Colville Forest Plan still needs improvement for wilderness, ecological forest management

Colville Forest Plan still needs improvement for wilderness, ecological forest management

Conservation Northwest / Jul 16, 2019 / Columbia Highlands, Forest Field Program, National Forests, Wilderness

In our continued push for wilderness protections in northeast Washington, we made several objections to the Forest’s final management plan.

by Tiana Luke, Conservation Associate, Colville Forest Field Staff

The 15-year process of updating the Colville National Forest Management Plan is coming to its culmination. We have been striving since 2004 to help forge a forest plan that permanently protects wilderness-quality lands, conserves and restores old-growth conditions and other wildlife habitat, establishes firm standards for watershed health, and promotes high-quality restoration on the Colville National Forest (CNF).

With more than 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands, like the stunning Abercrombie-Hooknose Roadless Area, the Colville Forest Plan should recommend more lands for wilderness designation by Congress. Photo: Eric Zamora

After taking extensive input on draft proposals, the CNF issued its final plan in September 2018. Despite strong and broad public support for wilderness and other habitat protections, the CNF’s plan came up short. Our final shot at improving it is the “objection” process, where we show which parts of the revised Forest Plan needed to change and why. Last month, we sat down with the Forest Service to make our case.

With our partners at the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, we objected the measly 62,000 acres recommended for wilderness designation—the highest level of protection for our wild public lands. With more than 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands, we think both the community and ecosystem deserve better. The CNF has the smallest amount of designated wilderness of any forest in the region, despite huge demand and opportunity for wilderness recreation and experience, from hiking and wildlife watching to trail running and backcountry hunting.

A map of Inventoried Roadless Areas and wilderness-quality lands on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington’s Columbia Highlands. Some Roadless Areas, including Bald Snow and Hoodoo on the Kettle Crest, Thirteen Mile and Abercrombie-Hooknose are particularly wild and deserve priority as recommended wilderness. Map: Amelia Tiedamann.

Preserving large, old trees and healthy watersheds

The final plan included quantitative standards for large and old trees, something we called for in our technical comments on the draft Forest Plan, but also significant exceptions to the standards that allow for the cutting of these trees. Late-successional forests provide particularly high ecological value as wildlife habitat, carbon storage and resilience to natural disturbance, such as fires or disease. Scientists have described large and old trees as the ecological backbone of both dry forests like those in much of Eastern Washington, and mesic (or moist) forests including those found west of the Cascades and in the Inland Temperate Rainforest of far northeast Washington. Conservation Northwest objected to these exceptions, requesting stronger ecological considerations.

We supported explicit road density goals in the draft Forest Plan, but in the final plan those goals were weakened by discounting certain roads, even those causing habitat fragmentation and barriers to habitat connectivity for fish and wildlife. We still hope to reestablish quality goals that will improve watersheds and habitat connectivity essential for wildlife health and recovery.

In our comments on the draft Forest Plan, we asked for stronger goals and standards for water resources. Watershed health on the CNF is broadly subpar, and we asked that the plan be fortified to ensure improved watershed conditions over time. We were delighted to see many of these changes in the Forest Plan. But they didn’t go far enough, and our objection requested specific changes that would result in better outcomes. We’re still working with our partners on the details of these changes and hope to find a resolution that is satisfactory for all of us in the coming weeks.

An improvement, but more work needed

Despite its shortcomings, the revised Forest Plan is an overall improvement for management on the Colville National Forest. For instance, the plan allows greater use of fire, both natural and controlled or prescribed burning, to help restore the forest. Despite the rise of wildland fires in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, researchers estimate that we still have 10x less fire on the landscape than occurred here pre-European settlement. If conditions allow, the CNF can now better allow naturally occurring wildfires to restore the forest.

Perhaps most importantly, the plan designates most frontcountry and non-wilderness lands for restoration. This ensures that ecological restoration is now the overarching goal of land management on the forest. Ecological restoration focuses on reestablishing the composition, structure, pattern and ecological processes that sustain forest and watershed resilience and health, while also benefiting wildlife habitat and nearby residents.

Hikers enjoy a day in a Colville National Forest Roadless Area, one of the many incredible areas for recreation in northeast Washington. Photo Craig Romano

Sound familiar? That’s because Conservation Northwest was one of the first regional conservation groups to recognize the value of ecological forest restoration. And through our Forest Field Program, we actively develop and support projects that restore and protect forests, rivers and other wildlands while also promoting sustainable forestry and benefiting local communities.

Outdoor recreation benefits, too. We’re working with partners including the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and other local leaders to highlight the incredible public lands and outdoor opportunities northeast Washington has to offer. The success of the recent GET OUT FEST and recreation in the region’s increasing popularity among locals and visitors alike shows there’s a growing desire for healthy, protected wildlands on the Colville National Forest.

Just because this Forest Plan process is ending doesn’t mean our work here is done. Recommended wilderness isn’t the same as officially designated wilderness, and there’s still much work to do to secure the designation through the support of our Congressional leaders. Even a good plan has limited value if not properly implemented on the ground. Long after the plan is finalized, our Forest Field Program team will still be on-the-ground working hard to secure ecological restoration and wildlife protections on public forests across our region.

Bunchgrass Meadows on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. Photo: Eric Zamora