Restoring forests, waters, and fire on the Okanogan-Wenatchee

Restoring forests, waters, and fire on the Okanogan-Wenatchee

Conservation Northwest / Apr 20, 2018 / Forest Field Program, Protecting Wildlands

Finding common-ground on the Mission Project in north-central Washington

By George Wooten, Conservation Associate and Okanogan Forest Field Staff

In the Methow Valley, a forest project is moving ahead with conservation guidelines, benefits for both forest health and local economies, and our support thanks to common-ground reached through collaboration.

My personal involvement in the landscape of the Mission Restoration Project just west of Twisp began years ago, hiking through Libby Creek into the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness and swimming at Black Pine Lake. Later, I found my first spotted owl here, and the discovery of the Lookout Wolf Pack nearby in 2008 added to my excitement about this important area home to a variety of fish and wildlife.

George Wooten supervises a restoration project in the Cascades. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Living and working in the Methow Valley, I serve as Conservation Northwest’s Forest Field Program representative on the east side of the North Cascades, working with the Forest Service and other stakeholders to restore fish and wildlife habitat. I also participate in the North-Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, a diverse group of local organizations, businesses and land managers working together to advance landscape-scale forest and aquatic restoration on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Chelan and Okanogan counties.

The Collaborative’s purpose is to promote actions that improve forest resiliency, preserve terrestrial and aquatic wildlife habitat, protect natural resources, provide recreational opportunities, promote utilization of natural resources, and support local economies.

When the Mission Restoration Project was proposed under another name around 2008, the local community and conservation groups firmly rejected it due to concerns lingering from a previous project in the area, which had involved dozens of high elevation clear-cuts.

It’s important to note that forest restoration, including selective logging and prescribed fire, is an important part of improving forest conditions in many dry forests like those in Eastern Washington. Decades of fire suppression and high-grade logging (old-growth tree removal) has resulted in crowded small trees with overabundant deadfall and dry brush—conditions that help spread fires over large areas instead of fostering the smaller burns that would regularly refresh these forests while leaving large pine trees intact.

Ponderosa pine forest thinned to improve habitat and forest health in the Mission Project area. Photo: USFS

The status quo is not sustainable, and outside designated wilderness, roadless, and other areas timber harvest is an acceptable part of the multiple-use mandate of our national forest lands. But it needs to be done carefully, with sustainability at the forefront and by avoiding impacts on sensitive wildlife and other forest values.

With these goals in mind, our Forest Field Program works with agencies and other stakeholders to make science-based restoration projects work for all stakeholders, including local forestry businesses and wildlife. With the Mission Project, the critical step was to invest in project design and collaborate with the Forest Service through the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative. This time around, we wanted to understand the science and work with the agency to identify a set of restoration actions that we could all get behind.

Over several years, we informed and evaluated project plans where we could through the Collaborative. We went out and monitored wildlife, took pictures, measured trees, documented old roads and brought all this back to the Forest Planners who did their best to accommodate new information into redeveloping the project alternatives.

In the end, the Mission Project is a model project that we hope to see replicated across the region. It will include commercial thinning (also known as selective logging) on 1,853 acres of forest, mostly on frozen ground in winter when soil impacts are negligible, as well as non-commercial thinning on 8,300 acres to restore the forest’s ecological structure, function, and composition. The project is estimated to generate more than $3.2 million dollars in timber value at the mill.

A prescribed fire in a Ponderosa Pine forest. When applied correctly, this type of managed fire can be an important restoration tool. Photo: USFS

Prescribed burning is planned for 10,000 acres over a 15-year period, an important tool to revitalize this area and one we’re eager to see implemented. Other project components will support the retention of native aspen trees on 201 acres. Just under 34 miles of road will also be decommissioned, improving habitat security for wildlife, reducing sediment in streams, and boosting opportunities for wildlife watching, hunting and other human-powered recreation.

To improve passage for wild Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout, eight undersized culverts will be replaced. Eight creek locations will also be enhanced for future beaver use, which helps restore wetland habitat and helps retain precious water during the summer.

All in all, we support the Mission Project and are proud of our years of work to improve it. But we recognize more can be done to reduce road density and restoration in these two watersheds. So our job is not done and we’ll continue to be engaged for the next five years of the project. But what really gives this work meaning for me was having a part in evolving the project over time from a top-down logging directive to a comprehensive restoration project that involved our local community and recognizes the rich ecological values of the national forest in this wonderful part of the Methow Valley.