Nordic Center will look different after Mountain Thin treatment

Steve Gerace
A feller-buncher being operated on the Forest Service's Mountain Thin project at the Mt. Shasta Nordic Center. Mt. Shasta Nordic Ski Organization Executive Director Justi Hansen said the Nordic Center will look cleaner after Mountain Thin and “will be healthier and more fire safe.”

The scenes are changing at Mt. Shasta Nordic Center, and those involved with the Mountain Thin project in the area believe it’s all for the good.

The tree cutting, landing activity, and truck traffic in and around the Center is expected to conclude later this month.

Left standing in the surrounding pine, fir and cedar forest will be a more open and healthier stand that’s less prone to wildfire and disease, according to representatives from the Forest Service and Timber Products Company, which holds the Mountain Thin Project contract.

Mt. Shasta Nordic Ski Organization Executive Director Justi Hansen sees it in a similar light. “The Nordic Center will look a little different,” Hansen wrote. “It will look cleaner, and will be healthier and more fire safe. Both The Forest Service and Timber Products Company have been sensitive to the impact that the thinning could have on our trails and have gone above and beyond to make sure they are left intact. And, the Ski Park has offered to help us with trail clean up. Mt. Shasta Nordic is busy gearing up for the ski season and the trails will be ready to groom as soon as we get enough snow.”

The Nordic Center area, near the intersection of Forest Rte 31 and the Ski Park Highway, is a small part of Mountain Thin.

The Mt. Shasta Area project began in 2006 and is expected to be completed in 2016. More than 1,800 of Mountain Thin’s 2,241 acres had been completed as of late October 2015.

Mountain Thin’s goals, according to Forest Service representative Tara Jones, include decreasing the risk of catastrophic fire in the wildland-urban interface, creating healthier forests, and enhancing scenic quality.

“The experience will be pleasant for recreators,” Jones said during a recent group interview at the Forest Service’s Mt. Shasta Ranger Station on Alma Street.

She added that the thinning is creating more opportunities for trails and trail improvements.

Chris Chase, a timber manager for Timber Products, said many dead and hazard trees are being removed at the Nordic Center, where work on the ground is being done by Timberland Logging of Ashland, Ore.

Chase said the goal is to “reduce fuel loading and leave a healthy resilient forest for the future” by restoring it to a more natural density.

‘Economic activity’

Mountain Thin is a commercial thinning project that is primarily producing “logs and some fuel chips to be burned for renewable power generation,” according to Chase.

He said the 3,300 truck loads of material that had been removed from the entire Mountain Thin project as of late October equaled about 50 tons per acre.

About 2,800 of those truck loads were logs that are being used for veneer at Timber Products’ mill in Yreka.

Most of the veneer, Chase said, gets used at Timber Products’ plywood manufacturing facilities in Medford and Grants Pass, Ore., where they create “high value panel products.”

Chase pointed to “$6 million in direct economic activity” generated by Mountain Thin so far in Siskiyou County.

The total economic value, after taking into account “the multiplier effect,” is probably two or three times that, according to Chase.

Recreation considered

Mountain Thin is a challenging type of project that can be contentious, according to Forest Service sales administrator Kate Bachmann. “But the need is critical and the community is safer as a result.”

Bachmann said she helped lay out and prep Mountain Thin and has been involved since 2008.

“One of Mountain Thin’s objectives was recreation,” said Bachmann, “and that was a huge consideration with the Gateway Trail,” which was involved in a previous part of the project.

When the community saw how Mountain Thin was conducted in that area, Bachmann said the Forest Service got positive feedback and “it went a long way toward building trust.”

Jones said, “We’re doing our best to get people out using public lands, whether it be the Nordic Center or bike and hiking trails.”

Chase said the project has been challenging, but he sees it as an opportunity for Timber Products, the Forest Service and recreation groups “to work together and see it through.”

He described Timber Products as a family owned company that owns and manages forestlands, is one of the largest manufacturers of hardwood plywood in America, and is “committed to sustainable forestry practices.”

The Forest Service works with the Nordic Center through a special use permit.

Jones said efforts have been made to involve and keep the public informed and to do the work in a way that benefits the public. She said she met with Nordic Center president Tim Loughlin, and the Forest Service has worked with landowners whose property is adjacent to the project.

Around the Nordic Center, Bachmann said attempts are being made to limit the amount of disturbance on the ground by using existing skid trails and landing areas from previous logging in the area.

She said limiting the size of landings is an important consideration, and all landing locations and trails are agreed on jointly.

“I walk every one of them,” Bachmann said. “I’m here almost every day when they conduct operations.”

‘Skilled operators’

Chase points to Timberland Logging’s “skilled operators,” and he praises them for making good decisions about which sub-merchantable trees to remove, based on spacing and species preferences.

He said Timber Products works with Timberland Logging on sensitive projects “because they’re willing to do what it takes to do the job right.”

On a project like Mountain Thin, Chase said Timberland does “a terrific job of juggling the various demands placed on these acres.” He explained that those demands include “addressing the competing uses and concerns of the Forest Service, public, and Timber Products.”

Timberland has the type of logging equipment necessary to make this type of project cost-effective, according to Chase. The feller-buncher machine holds and cuts standing trees, then lays them in a bunch with others. A processor operates at the landing, delimbing the felled trees and bucking them into measured log lengths.

At one of the landings near a Nordic Center trail, Bachmann points to the “RV” stamped in a small circle of yellow paint on the end of each merchantable log. She said it’s a way to designate that the logs “can’t be exported; it’s a safeguard to ensure we’re protecting domestic jobs.”

Decreasing wildfire fuel

“We utilize everything except a few limbs,” said Jones. “All the fuels are coming out of the woods.”

Cut biomass is moved in small bundles, then chipped and trucked out.

Though not a requirement in the contract, Bachmann said “proactive falling of hazard trees” will make the Nordic Center trails safer. She said that is being done “per Chris’s request.”

Pine and fir disease is an issue in the area, according to Bachmann, who said “the understory will be a lot healthier” after the thinning, and “overstory trees will grow more vigorously. Overall it will be a real pretty stand.”

Historically, according to Chase, the forest there had more pine and less white fir and was more evenly spaced. Before thinning, he said the stand had “too many trees for the site to support; too much competition for limited water.”

Once the work is completed at the Nordic Center, “slash piles will be burned and mopped up,” Jones said.

Delays and future plans

It’s anticipated that all the Mountain Thin acres will be completed next summer. All but 250 to 300 acres are expected to be finished before the weather stops this year’s work.

But Jones points out that Mountain Thin has been delayed this year and in the past when logging crews have had to go elsewhere for fire salvage work, which takes priority because those logs need to be removed before they deteriorate.

“It’s delayed implementation of the project by a couple years,” she said.

Chase said Timber Products has a yard full of logs at its mill from the fire salvage work they’ve been doing on areas that burned in 2014. He said Mountain Thin is the only green Forest Service sale they’ve worked on this year.

The Forest Service has plans for another project similar to Mountain Thin along Highway 89, according to Jones.

As Chase said, “A big backlog of overly dense stands” remains beyond the boundaries of Mountain Thin.