Snoquera Decision – What it means for Central Cascades watersheds

Snoquera Decision – What it means for Central Cascades watersheds

Conservation Northwest / Nov 18, 2019 / Central Cascades, Forestry, Work Updates

Forest restoration makes progress, while watershed improvements fall short in the upper Green River watershed.

By Laurel Baum, Central Cascades Conservation Associate

This summer, the Snoqualmie District of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (MBSNF) published their final management proposal for the “Snoquera” landscape between Greenwater and Crystal Mountain, bordered on the south by Mount Rainier National Park and encompassing much of the upper Green and upper White river watersheds.

The Snoquera landscape in the Central Cascades is a popular destination for hikers, horseback riders, hunters and other recreationists. Photo: Laurel Baum

Just over an hour from the Puget Sound metro area, the Snoquera landscape is incredibly popular for outdoor recreation, from hikers, backpackers and equestrians to off-road vehicle users, mountain bikers and target shooters. Elk and black-tailed deer are native food sources for hunters from the Muckleshoot and Snoqualmie tribes, and are resources for non-tribal hunters as well.

The area was historically important habitat for wild salmon, steelhead and bull trout, but downstream dams and erosion from ill-maintained forest roads have severely reduced returns. In all, this is a landscape loved by many, with diverse values for a wide variety of stakeholders, making it the core of our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration program.

Through this program, we work to restore habitat on public lands north and south of Interstate 90 that are vital to wildlife movement between Mount Rainier National Park and the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. We push land managers to commit to landscape-scale plans that support significant watershed restoration while increasing core habitat for wildlife and enhancing connectivity in the Cascades.

We’ve been working with the MBSNF to implement landscape-scale restoration in the Snoquera project since planning began, and earlier this year, we asked you to comment on the Draft Environmental Assessment, along with submitting our own letter to the Forest.

Now, in their final management proposal, the Forest Service is planning the following actions, explained more in-depth below:

  • 12,000 acres of variable density timber thinning;
  • 3,000 acres of non-commercial and habitat improvement vegetation treatments;
  • 24 miles of road decommissioning, 54 miles of stormproofing to hydrologically repair roads for access;
  • 53 sites for improved aquatic habitat connectivity; and
  • A suite of other restoration and recreation projects such as stream improvements, dispersed camping site improvements and trailhead enhancements.
A healthy forest in the Central Cascades. There is enough space in the canopy for light to reach the forest floor, benefiting understory plants as well as larger, older trees. Photo: Laurel Baum

Overall, these actions would improve habitat for wildlife and watershed conditions for at-risk runs of salmon, as well as accelerate the timeframe for gaining older forests, which species like marbled murrelets and fishers depend upon. These are important steps that improve a vital wildlife habitat connection in the Central Cascades.

For culturally significant species like elk and huckleberry, there are up to 400 acres of proposed huckleberry enhancement actions through non-commercial thinning and elk-forage habitat restoration, which is a priority for the Coast Salish tribes in the region.

Forest Restoration  

An example of what an overcrowded stand in need of ecological thinning looks like. Photo: Laurel Baum

One major reason for forest restoration on the Snoquera landscape is because of its “forest plantations”—patches of land that were clearcut and densely replanted soon after, therefore lacking a multi-layered canopy that supports biodiversity.

To restore these overcrowded forests, variable density thinning removes smaller trees and maintains the largest ones to improve the diversity and structure on the landscape. It also allows more light to reach the forest floor, giving understory plant communities, like huckleberries and wildlife forage, a better environment to thrive. This benefits the forest as well as wildlife from elk and deer to fishers.

Large trees benefit from ecological thinning, too. More space in the canopy accelerates their growth, and because they’re competing less for resources, they have larger growth rings and sequester more carbon—key characteristics of an old-growth forest.

Watershed Improvements

A fisher visits one of our monitoring camera sites in the Central Cascades. Photo: CWMP

The Snoquera project includes a number of actions aimed at improving riparian conditions, including moving dispersed camping sites and unauthorized roads away from rivers and creeks.  This would complement other ongoing actions, like tree tipping (placing trees or large woody debris into streams) to improve habitat, enlarging stream passageways to ensure aquatic connectivity, or removing unnecessary culverts that create stream blockages.

However, there’s a tremendous amount of large-scale restoration still needed in these upland watersheds. The Forest Service could take bolder steps toward landscape-scale restoration by more aggressively reducing road density and its negative impacts to these key watersheds, or even approving more watershed restoration actions now and working with diverse partnerships on collaborative funding to complete the work.

A downfall of the Snoquera project is the failure to appropriately address long-standing issues in the upper Green River watershed, covering about half the planning area. We need to hear strong commitment from the Forest Service to put this watershed back on the planning table, and for all landowners in this landscape to step up to the complex challenge of shared stewardship.

A map of the Snoquera Landscape Analysis. The upper Green River watershed encompasses nearly half of the project area.

Upper Green River Watershed

The Forest Services’ aquatics report states that project activities will have no measureable effects on the upper Green. MBSNF has made no future commitments to address degraded aquatic conditions in this watershed, and in the Environmental Analysis, it stated “the Green River was not assessed due to the discontinuous ownership pattern”.

The health of upland watersheds in the Central Cascades impacts local wildlife as well as downstream communities like Seattle and Tacoma.

Achieving meaningful commitments and actions is complicated by a joint-ownership road system and checkerboard of private and public land between the Forest Service, timber companies, and the Tacoma Public Utility District, which gets its drinking water from the upper Green. We recognize landscape-scale restoration here will take time, coordination, and combined efforts from all landowners on the landscape.

The Snoquera project presents an opportunity to prioritize watershed-scale actions that would improve the spawning and juvenile out-migration of endangered salmon species, which are an alarmingly dwindling food source for our native orcas. The upper Green watershed also provides drinking water to South Seattle, feeding into the Duwamish River, and is an important contributor to the health of the Puget Sound. The Forest Service should implement stronger actions that will restore the upper Green River into a healthy, functioning watershed.

Roads and Transportation Systems

We appreciate the Forest’s commitment to removing harmful, user-created trails and roads. Our forests, wetlands and bogs all act as filters on the landscape, removing and settling out fine sediments before entering creeks and rivers. When areas become deeply eroded and rutted by vehicles, we lose this ecosystem service that helps to protect our watersheds.

Elk Forage areas

An elk in the Central Cascades, near Greenwater. Photo: Laurel Baum

Nearly 40 acres of elk forage area (open sections of land created to provide food sources for ungulates) have become degraded from human-related activity. Unfortunately, noise from firearms and trash dumping have disturbed and displaced wildlife.

We respect that recreational target shooting is a legitimate use of these public lands, but this activity must be conducted safely and responsibly, and management must respond to abuses. Due to safety, trash and wildlife concerns, we fully support the shooting closures adjacent to Road 7013.

One issue that came up in the draft Snoquera decision around elk forage areas was the consideration of using non-native seeds for revegetation. While native seeds would still be the first choice, this would go against Forest Service rulings and is an unnecessary step to take when a native plant community could easily be established.

A need for collaboration

We are glad to see ecologically-sound aquatic restoration and forest treatments moving forward on this landscape through the Snoquera decision, but it also highlights the need for a holistic, long-term look through an “all-lands lens”, especially on the impaired and at-risk upper Green River watershed.

We have been working with the Forest Service to implement landscape-scale forest and watershed restoration in the Central Cascades.

We need to see the MBSNF, private timber companies and the Tacoma Public Utilities District collaborate on improving watershed health. By decomissioning non-essential roads, storm-proofing existing roads and committing to improved aquatic habitat connectivity, restoration on the Snoquera landscape will benefit wildlife and human communities.

Through our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration program, we’ll continue to work with the MBSNF to implement actions that improve watershed conditions, and partner with other stakeholders to communicate and further an ethic of stewardship.

As an area filled with recreation opportunities so close to the ever-growing Puget Sound area, the Snoquera landscape offers the potential for sustainable enjoyment for hikers, wildlife watchers, hunters and anglers and other users. But we have more work to do to repair the damage done to these watersheds so people and wildlife can enjoy them, forever.

The Central Cascades are a hub for wildlife connectivity as well as human recreation. We’re working to ensure that it is enjoyed sustainably, and habitat is restored for native species that depend on it. Photo: Laurel Baum