The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest wants to thin densely overgrown tree stands along the east face of the Elkhorn Mountains south of La Grande in an area that would include the popular Anthony Lakes Recreation Area.

Part of a broad and unique public-private partnership, the East Face Vegetation Management Project would treat 47,621 acres where foresters worry conditions are ripe for large, potentially destructive wildfires.

The public has until Friday, Feb. 13 to comment on the proposal, which calls for both commercial and non-commercial logging of nearly 17,100 acres and reopening 105 miles of roads for access into the project area. Some logging would aim to reduce forest fire fuels around the Anthony Lakes ski area, campground and Floodwater Flats Recreation Tract.

La Grande District Ranger Bill Gamble said the East Face Vegetation plan would complement work already being done by private landowners to reduce the threat of wildfires on their own property, which has been funded collaboratively through the U.S. Forest Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service. Their effort is driven by the federal Cohesive Wildfire Strategy, which aims to reduce forest fire fuels, maintain landscapes and improve fire response.

“It’s the first time in my career that I’ve truly seen this opportunity to work across boundaries,” Gamble said. “When you step back and look at it, the landscape will be treated as a whole, and not stopped at these public-private ownership lines.”

The East Face Vegetation project specifically addresses public land, including 1,224 acres owned by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Vale District. The project area is approximately 12 miles west of North Powder, and north of the North Fork John Day Wilderness Area.

Over the years, past firefighting and management activities have left the forest landscape “out of whack,” according to Gamble. As a result, tree stands have become increasingly overgrown with species that are less tolerant to fire, and smaller “ladder fuels” that allow flames to climb up into the forest canopy.

Proposed treatments include logging and prescribed burns to boost the forest’s resiliency. In particular, Gamble said they want to thin tree stands around existing roads and ridge tops to form strategic fuel breaks where firefighters could safely catch and knock down big blazes.

Strategic breaks could also form a protective zone around sensitive resources — like a catcher’s mitt — and allow firefighters to stage their resources out of harm’s way.

“Certainly, the landscape will be in condition where we have more options to address future wildfires,” Gamble said.

No new permanent roads are proposed within the project area, though foresters would reopen about 105 miles of existing closed roads in order to support logging operations. Nearly 12 miles of temporary roads would also be built, though Gamble said half of those are in existing wheel tracks and would require little ground disturbance.

There are 366 total miles of roads in the project area, though nearly 65 percent have been closed and grown in after years of non-use. It is possible, Gamble said, that some of the reopened roads could remain open after the project is finished, but only if they do not pose any threat to resources or exceed the allowable road density.

Otherwise, temporary roads would be closed again and treated to prevent soil erosion.

Finally, the project would amend the Wallowa-Whitman forest plan twice to allow for logging in a designated old-growth forest near Twin Mountains, as well as within the allocated backcountry area near Anthony Lakes.

The old-growth logging would not involve cutting old-growth trees, Gamble said, but again focus on smaller ladder fuels. As for Anthony Lakes, reducing the fuel load there would help protect the local wildland and urban interface.

“Treatment within those areas is probably a smart thing to do, but the old forest plan wasn’t quite there yet,” Gamble said.

Written comments for the East Face Vegetation Management Project can be sent to Gamble at the La Grande Ranger District Office, or emailed to bgamble@fs.fed.us. For more information about the proposal, contact the office at 541-963-7186.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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