“The little town of Butte Falls could easily be overrun if a major wildfire breaks out nearby,” Jeff Norcross said opening up, the Oregon Public Broadcast’s Think Out Loud podcast.
In Southern Oregon, Butte Falls is in the heart of timberland and the issue of climate change is not very popular. But for decades, timber companies have been packing out of Butte Falls. In the 1990s timber companies left due to construction slumps and the spotting of the northern spotted owl, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The spotted owl drove companies away faster than its mice prey. One company saw 150,000 acres affected by the spotting, with revenue decreasing by over $3 billion from 1990 to 1991.
At that time, community members talked of bottling and selling the water from Big Butte Creek, packaging the wild mushrooms that grow in the woods nearby, or even cutting some down for a golf course in order to fix the local economy.
“We never looked beyond the trees (before). It’s really picking up in terms of things we never looked at,” a former school administrator said via the Associated Press at the time. In 1992, Butte Falls was determined to look for life after logging. Now, the community is returning to its roots to build back its economy and is putting its money into the trees.
The town was badly affected by the 2020 Oregon Wildfires. Because of this, in combination with continuous drought and companies pulling assets because of climate-driven tree die-offs across the Pacific Northwest, Butte Falls decided to buy its surrounding forests — over 400 acres so far.
But instead of using it for logging and timber, the community is focused on wildfire resistance and forest restoration with the goal of tourism.
The reason the forests are so susceptible to fires is not only because of climate change but because the timber companies that have been logging in the forests since the 1980s didn’t value the community or care about sustainable logging, Mike Smeltz, a veteran local forester, said via Inside Climate News and Columbia Insight.
They intensively harvested the land, letting the forest grow dangerously dense with young trees that more easily spread fire from the forest floor all the way up to the canopy, where it is impossible to smother.
So, the community approached Seattle-based timber giant Weyerhaeuser with the proposal to purchase and steward the forest in 2019. Weyerhaeuser — the company that lost millions due to the owl — owned much of the forest in recent years, and according to Butte Falls mayor, Trish Callahan, via the podcast, at first, Weyerhaeuser didn’t even want to talk with the town about purchasing the land.
However, after persistent negotiations, they devised a plan to purchase about 430 acres for over a million dollars. The town’s leaders began searching for grants and through word-of-mouth, the mayor said they received donations from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon’s legislature, and several foundations, agencies, and elected officials.
They raised $1.15 million. According to Smeltz, $450,000 Oregon Department of Forestry and another $450,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“I think with our idea of trying to make a community where we would have an innovative approach — to be able to do stewardship for our forest lands and any remote communities that might be interested in seeing what we were doing,” is what got so many donors interested Callahan said.
With the purchase, Butte Falls has the goal “to develop a stable forest community and try to encourage the development of forest research and knowledge,” she said. If the amount the town was able to raise to purchase the forest wasn’t enough good news, at the end of the year Callahan says Weyerhaeuser’s contract expires and they will be out of the forest.
Callahan says they are also in the process of clearing out the surrounding “ladder fuels” – an ecology term for mid-sized foliage that carries fires across low vegetation – to reduce the possibility of fires, while educating their residents in planning for the next wildfire. They’re also thinning trees to get rid of the smaller, more fire-prone trees and create better canopies.
Callahan hopes that their “destiny” will be to have a “carbon-conscious” and “old-growth forest.”
As Smeltz told Inside Climate News, the community is partnering with Chris Adlam, an expert on prescribed burns with Oregon State University, for controlled burning with the goal to help the trees — from the mighty ponderosa pines to the ocean of firs — flourish once again, reintroducing what’s known as low-intensity ground fires about once a year to mimic the natural fire cycle in the forest.
On top of that, Callahan says the Butte Falls is working with the National Parks and Recreation to design a park below the falls the town is named after, giving it a new overlook, complete with trails that tie into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, picnic, wedding, camping areas, and other spaces for outdoor recreation, creating a plethora forestry jobs.
While Callahan knows that tourism is controversial, due to the pressure it puts on the land and resources, she hopes that they can marry what’s beneficial for the town’s economic development to what’s beneficial for the environment.
Since launching the project, the town developed the Butte Falls Community Forest Commission to monitor the forest and ensure all goals are meant. They are also partnering with the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service to make sure the land is managed correctly. According to the town’s site, they hope to serve as a model of resilience and adaptation for other small Oregon communities.
“Partner with people who know how to do these things,” Callahan advises to any other communities thinking of taking on such an endeavor.