Editors’ Note: George McKinley and his wife Maria Kelly own 600 acres within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument at the southern tip of the Oregon Cascades. George and Maria took part in a 2016 TREX Event on their land and they have been trusted private landowner partners of the Ashland, OR area FAC Net Members. George has a long history of work with the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative and his custom milling operation, Mountain Millworks, works with forest owners and others interested in using local wood. George brings a wealth of forestry, fire and land owner perspective. We recently got a chance to catch up with George again following the devastating 2020 fire season, and in light of that but also in looking ahead and remaining productive we wanted to know what George felt as he looks back and to the future.

FAC Net: When you think back over the last 10-15 years, what has changed in terms of the support available to landowners to manage their properties?

George: In general, we’ve seen increases in cost-share support for forest landowners to accomplish fuels reduction and forest health treatments based upon demonstrated need and a solid plan. We’re also fortunate to live in a region that has markets available for the by-products of forest restoration and harvest. Without markets and skilled workers, we would be looking at an entirely different situation for forest restoration and fuels reduction in the region. Over the years, we have benefitted from numerous workers who have helped us implement our vision for the land as well as do some of the hard work that comes with family forest management. Markets and workers are essential. (For another perspective on Oregon’s Investment in Forest Adaptation see FAC Net’s interview with Carrie Berger).

A group of 5 men stand outside on the edge of a forest

Skilled Workers – the crew coming in from a thinning and fuels reduction project, Tumasi Ross (2nd from right); Fire and Forestry Instructor at Wolf Creek Job Corp. Photo by author

Two large forestry vehicles working in the forest

Local market availability – after a thinning operation the logs were cut and chipped on site. 52 tons per acre were removed. Existing chip markets in White City helped offset cost. Photo by author.

FAC Net: What do you see as the biggest opportunity for small private landowners to bring fire back to their forest, to think of fire as a key component in their management toolbox?

George: At the most basic level, many small woodland owners and forest dwellers have been well trained to think of fire as primarily a threat. A threat to their homes and livelihood, to their towns and the forests themselves. However, I do think increasingly, many owners are becoming much more aware of long term fire patterns, as well as the cultural, recreational and economic values of their forests beyond the value of timber.

Trees in a forest

A picture of the stand before being thinned, before burning. Ponderosa Pine; 500 trees per acre; 8” average dbh; c. 42 feet high. Photo by author.

Trees in a forest showing ground after thinning

Remaining trees were then prepped for under burning. Photo by author.

When we open up and become better aware of the cultural, recreational and even aesthetic value of forests, we provide ourselves a broader perspective on forest health needs and a broader range of forest restoration opportunities. I think focusing first on home safety and then expanding to forest health is a good place to start. Also ensuring landowners have free and abundant access to those with expertise and experience could help empower and remove barriers as well.

Burned fallen wood with a small green new growth peeking through

Oak regeneration after burning. Photo by author

FAC Net: How could local government, nonprofits, or other community based groups better engage and support the work of small woodland landowners?

George: A good place to start is for agencies and groups to realize that many forest owners and dwellers are heavily invested – fiscally, emotionally and more -in their forest homes and stands. It is a prideful and intentional way of life for them. Many have worked long and hard to establish their plot and most live within or in close proximity to their forests. Local (and not so local) government can sometimes be viewed by forest landowners as a threat to their way of life – a challenge to the freedoms they sought out by moving to a rural location. Taxes can become a real burden for some forest landowners. So I think ensuring the approaches to engagement reflect an understanding of the unique nature of rural places and people.

In SW Oregon, where we live, the Oregon Department of Forestry has a long relationship of working with forest landowners. Through their website and on-the-ground programs they have provided information, cost-share opportunities and programs for fuels reduction that are very helpful for small woodland owners.  In addition in 2016 we got to be a part of a TREX event held on our land and the resources and folks we met through that have continued to provide lots of resources for my land management practices.

A group of prescribed burn firefighters gather around fire

Fire starting on George and Maria’s land in 2016. Photo by author

A woman in PPE stands in a forest among ash

The burn boss, Amanda Rau, from the 2016 TREX burn on George’s land. Photo by author.

An aerial screenshot from Google Maps showing a brown spot in the middle of green tree cover

Several hot spots emerged post the 2016 TREX event, visible within a month of burn. These areas are now more open. Screenshot of author’s land via Google.

FAC Net: Do you think we are on the edge of any major changes in fire management? If so, what is driving those changes? Where are we headed?

 George: I think it’s important to acknowledge the great impact that this past year’s fires has had. I can’t go into town without seeing the scars everywhere. People’s lives drastically changed and the loss of property and life is staggering and heartbreaking. So, without sounding glib, I would like to help us look ahead, I think if we hadn’t had the recent fires perhaps our focus would be different and we’d be framing things differently. It does seem apparent that we are seeing major changes in fire and fire management. Climate change emerges as an easily identified culprit. I’m unclear how we will address any long-term issues and needs without addressing the impact of climate change on our forests and taking proactive steps to address it.

 FAC Net: When you think about the last 10-20 years of your engagement in land management what are some of the moments that standout? What has this journey been about for you? Where is the long arc headed?

 George: I grew up in the forests of Illinois and Michigan. We raised and sold Christmas trees, sometimes thinned for pulp. The journey for me required a new home and different forests. As I share this now, I appreciate the forest dwellers, landowners and workers I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with over many years.

Our woodland networks are strong. Our partnerships are productive. We’re at our best when we agree, but that is not always possible and/or realistic. I hope the long arc ends in a forest.

A photo of a man with a shovel and woman in the forest

George McKinley and Maria Kelly recreating a famous American portrait. Photo by Chris Chambers.