NWTF’s Starr Aspen Project — Improving Forest Health on All Levels

The NWTF’s conservation and habitat enhancement efforts have always focused on improving wild turkey habitat and populations throughout the continental U.S., restoring wild turkey populations from detrimental lows in the 1970s to a thriving game species that outdoorsmen and women currently get to enjoy. And while it will always have the wild turkey’s best interest, the NWTF has, because of such success, continually expanded the scope of its work to include ensuring forests are healthy, resilient and provide clean water to the countless wildlife that inhabit them and the millions of people who benefit from their watersheds, especially in the western U.S.

Being a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Restoration initiative, a partner in the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative and even hiring a Western Water Specialist, it would be an understatement to say the NWTF takes healthy forests, quality wildlife habitat and clean water seriously.

One such endeavor in the West is the Starr Aspen Project in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, located in the Bear Valley region on the southern edge of the Blue Mountains.

Of the approximately 17,500-acre Starr Aspen project planning area, about 16,100 acres (92%) are forested, and of these forested acres, nearly 840 acres (5%) are aspen, spread across 230 stands, according to the USDA Forest Service overview of the project. In this area, there is a lower percentage of aspen stands than historical conditions, and aspen are generally a declining hardwood species across a conifer-dominated forest.

One of the reasons aspen does not thrive in conifer-dominated forests is that conifers obscure sunlight from aspen stands and hinder the aspen’s ability to regenerate.   

In addition to the aspen stands, many of the meadows in this area become drier in the late summer, and only a few of the streams have channels that have not been degraded, the Forest Service overview also noted. This barrier prevents adult and juvenile redband trout, as well as other native fish, from reaching thermal refugia [ideal temperature areas] along Camp and Windfall creeks.

To combat these forest and streamside habitat degradation, the NWTF forged an agreement with the Forest Service on Malheur National Forest in 2019. This three- to five-year phase of the Starr Aspen Project includes 130 acres of total aspen restoration and 11 miles of streamside restoration.

Expected outcomes of the Starr Aspen Project will include aspen stands that have open growing conditions with little to no conifer competition and a healthy mid-story. Streams will be restored and have a variety of small and large woody material providing improved fish habitat within the channel with the absence of incised channels [areas that disconnect waterflow].

Adjacent wet meadows will also be restored and show signs of moisture throughout the year, improving native grass and shrub species, which will benefit numerous game and nongame species, including elk, mule deer, wild turkeys and others. Not to mention these projects will greatly benefit fish habitat.

In the fall of 2020 alone, the partnership between the NWTF and the Forest Service was able to complete 26 acres of aspen enhancement. This was done by noncommercial conifer felling within the aspen stands, which will allow less sunlight competition and the aspen to regenerate with more vigor.

“We have just begun the work for this great project and are already beginning to check off milestones,” said Kevin Vella, NWTF Pacific Coast district biologist. “Expect to continue to see great things from this partnership.”  

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