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Black Butte Forest Project Serves As Wildfire Model

August's GW Fire in Central Oregon came within one mile of burning homes at the Black Butte Ranch resort near Sisters. The close call reignited discussion about how wildfires should be fought.

Environmentalists, residents, loggers, and others all disagree - loudly - about the subject. But on the east side of Black Butte Ranch, many of those groups are working together on a project that could be the future of wildfire fighting. Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports.

About two miles southeast of Black Butte Ranch, a small creek runs through a patch of some of the last remaining old growth in central Oregon.

A short walk past the creek and through the forest leads out into Glaze Meadows.

Wind blows through the clearing. The snowy 10,000-foot peaks of the Three Sisters mountains stand watch above.

Maret Pajutee: “It's just a beautiful spot, so when you go out there, you fall in love with it.”

Maret Pajutee is an ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, in Sisters.

To her, Glaze Meadows is more than just a beautiful walk in the wilderness. She says she believes these 1200-acres could hold the balm to heal historical wounds from fighting over Oregon's forests.

Dozens of regional groups are working right here to help solve century-old disagreements over forest management.

Maret Pajutee: “Mistrust was the biggest barrier to overcome. And how could we work carefully together? A lot of that has been talking, a lot of walking out on the ground. So it's a wonderful place to be spending time and it's a great place that brings together the crux of a lot of issues.”

But the issues being discussed aren't the most unusual thing about the Glaze Meadows project. What's surprising is the groups in discussion.

The Forest Service. The timber industry. Environmentalists. All at the same table.

Tim Lillebo is the regional representative for Oregon Wild, one of the state's largest environmental groups.

Around here, everyone credits him for thinking up the plan - along with some help from one of the region's last remaining timber companies.

Lillebo says, environmentalists and loggers used to differ on a fundamental level.

To log or not to log.

Tim Lillebo: “For a while conservation groups were saying, 'Hey absolutely do not touch the old growth. Do not touch a thing.”

But nowadays, he says the questions are of a more technical nature.

On a tour of the forest, he stops every once in a while to smoke a cheap cigar and point out certain trees.

Tim Lillebo: “Ecologically, we want to remove that tree. At the same time, if there's someone that can come in and take that tree and use it for a project, we're saying, 'hey, that's okay.'”

At its heart, the project is first about selecting thousands of smaller trees to chop down to provide room for the old growth to keep growing.

The next step is to intentionally set fire to the underbrush - to give less fuel for an actual wildfire to burn in the future.

In the past decade, 30,000 acres of local forest burned in scores of dangerous wildfires.

Black Butte Ranch has been evacuated three times, most recently in August from the GW fire.

But firefighters say the GW fire also proved that thinning and intentionally burning forests works.

Now, there are still some disagreements. For instance, the forest service will allow a timber company to drive deep into the forest, chop down the trees, and then sell them for a profit.

Lillebo's Oregon Wild group is worried that a typical timber sale could encourage loggers to cut bigger trees and trample the land.

Maret Pajutee, with the forest service, says in the case of the Glaze Meadows project those issues are being resolved.

The project won't just sell the timber contract wholesale.

Instead, the deal will take advantage of a kind of sale called a 'stewardship contract'. Pajutee says it encourages loggers to think about more than just the cheapest way to get the trees to market.

Maret Pajutee: “We've been building trust with the people who we're working with on this project for years now. And we have projects that they like, And then they say, do a project like THAT. So we're hoping that a couple years now, someone will say, 'do another project like Glaze.”

The Forest Service has contributed about $50,000 to the Glaze Meadows effort. The government says for a project this small, it's hoping the stewardship contract will allow it to break even, money-wise.

But, those involved say the project isn't really about the money. It's about laying the groundwork for  bigger projects in the future.

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