire resilient.

The Lomakatsi Restoration Project’s Tribal Ecological Forestry Training Program focuses on collaboration with tribes and tribal communities through ecological restoration initiatives. The Program is heavily involved in the restoration work required to make forests fire resilient, using both modern technology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) from the region’s tribes, who for millennia used fire to manage the forests where they lived.

Lomakatsi film: Tribal Hands on the Land
Lomakatsi film: Tribal Hands on the Land

Lomakatsi Founder and Executive Director Marko Bey and Tribal Partnerships Director Belinda Brown talked to Jefferson Public Radio about training and a film about it, and their expanding efforts to bring more indigenous people into the fold. Lomakatsi welcomes a new cohort of young tribal adults this fall, and is especially grateful to videographer Ammon Cluff for bringing this video to life.


Crew members also contributed to collaborative landscape-scale restoration projects across southern Oregon, including the West Bear All-Lands Restoration Project, Rogue Forest Restoration Initiative, Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project, and post-fire restoration Bear Creek, as part of the Ashland Creek Ponds Riparian and Ecocultural Restoration Project.

Lomakatsi operates programs across the ancestral lands of aboriginal peoples who lived and live in the watersheds of the Willamette River, Rogue River, Klamath River, Umpqua River, and Pit River, in what is now called Oregon and California. From sagebrush hillsides and mixed conifer forests, to oak woodlands and riverine systems, they offer respect, recognition, and gratitude to the past, present, and future inhabitants of these landscapes, to whom they dedicate this work. 

“Tribes have for time immemorial carefully managed these landscapes with carefully applied fire, with Indigenous practices. The agencies have a real interest in that at this time,” said Marko Bey, founder and executive director of Lomakatsi, the nonprofit group that organized the event in Sunriver.

Bey said the summit was an opportunity to bring tribal members together to share different skills, traditions, and adaptive management strategies. He believes that tribes can play a central role in national management of forest health.

Representatives from all nine federally recognized tribes of Oregon attended the summit. Eight additional tribes with ancestral lands in and adjacent to Oregon were also present.

Myra Johnson-Orange, 74, an elder from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, said she was pleased the conference brought together Native and non-Native people for joint learning panels.

“Sometimes, non-Native people need to understand better where we are coming from as Native people,” she said, “and how we understand the land and how we have taken care of it since time immemorial. We learn from agencies, but they are learning from Natives, too, how we need to be considered and consulted.”

Lomakatsi operates programs across the ancestral lands of aboriginal peoples who lived and live in the watersheds of the Willamette River, Rogue River, Klamath River, Umpqua River, and Pit River, in what is now called Oregon and California. From sagebrush hillsides and mixed conifer forests, to oak woodlands and riverine systems, they offer respect, recognition, and gratitude to the past, present, and future inhabitants of these landscapes, to whom they dedicate this work.

Burners light up Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois

A Nachusa fire crew hit a 24-acre project area of the grassland Tuesday, November 14, for a prescribed burn on the prairie habitat. Fire has historically been an important and natural part of the prairie; clearing the ground cover stimulates new growth, and many native plants rely on wildland fire to open seed pods and regenerate. Sauk Valley Media sent their ace photographer to track the 10-person crew at Nachusa Grasslands as they worked to put in firebreaks, put down a water line, and ignite the grasses so the fire will burn in their planned direction.

Nachusa Grasslands RxFire
Conditions were just right for a prescribed fire on November 14 at Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois. Fire managers hope to do another burn at the end of the week. Photo courtesy Alex T. Paschal.

The 4,100-acre Nachusa Grasslands preserve consists of large remnant prairie, woodlands, and wetlands reconnected through habitat restoration to create one of the largest and most biologically diverse grasslands in Illinois. Including 4,000 acres of restored and remnant prairie, Nachusa Grasslands is home to 180 species of birds, more than 700 native plant species, and a herd of bison.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the core of the preserve in 1986, recognizing that Nachusa offered a terrific opportunity to restore a diverse native grassland.

Working hand-in-hand with Nature Conservancy staff, volunteer stewards collect and plant seeds, manage invasive species, repair wetlands, and conduct prescribed burns to preserve this ecosystem.

RxFire Nachusa
Prescribed burning: A volunteer fire crew sets a prescribed burn at Nachusa Grasslands preserve in Illinois. ©Andrew Simpson / The Nature Conservancy

The Friends of Nachusa Grasslands has a calendar online for its volunteer workdays; hunting season is scheduled in early December and the spring RxFire season will start up in March 2024. If you’re interested in volunteer opportunities, most workdays are scheduled on Thursday and Saturdays.

The Nachusa Grasslands and its visitor center are south of Rockford, Illinois and about a 2-hour drive west of Chicago.
The Nachusa Grasslands and its visitor center are south of Rockford, Illinois and about a 2-hour drive west of Chicago.

The Friends organization is established to fund endowments for long-term protection of the Grasslands, conducting and encouraging stewardship, supporting science and education, and protecting the land here. Nachusa Grasslands is open from dawn to dusk, and visitors are welcome to hike in the non-fenced areas. Wildlife inhabitants include a herd of bison, which range across 1,500 acres and are often not visible from the Visitor Center or the roadsides. Almost 10 years ago, 30 bison were introduced to Nachusa Grasslands from three preserves owned by The Nature Conservancy in South Dakota, Iowa, and the Dunn Ranch in Missouri. 2013 Wind Cave National Park bison and elkWind Cave National Park bison and elk, photo ©2013 Bill Gabbert

Originally part of the herd from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, these bison have been tested and show no traces of cattle genes. No hiking is permitted inside the fenced North or South Bison Units.

The bison and the grassland vegetation species all benefit from prescribed fire and the Nature Conservancy’s fire research, and this fire — like others at the Grasslands — was timed for weather and fuels conditions that would be conducive to a controllable prescription burn.

“Wind and dry air is what determines whether we can have a burn,” Nachusa Director Bill Kleiman on Tuesday told photographer Alex Paschal.

A light south wind pushed the flames and smoke north, so crews planned for locations of the firebreaks and road warnings for motorists traveling the area. The burn was roughly an “L” shape on Carthage Road, and two separate crew units started the process on either side — so the fire could burn together in the middle.

“If the side upwind doesn’t have enough of a firebreak,” Kleiman said, “it can jump it and burn the other side.”

Alex Paschal has a photo gallery from the burn [HERE].

RxFire workforce expands under new FS agreement with Nature Conservancy

The U.S. Forest Service will fund almost $45 million over five years for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to expand the organization’s prescribed fire projects and workforce.

In a recent statement, TNC said the funding will prioritize prescribed fire in the 21 landscapes and 250 high-risk firesheds in the Western U.S., and hiring to expand the workforce started in October. TNC also received permission to work on prescribed fires in any national forest within Idaho, according to Boise State Public Radio.

“For more than a century, policies suppressing wildfire and stamping out Indigenous Peoples’ burning practices largely kept healthy fire from hundreds of millions of acres of North American landscapes that needed it,” said Marek Smith, director of TNC’s North America Fire program.

Nature Conservancy photo

The expansion is part of the FS Wildfire Crisis Strategy, specifically the program’s National Prescribed Fire Resource Mobilization.

Along with expanding its prescribed fire workforce, the strategy also calls for an expansion of both the Forest Service Fuels Academy and National Interagency Fire Training Center, which train new prescribed fire practitioners, managers, and entry-level fuels specialists. It also calls to address issues in resource availability, including overtime and hazard pay, contracts and agreements, and hiring more authorities.

A related strategy, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy is reportedly in its “final stage” of developing a national cohesive wildland fire management system. The effort began in 2009, and the final phase has been in development since 2014.

“Implementation of the National Cohesive Strategy will be undertaken in the same manner it was created — with recognition of the differences among stakeholders across the country and a vision of how we can collectively achieve more together,” the plan says. “Together, we can learn from and replicate existing collaborative behaviors and successful practices to achieve even greater success.”

Prescribed burning underway in western Oregon

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service last weekend participated in prescribed burns for habitat improvements and ecological health at the Howard Buford Recreation area near Eugene.

KEZI-TV reported that the Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah, Lane County Parks, and other conservation partners including the FWS and Rivers to Ridges worked on the burn; about 30 firefighters burned some 65 acres.

“Fire has been a really important component of the landscape,” said Ed Alverson, coordinator for Lane County Natural Areas. “And the native species that live here — the plants and the animals — are adapted to fire. In fact, burning by Calapooia People over thousands of years has helped create this species-rich landscape.”

Mt. Pisgah summit at sunset -- HikeOregon photo
Mt. Pisgah summit at sunset in Lane County, Oregon — HikeOregon photo

Mt. Pisgah is within the recreation area and is visible for miles  across the Eugene-Springfield area. It’s a favorite local destination; along with the 118-acre arboretum, the park includes some of the last remaining sizable, contiguous, native oak savannah prairie in the valley. Approximately 17 miles of trails lead up and around the 1,518-foot butte, with 360-degree views of the surrounding valley and mountains. Some trails are open for equestrian use; some are closed during seasonal prescribed fires.

The South Bottomlands burn on Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy Lane County Parks)
The South Bottomlands burn on Sept. 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy Lane County Parks)

Prescribed fire helps maintain native species in the area and helps prevent the open prairie conversion to closed forest land. Fire improves soil fertility and removes the buildup of thatch, along with reducing the risk of high-intensity fires in the future. A small wildfire near Mt. Pisgah was quickly contained early in August; the area of a 50-acre fire in 2019 now illustrates the habitat resilience in a post-fire area.

“Howard Buford Recreation Area supports one of the largest remaining blocks of prairie and oak habitats in the Willamette Valley,” said Alverson. “Fire is a regular and natural part of the environment of these habitats. We work closely with Lane Regional Air Pollution Authority and our Rivers to Ridges partners throughout the area to make sure the burn is safely implemented and will not disrupt the community.” More than a dozen prescribed fires have been conducted in the area since 1999 and more are planned in the upcoming weeks.

The annual Mt. Pisgah fall plant sale is scheduled for this weekend —  native plants will be sold on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Native Plant Nursery. The Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah nurture over 100 native plant species in their nursery. (541)674-3257

Buford Park map
Buford Park, 34639 Frank Parrish Rd., Eugene, Oregon

Oregon Rx fire gets away east of Eugene

Firefighters are working on a wildfire that took off when sudden wind gusts fanned a prescribed burn that was considered contained, the U.S. Forest Service reported late Tuesday night. KEZI-TV reported that a prescribed burn was under way near the community of McKenzie Bridge, upstream from Eugene, Oregon, on the McKenzie River, on May 30. Though the prescribed burn was started when weather was within planned parameters, gusty winds started two spot fires near the 65-acre burn area.

The USFS officially declared the escaped burn a wildfire — called the W-470 Fire — and said that as of the morning of May 31 the total burn area was about 120 acres.

Fire crews went out on the night of May 30 to try to contain the fire. The USFS said 34 firefighters worked overnight according to pre-existing contingency plans, and more resources were on the way.

KLCC radio reported that unexpected gusty winds pushed the burn outside the prescribed area. The fire is about two miles northeast of the McKenzie River ranger station in eastern Lane County.

The Willamette National Forest reported that the burn was planned to reduce fuels in a thinned stand, but the escaped fire burned onto National Forest land outside of the burn unit’s perimeter. The burn area is north of Highway 126 where FS Roads 26-204 and 26-206 split near Frissell Trail.

Cooler temperatures are moderating fire activity. “Our highest priority is to suppress fire in the area adjacent to the burn unit,” said Dave Warnack, Willamette Forest Supervisor. Residents of the area who remember the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire are expressing frustration with the USFS for allowing the prescribed burn to escape.

To thin or not to thin … it’s really not a question

The largest wildfires in the West — often called mega-fires — have increased in both size and number in recent years. The fire season — in both length and severity — increases nearly annually. Severe wildfire — classed in various ways but often as fire that kills most of the trees in its path — has by some reports increased eightfold in 30 years.

Fire science and experience over decades of research and field practice have settled on a major prevention tool: fuels reduction. This term includes both thinning (mechanical removal of shrubs and mostly small trees) and prescribed burning (intentional introduction of fire under favorable conditions).

A recent issue of High Country News features a report by Emily Shepherd, a freelance writer who worked in wildlife conservation for eight years, followed by two years as a U.S. Forest Service hotshot. She explains that wildfire ecologists almost universally support fuels reduction, especially in forests that had previously flourished under frequent ground fires — such as the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona and the Southwest.

While there’s no serious cohort of scientific dissent, forest managers still struggle to put their fuels reduction knowledge and goals into practice. “Forest thinning” is the target of prolific misinformation from groups ranging from the simply uninformed to the nationally well-funded (and well lawyered up), while locals in the area where prescribed fire is planned often see rxfires as just a nuisance or annoyance. A cacophony of opinions based more on language than on science.To its opponents, thinning is a form of “silviculture by stealth,” as wildfire historian Stephen Pyne puts it; he says thinning is more like “woody weeding.” Logging harvests large, mature trees over large areas, he explains, while thinning mostly removes small trees. Logging makes money; thinning almost always costs money.

Thinning should be followed by prescribed fire. “If you don’t follow it up with the right fire, then it’s worthless,” says Pyne, “and in many cases may have made it worse.” Thinning and prescribed burning are the one-two punch that can knock out severe wildfires. Like everything, prescribed fires do have drawbacks: They are complicated to plan and execute, they dump unwanted smoke on nearby communities, they’re subject to litigation, and in rare instances they can ignite destructive burns or even get agency staff arrested.

“We conduct an average of 4,500 prescribed fire projects annually,” said USFS Chief Randy Moore in the spring of 2022, “and 99.84 percent go according to plan. That equals slightly more than one escape per every 1,000 prescribed fires, or about six escapes per year.”

As long as terms like “thinning” are used and abused by non-scientific groups with a bias, though, there will always be conflict. A report by Oregon Public Broadcasting not long ago was headlined “A southern Oregon conservationist’s wishlist for better collaboration with the BLM” in which Roman Battaglia, a reporter with Ashland-based Jefferson Public Radio, interviewed Luke Ruediger, executive director of Applegate Siskiyou Alliance, about the Medford area BLM’s latest forest management plan, known as the Integrated Vegetation Management Plan. “A lot of the problem that we see is that increasingly the federal government and federal land managers are not making that effort to communicate and collaborate or even to share basic information on federal land management projects with the public,” said Ruediger. “And that’s leading to a lot of issues surrounding trust.”

“It’s also creating a lot of situations where, essentially, the BLM is operating in secret and refusing to provide information on the projects that they’re designing on federal lands to the public that those projects would affect,” claimed Ruediger.

Opponents of thinning and other fuels treatment methods really need to take a look at the history of Lick Creek in Montana. The Lick Creek Demonstration – Research Forest studies were established back in 1991 in western Montana to evaluate tradeoffs among alternative cutting and burning strategies aimed at reducing fuels and moderating forest fire behavior while restoring historical stand structures and species compositions.

Lick Creek Montana fuels projects

Firefighters and numerous studies over many years credit intensive forest thinning projects with helping save communities like those recently threatened near Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada, but dissent from some environmental advocacy groups still roils the scientific/environmental community. An Associated Press story out of Sacramento in October of 2021 noted that environmental advocates say data from recent gigantic wildfires support their long-running assertion that efforts to slow wildfires have instead accelerated their spread. “Not only did tens of thousands of acres of recent thinning, fuel breaks, and other forest management fail to stop or slow the fire’s rapid spread, but … the fire often moved fastest through such areas,” Los Padres ForestWatch, a California-based nonprofit, said in an analysis joined by the John Muir Project and Wild Heritage advocacy groups.

But James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, called the groups’ conclusions “pretty misleading,” “irresponsible” and “self-contradicting.”

“Claims that modern fuel-reduction thinning makes fire worse are not credible,” Johnston said.

Chad Hanson is an ecologist with the John Muir Project and the author of Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate. “Wildfires can always turn tragic,” says Hanson, “but the greater tragedy in Greenville and Paradise, which was largely destroyed during the 2018 Camp Fire, and other towns is that they put their faith in logging operations miles away rather than proven, community-based fire prevention measures. Forest thinning is gaining more media attention and is heavily promoted by some land management agencies and logging interests, but science suggests the technique more often makes fires burn hotter and faster. The idea of felling trees and hauling them to lumber mills in the name of fire prevention has many deceptive names: fuel reduction, forest health, ecological restoration, thinning, and even reforestation.”

KGW-8 News reported on Johnston’s work with OSU, writing that the forestry sciences community forecasts massive wildfires like the ones that burned in Oregon last year will only get bigger and more severe. However, new research suggests that thinning the forests can go a long way toward preventing severe fires.  [ related: video ]

“This study shows that fuel reduction thinning to moderate fire behavior … works,” said Johnston. His research focused on a ponderosa forest in northeast Oregon, where his team compared thinned stands of trees with un-thinned control stands and then used computer modeling to predict the behavior of future fires. “Most fuel reduction projects in eastern Oregon thin from below and cut down the smaller trees and leave the old large fire-resistant trees,” Johnston said. “That leaves behind a forest that’s less dense, and our studies show it has a less far less fuel to burn in future fires.”

Johnston said the result is even better when prescribed burning is added. “The only way to fight fire is with more fire,” he said.

It’s easy to see why the influenceable public can become confused, with a wide range of communications and opinions about complex forest and fire management topics. But two rural Josephine County communities are working with federal fire managers, according to a report by KDRV-TV, to improve wildfire resilience in southern Oregon. The BLM recently issued its “decision to promote safe wildfire response, develop fire-resilient lands, and create habitat for special status species” for a project near the communities of Murphy and Williams, both south of Grants Pass.

The BLM project is called Late Mungers Integrated Vegetation Management Project. It includes prescribed fire, fuels thinning and selective harvest phases; over the next 10 years the BLM expects fuels reduction work on about 7,500 acres under this project.

Fire managers plan to start at strategic locations where firefighters have the best chance to catch and contain wildfires. The project also includes 830 acres of proposed harvests split into two timber sales: Late Mungers and Penn Butte. “By using selection harvest methods, these treatments will increase the diversity of the forest stands,” according to the BLM. “This more complex habitat is important for the northern spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and Pacific marten (federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act), as well as other special-status species.”

During the project’s public comment period, the BLM collected more than 100 comments, and the project team hosted a field trip to the project area and held a public webinar to collect further input about the project. The final document, including BLM’s response to comments, is online at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2018484/510 and there’s a detailed PDF map online [HERE].

“Forests in Southwest Oregon are in dire need of active management to maintain and improve forest health,” said BLM District Manager Elizabeth Burghard in Medford. “The Late Mungers project is an important step toward promoting and developing complex forest habitats for the northern spotted owl and other sensitive species. This project will make the landscape, including legacy trees, more resilient to wildfire by addressing hazardous wildfire fuels near local communities.”