A change in scenery in the Columbia Highlands

A change in scenery in the Columbia Highlands

Conservation Northwest / Oct 25, 2019 / Columbia Highlands, Forest Field Program, National Forests

Getting to know our Forest Field Program and its place in the landscape and community of northeast Washington.


As two staffers based in Conservation Northwest’s Seattle headquarters, it’s not often that we get the chance to spend time enjoying the landscapes we work to conserve—especially those on the other side of the Cascades. So recently, when work called us up from our desks and out to the eastern edge of our state, we were ready to go.

The Columbia Highlands that mark the foothills of the Rockies, complete with rigid rock faces and diversity of tree species. Photo: Keiko Betcher

Our trip began with a special reminder of the diversity of landscapes we have here in Washington. Starting with the Puget Sound’s salty air, we drove through Snoqualmie Pass and its mix of coniferous trees that gradually turn into ponderosa pines, and then onto the rolling hills of sagebrush east of the Cascades, which swiftly become the rugged canyons of the Columbia Basin. Eventually, the landscape was dotted with ponderosa pine forests once again, this time marking the sprawl ridges of the Columbia Highlands, foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

The purpose of the next few days would be getting to know our local supporters at two happy hour events, connecting with our staff and their work in the area, and getting a better sense of the landscape overall. Tiana Luke, Colville Forest Field Staff, and Jay Shepherd, Wolf Program Lead, were our hosts and tour guides for the trip, giving us a deeper look into their day-to-day program work.

Colville National Forest Field Tour

The Colville National Forest offers rich opportunities for recreation that are much-less populated than areas in Western Washington.       Photo: Keiko Betcher

For 30 years, we’ve maintained our Forest Field Program (FFP) to protect and restore the heart of the Northwest: our vast wild forests. Our staffers across the state use science and collaboration to promote landscape-scale restoration of forests and watersheds and protect them from misuse and mismanagement.

But what does it actually take to restore a forest? During a field tour on the Colville National Forest (CNF), we got a closer look at what forest restoration looks like on the ground.

We began our field tour at Trout Lake, state lands that abut the wilderness quality Hoodoo Roadless Area, contains deer and elk winter range, and important habitat for Canada lynx. It’s one of the many areas for recreation in Eastern Washington with ample parking space and tranquil, traffic-free trails. To get there, we first had to drive through the Sherman Creek State Wildlife Recreation Area, which is managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

“This looks really good,” said Shepherd with a nod in agreement from Luke, referring to the ongoing forest restoration work in the Sherman Creek recreation area, mostly dominated by ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

To the two of us, slightly confused by what “really good” meant, it simply looked like a forest. In fact, we actually thought it looked “somewhat bad”—with intermittently-spaced adolescent trees, many burnt by fire, and scrubby undergrowth.

A healthy, dry ponderosa pine forest. In these forests, selective thinning and prescribed burns are important parts of ecological forest restoration. Photo: Keiko Betcher

But after driving a few minutes more, our confusion cleared up as the transition from WDFW land to the CNF’s Trout Lake landscape, where there hasn’t been any restoration work yet, was clearly marked by the stark contrast between the sparse mosaic of “good” forest and the dense, overly-crowded forest.

Dry forests like those on the CNF are adapted to a natural cycle of fire, and a century of poor forest management practices including fire suppression, grazing, and old-growth logging have left them overcrowded with young trees, making wildfires more likely to spread widely. So a large part of ecological forest restoration here involves selective thinning—removing small trees to protect large, old, fire-resistant trees and prescribed burning. Other actions include removing unnecessary roads and replacing culverts to allow fish easier passage upstream.

Trout Lake from the Hoodoo Canyon Trail. Photo: Keiko Betcher

The Trout Lake campground was quiet, and the air had that distinct Eastern-Washington feel to it—dry and warm with a slightly sweet and smoky scent. We began a short hike up the Hoodoo Canyon Trail, and were quickly rewarded with a view of vibrant slopes of green, red and yellow, impressive rock formations, old-growth ponderosa pines, and Trout Lake down below.

Trout Lake is a federally-designated restoration landscape with a high tree-species diversity. The mix of cedar, pine and even Oregon-grape here reminded us of the moist forests back home—which makes sense, as the northeast corner of the CNF is part of the Inland Temperate Rainforest, after all. And clearly marked by the crowded trees we saw on our way to the campground, it’s also a landscape with a long history of fire suppression and logging in need of restoration.

Luke explained that the CNF did propose a restoration project here last summer, but it was more of an attempt to quickly log as many as 3,000 acres of the forest without public and environmental review. In response, we asked our local community to speak up on this project proposal and submit comments requesting proper landscape and environmental analysis with robust public input to get better outcomes on the ground. But action alerts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the FFP.

Our Forest Field Staffers like Luke, who is also part of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, work diligently and collaboratively to track forestry projects and make sure the CNF is practicing ecological forest restoration.

A Columbia spotted frog near Trout Lake on the Colville National Forest. Photo: Keiko Betcher

“If there was one thing I’d really want people to know about our Forest Field Program, it would be how strong our collaboration with the local community is,” Luke said as we made our way back toward the trailhead. “It’s unique to have loggers, conservationists, foresters, recreationists, resource managers, agency workers and scientists working toward one goal, and that goal being forest restoration.”

After our hike, we made a quick stop to check out Trout Lake itself—a biologically-diverse habitat buzzing with damselflies and dragonflies, Columbian spotted frogs, and rainbow trout—before heading back onto Highway 20 toward Sherman Pass.

We made a stop at the Kettle Crest trailhead on Sherman Pass, another active restoration site on the CNF. Beyond the clusters of lodgepole pine and small piles of thinned trees, we had a view of Sherman Peak to the south and the Kettle Range to the north—where much of our efforts for permanent wilderness protections have been focused on the last decade. We were also looking right into the heart of wolf country.

Wolf Territory

Jay Shepherd, Wolf Program Lead, and Tiana Luke, Colville Forest Field Staffer, identify habitat areas on a map of the Colville National Forest. Photo: Keiko Betcher

At the trailhead parking lot, Shepherd unfolded a large map of the CNF, pointing out grazing allotments that overlapped with wolf pack territories. We were standing in the Sherman pack’s territory, and looking north, we could see the rolling hills that was previously habitat for the Old Profanity Territory (OPT) pack—a recent hotspot for wolf-livestock conflicts.

But Shepherd was keen to point out that all the other areas on the map hadn’t had any major conflicts this summer, in many cases thanks to the hard work ranchers and range riders are putting into non-lethal deterrence measures.

“Conflict you hear about in the news is the exception, not the rule,” Shepherd said.

He told us about one of our partners in our Range Rider Pilot Project on the Smackout grazing allotment, who called him up and expressed his gratitude for our work for wolf coexistence.

“It was really great to get that phone call,” Shepherd said, explaining that successful wolf recovery is a lot about supporting our partners who are working day and night to live with wolves and continue their way of life.

After looking at habitat for other wildlife on the map, like lynx, grizzlies, elk and bighorn sheep, we headed back into town for some pizza, beer and good conversation about wildland protections at our Colville Wild Happy Hour.

The view looking north towards the Kettle Range at the Kettle Crest trailhead on the Colville National Forest. Photo: Keiko Betcher

Happy Hours

Our Colville Wild Happy Hour in Spokane was a great opportunity to staff to connect with local supporters about wilderness protections on the Colville National Forest.          Photo: Keiko Betcher

We had originally planned our two happy hours—one in Spokane and one in Chewelah— in August in anticipation of thick smoke in the air from wildfires, inhibiting people from getting outdoors. Instead, we were met with blue skies and temperatures around 90 degrees. Still, people came ready to talk about an issue that affected their livelihoods, whether they were conservationists, recreationists, wildlife biologists, hunters and anglers or timber workers: wilderness protections on the Colville National Forest.

The latest update on Wilderness on the CNF is underwhelming, with the Forest’s final management plan only recommending a measly 62,000 acres for wilderness designation, out of the 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands. But we’re not giving up on the Kettle Range or other amazing, wild places, and will continue to advocate for their permanent protection.

And after seeing the turnout at these events, we know we’re working with a strong community that is committed to protecting its natural heritage and the vibrant wildlife and wildlands of the Colville National Forest. Thank you to everyone who came to show your support! We hope to be back soon.

As we made the long drive back toward Seattle, it was humbling to realize just how much ground we cover in our work to protect, connect and restore wildlands and wildlife. From our work on the CNF in northeast Washington, to our Sagelands Heritage Program in the state’s central shrub-steppe, back to those familiar Douglas firs in the Cascades and underneath the new wildlife bridge in Snoqualmie Pass, Conservation Northwest is truly keeping the Northwest wild.

Staff smile for the camera during the Colville Wild Happy Hour in Chewelah. Photo: Matthew Brouwer
Matthew Brouwer speaks to the crowd at our Colville Wild Happy Hour in Chewelah. Photo: Keiko Betcher