Federal partners add funding to help Oregon boost forest restoration work

Oregon will be able to greatly increase treatments on overcrowded forestlands to improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire thanks to new federal grants announced this spring.

Federal support for Oregon forests is coming in three forms:

  • $5 million in new funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Issued under the NRCS’ Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), these will assist individual landowners to treat privately owned, non-industrial forestland.
  • Up to $75 million that the federal Farm Service Agency is making available through its Emergency Forest Restoration Program. This money is earmarked to aid small woodland owners with cleanup and restoration in the wake of the Labor Day wildfires.
  • Joint Chiefs projects, which are a partnership between NRCS and the USDA Forest Service to complete treatments on federal lands and adjoining non-industrial private forestlands. Since 2014 ODF has been partner to 10 such forest restoration projects, helping create landscape-scale environmental benefits, such as greater resilience to drought and wildfire. The most recently announced project will treat forestlands in Deschutes and Jefferson Counties.

“ODF has a long and productive partnership with all three federal agencies in Oregon,” said Gordon. “For example, NRCS and USDA Farm Service Agency grants provide us with the capacity to have stewardship foresters help small woodland owners. Those locally based ODF foresters meet with landowners, clarify their concerns and goals for their land, and develop a plan to address their forest health needs.”

Once a plan is in place ODF stewardship foresters can help landowners by providing lists of local contractors to carry out the work, and by certifying that the forest treatments have been completed in accordance with the Oregon Forest Practices Act.

“Our partnership with NRCS began in our Northeast Oregon District around 2010,” said Gordon. “The success of that initial effort led to Oregon’s first Joint Chiefs project in Baker and Union Counties in 2014, and later to ODF being able to form a statewide partnership with NRCS.”

Tom Miewald is NRCS’s RCPP Coordinator in Oregon. “We appreciate ODF’s proven track record of bringing together private landowners with local partners, such as watershed councils, soil and water conservation districts and forest collaboratives to achieve larger-scale outcomes,” he said. “Through these partnerships we are funding the future of conservation, focusing on forest resilience.”

Since 2015, there have been 32 RCPP projects in Oregon that have received about $89 million in federal funds. About $100 million has been contributed by state and local partners on these projects, most often in the form of labor and in-kind investments. NRCS Oregon considers western freshwater streams and the forests they flow through to be Critical Conservation Areas, a high priority for RCPP funding.

“The projects we fund are aimed at reducing threats to these freshwater streams. Projects are first identified by local communities as concerns they want addressed and are willing to lead,” said Miewald.

One example is ODF’s Northeast Oregon District being named lead agency for a new project in the Northern Blue Mountains involving nine local partners. The Eastern Oregon Forest Restoration Project is designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, which can harm streams. In turn, this will improve water quantity and quality, and stream habitat.

For the Eastern Oregon Forest Restoration Project, ODF foresters will work with private landowners in Union, Baker, Umatilla, and Wallowa counties. Landowners will contract with NRCS to receive funding, while the ODF foresters provide technical assistance in collaboration with consulting private foresters, local contractors, and NRCS staff. The work will focus on thinning trees not yet of commercial size and mitigating slash hazards from the thinning. Trees will also be planted on lands that have suffered from tree deaths due to wildfire or insect infestations.

Jay Gibbs, NRCS Basin Team Leader in northeast Oregon, is proud that NRCS’ recently funded projects in the northeastern part of the state were all originally identified by local communities as areas of concern that they wanted to work on.

“These are locally led projects driven from the ground up,” Gibbs said. “What’s unique is that we’re funding these efforts now at much larger scale to increase the pace at which forest restoration happens.”

Close to 5,000 acres of non-industrial private forestland will be treated as part of the project in the Northern Blue Mountains, filling gaps between lands treated on national forests and industrial forestlands.

“Combined, those efforts reduce catastrophic wildfire risk over a wide area,” Gibbs said. “They’ll make fighting any wildfires that do occur safer for firefighters and easier to contain.”

“We’re thankful for opportunities to continue our work with NRCS and our private landowners,” said Joe Hessel, ODF Northeast Oregon District Forester.

Oregon must compete with other states for these federal conservation grants.

“Oregon is a leader in securing grant funds like RCPP, which bring additional resources to the state to increase the amount of work being done to improve the health of our forests. That benefits not only the environment but also rural economies by providing much-needed jobs in forest restoration,” Gordon said.

For more information, landowners are encouraged to reach out to their local ODF Stewardship Foresters  or NRCS District Conservationists. The initial signups for this project are expected to begin later this year. Restoration work will begin early in 2022 and will run through 2027.