Twisp River Restoration Project: after the fire line

Twisp River Restoration Project: after the fire line

Conservation Northwest / Sep 29, 2021 / Forest Field Program, Methow Valley, Protecting Wildlands

Conservation Northwest staff weigh in on U.S. Forest Service fire suppression fuelbreak tactics in the Methow Valley

By Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director

Nothing really prepares you for it. Even after everyone had seen the loaded log trucks for weeks—one after another, day after day—hauling down Twisp River road with big fat old trees occasionally buried deep among smaller stems. The logs all now lay in neat rows hundreds of feet long at the Forest Service Smokejumper base near Winthrop, over a million and a half board feet from all the Methow Valley’s fire suppression work.

At the periodic briefings in August, the Forest Service reported that they were building fuelbreak contingency lines along the Twisp River, even as the Cedar Creek fire subsided. The fuelbreak was described as a place that firefighters could start a burnout operation to protect homes should the fire unexpectedly cross the exposed rocky Abernathy Ridge.

The Cedar Creek wildfire burns in Methow Valley in late July 2021. Lucky Jim Bluff, near Mazama, is seen behind. Photo Jessica Kelley
In several places older trees and large-diameter dead snags were cut haphazardly with no apparent value for reducing fire hazards or improving firefighter safety, all without proper environmental review or public input. Photo by Michael Liu

Last Friday, the forest closure lifted and we went to see what happened.

The upper Twisp River contains a long narrow peninsula of old forest along the valley bottom with large areas freshly burned in the Crescent fire to the South, and extensive exposed rock bands, grass and stringers of trees to the North below Abernathy Ridge. This span of forest is a designated old-growth forest reserve (Late-successional Reserve in Okanogan Forest Plan) where large old trees, snags and down wood provide habitat for spotted owls, fisher, marten, goshawk, and other old forest associated plants and animals.

The freshly constructed shaded fuelbreak runs along the main Twisp River Road and primarily on the upslope side toward the rock bands below Abernathy. Roughly 200 feet wide, it extends for 10 miles deep into the wild county along the road, carving a linear 250 acre strip up through the old-growth reserve.

To the casual observer, some of the fuelbreak actions might look reasonable. There are a few places in that lower 10 mile stretch where great care was taken – only the small trees and brush were cut down and removed; lower branches pruned from larger trees.

Some areas where smaller trees and understory brush were thinned to create fuelbreaks looked pretty good, and support improved wildlife habitat and forest health. Photo by Michael Liu.

But as you travel upriver, more serious and troubling questions emerge. Why does the thinning get more aggressive further up the river, away from private property and close to recent burn areas where risk is low? How was a fuelbreak parallel to the valley going to actually keep fire from spreading down valley where the homes are located? If the fire had actually crested Abernathy Ridge, why could they not backfire or burnout from the road, as needed, like they did during the Crescent fire just across the river? Why were small trees and brush cut and left behind in many places, increasing fire risk and intensity? Why the smattering of clearcut patches, some on the other side of the road? The whole effort seems so haphazard like multiple crews operated independently with different machines, intensity, purpose and levels of oversight.

In many cases, smaller trees and brush are left behind, greatly diminishing the effectiveness of the fuelbreak. Photo by Michael Liu

Perhaps most distressing of all, why did they feel they needed to cut all the very large and sturdy old growth snags along this unique strip of valley bottom forest? Where were the local resource advisors? Large old snags require centuries to grow and develop and sound snags can persist for decades and more. Old growth snags are important because they provide unique habitat for primary and secondary cavity nesters as well as other old growth/large tree dependent species such as fisher. Snags are critical to ecological function. Big snags persist on the landscape longer and store more carbon than smaller snags. The purpose of designating the upper Twisp River as a Reserve was to protect these large snags and other old-growth forest habitat. We are working closely with locals in the community who have also raised these issues.

Earlier this year, the Forest Field program urged Conservation Northwest members to comment on the Twisp Restoration Project, where this firebreak is now located. We raised the alarm that the Methow Valley Ranger District was considering actions that conflicted with the Forest’s restoration strategy, cut down large resilient old-growth trees, expanded off-road vehicles use, over aggressively thinned quality wildlife habitat, and permitted salvage logged where fire recovery was well underway. And proposed cutting extensive shaded fuelbreaks!

CNW staff, local to the area, survey fuelbreaks and note old growth snags that were cut.

With your support, we called for change (while also strongly supporting the aquatic restoration, road decommissioning and prescribed fire under consideration!) and committed to steering the Forest Service toward ecological restoration along with our partners at the North Central Washington Collaborative. The Methow Valley Ranger District committed to making some meaningful changes. To inform discussions, our stellar intern Ali Palm prepared a critique of fuelbreaks: panacea or placebo. We were making good progress when the Cedar Creek fire put everything on hold.

Dave Werntz, our Science and Conservation Director, who lives and works in Twisp in the Methow Valley.

The Cedar fire burned portions of the Twisp Restoration Project area, including areas where prescribed burns were planned. However, during fire suppression activities, fuel breaks and other contingency lines were cut along Thompson Ridge and Little Bridge Creek basin in addition to Twisp River. Circumstances have changed substantially, and the Project will require another hard look with fresh eyes. An updated landscape evaluation and prescription to factor the fire’s affect and suppression impacts could inform next steps and help refine scope and scale. We are actively supporting the use of the NEWFIRE post fire landscape restoration tool to do just that.

Sadly, we cannot get those quality old snags back. We will advocate for changes to policies that exclude or prevent public oversight, and allow the use of forest closure orders to restrict public access to burned areas even after fire threat is over, and against Categorical Exclusions and Condition-based Management that also restrict public oversight.

The public has a crucial ongoing role to support quality restoration (e.g. funding, advocacy, amici) and resisting and blocking bad ideas and practices before the damage is done. The Twisp River shaded fuelbreak, like the Wolverine shaded fuelbreak near Lake Wenatchee, are enduring reminders.

For further information on our work on the Okanogan national forest please visit the FIELD FOREST PROGRAM on our website
The Twisp River area landscape, near the Twisp Forest Restoration Project area. Photo by Chase Gunnell.