Colville National Forest

Working toward permanent protections for northeast Washington’s wildest roadless forests, particularly the crest of the Kettle Range

June 2023 update: Use your voice to protect endangered lynx habitat and old growth in Colville National Forest

Between the North Cascades and the Rocky Mountains in northeast Washington is the Colville National Forest, in an area also known as the Columbia Highlands. Subalpine peaks and roadless forests of pine and larch dot the crest of the Kettle River Mountain Range in Ferry County and the Selkirk Mountains in Pend Oreille County. Below these high points, rolling conifer forests, ranch lands and gentle river valleys transition into the steppe of the Columbia Basin and Okanogan Highlands. Much of this land is managed as the Colville National Forest, while areas of state, private and tribal land also abound.

Increased wildland protections, such as designated wilderness, are badly needed on the Colville. The Forest contains more than 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands but less than three percent is currently officially designated Wilderness, the smallest amount of any National Forest in the Pacific Northwest! Most notable is the absence of wilderness protections for the vast tracts of wild country in the Kettle River Mountain Range.

The Colville National Forest also includes diverse habitat for wildlife, from wolves, lynx and grizzly bears to mountain caribou, elk, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and dozens of species of migratory birds and other native species—much the same mix of wildlife as 200 years ago.

This landscape also provides habitat connections between the Cascades to the Rockies. As the climate changes and wildlands are lost to development, permanently protecting northeast Washington’s roadless forests and maintaining connected paths between habitats becomes even more essential.

Map of Roadless Areas on the Colville National Forest

A map of wild Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) and wilderness-quality lands on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington’s Columbia Highlands. Map: Amelia Tiedemann.

News on the Colville National Forest

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A scenic trail in the Abercrombie Mountain Roadless Area, near Ione in northeast Washington. Photo: Eric Zamora

Colville Wild: A resource for Washington’s Last Frontier

The Columbia Highlands Initiative was an effort from 2008 through 2012 by Conservation Northwest, the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition (NEWFC), Kettle Range Conservation Group, The Lands Council, Vaagen Brothers Lumber and other local organizations, businesses and outdoor recreationists to protect the wild crest of the Kettle River Mountain Range, along with other Roadless Areas on northeast Washington’s Colville National Forest.

Local conservation and recreation leaders like Dick Slagle had long worked to preserve Washington’s “Last Frontier”, and the Columbia Highlands Initiative aimed to meet that goal through community dialogue and reasonable compromise. A collaborative agreement reached in 2010 sought to improve recreation access and increase responsible timber harvest on frontcountry areas of the Colville National Forest, while permanently protecting backcountry Roadless Areas as Wilderness; creating a win-win for conservation, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and local businesses and economies.

Unfortunately, despite widespread support and longstanding collaboration between diverse interests through NEWFC along with elected representatives and the U.S. Forest Service, after a “sea change” in Congress and disagreement from some local leaders, this campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.

Since 2012, many of the participants in the Columbia Highlands Initiative and the NEWFC collaborative have been heavily involved in the update of the Colville National Forest’s 10-Year Forest Plan, which was finally released in 2018 and formalized in late 2019. Yet this plan currently includes far less recommended Wilderness and other critical forest and watershed protections that conservationists and outdoor recreationists called for.

As the new Colville Forest Plan is implemented, work continues for permanent protections for northeast Washington’s wildest areas, particularly the crest of the Kettle Range, Abercrombie Mountain, Salmo-Priest Addition, Hoodoo Canyon and other key Roadless Areas.

We’ve re-envisioned this page as Colville Wild: an online resource to highlight these amazing landscapes, and the pressing need to conserve them for future generations. We’ll also feature outdoor recreation opportunities and tips, as well as share local community stories and values⁠—all of which make up the rich human and natural heritage of northeast Washington.

Sunset on the Kettle Crest. Photo: Eric Zamora

Visit northeast Washington

Here the mystique of the American West lives on. Historic valley-bottom ranches maintain habitat and open space. Wildlands teem with abundant and diverse wildlife, and locally-owned timber mills provide family-wage jobs and wood products.

Excellent hikes abound on the colville national forest! The Kettle Crest Trail, THIRTEENMILE CANYON and ABERCROMBIE MOUNTAIN are some of our favorites.

The region’s mix of wildlands, ranches and working forests represents a network of habitat that keeps the Cascades and the Rockies connected for wide-ranging species like wolves, lynx, grizzly bears and other wildlife.

Waiting for Wilderness

With a Congress that seems unable to act on many of the nation’s top priorities—including common ground conservation and natural resource policy for northeast Washington—moving forward with a community-based plan for protecting these wild places and improving forestry on public lands to benefit local communities and wildlife has been challenging.

Since the mid-2000s, the Columbia Highlands Initiative made great strides toward greater collaboration, improving forestry practices on the Colville National Forest and safeguarding working ranchlands that provide important habitat for wildlife. Recently, through the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and other avenues, we’ve moved forward on informing the Colville Forest Plan in support of more wilderness protections on the Colville National Forest.

The Forest’s analysis of the Kettle Range’s undeveloped Roadless Areas gave the Profanity Peak, Bald Snow, Hoodoo, and Thirteenmile Roadless Areas high ratings in several key criteria. All provide outstanding opportunities for wilderness recreation, including day hiking, backpacking, hunting, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing; all are within an easy day’s drive from the greater Spokane area.

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

These areas provide the wild, scenic backdrop for the region’s many scenic driving routes and communities that promote the rustic, remote backcountry as part of a growing recreation and tourism economy in northeast Washington.

Now, in the morass that is today’s United States Congress, political traction is needed to bring all sides together to come up with a plan that works for wildlife and local communities—protecting wilderness, restoring forests, and connecting habitats for the future.

We will continue to rally public support for wilderness recommendations for the Kettle Crest, Salmo-Priest Additions, Abercrombie Mountain and other wild areas and look for opportunities to engage local elected officials and stakeholders to find common ground around wilderness and other forest management issues.

Learn more about the history of wilderness work in northeast Washington in our 2009 web video series Columbia Highlands Wilderness

Colville Forest Plan

In October 2019, after a 15-year process, the Colville National Forest released its final plan by which our public lands are managed for wilderness, wildlife, recreation, forestry and other values. Despite strong local support for more Wilderness and vast areas of qualifying pristine wild country, the plan recommended wilderness protections for only three areas, leaving most quality lands without permanent protection. This is deeply disappointing.

The Forest contains more than 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands but less than three percent is currently officially designated Wilderness, the smallest amount of any National Forest in the Pacific Northwest! Most notable is the absence of wilderness protections for the vast tracts of wild country in the Kettle River Mountain Range.

We made several objections to the final plan through our partnership with Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, yet it still recommends wilderness for fewer than 62,000 acres across northeast Washington, mostly in the Selkirk Mountains adjacent to the existing Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area and for Abercrombie-Hooknose. In the Kettle Range, only portions of Bald Snow were recommended for wilderness. That’s far less than needed to meet demand from local businesses, hikers, wildlife watchers, hunters and many others who have long advocated for at least 200,000 acres of new permanently-protected backcountry areas on the Colville. The Forest has left out a substantial amount of quality and qualifying land for wildlife and recreation.

With more than 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands, like the Abercrombie-Hooknose Roadless Area, the Colville Forest Plan should designate more wilderness. Photo: Eric Zamora

Despite its shortcomings, the final plan is an overall improvement for management on the CNF. For instance, the plan allows greater use of fire, both natural and controlled or prescribed burning, to help restore the forest. The plan also 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.

Just because the planning process is finished 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.

Collaborating with local forestry businesses and other stakeholders is an important aspect of our work. Learn more on our webpage or watch the 2010 documentary series From Controversy to Common Ground.
The incredible view of the Colville National Forest and beyond from Abercrombie-Hooknose Roadless Area. Photo: Eric Zamora.