Promoting resilient forests for people and wildlife through the Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project

Promoting resilient forests for people and wildlife through the Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project

Conservation Northwest / Dec 26, 2018 / Forest Field Program, National Forests, Wildfire

We’re part of a new collaborative effort to restore forest health near Lake Wenatchee and reduce wildfire risks for nearby communities.

By Jen Watkins, conservation associate
The Chiwawa River north of Lake Wenatchee, a key watershed in a new collaborative forest restoration project we’re involved in. Photo: Kelly Smith

A flagship effort since Conservation Northwest’s founding, for thirty years our Forest Field Program has used science and collaboration to promote the restoration of wildlands in Washington and beyond. We work at the landscape scale—looking at the big picture to understand how projects influence forest and habitat health across large areas, even entire ecosystems. 

Forest collaboration is a key component of our Forest Field Program, and we’re actively involved in numerous ground-breaking coalitions that address issues crucial to wildlife, wildlands and people.

We currently maintain forest staffers for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville national forests. Our Central Cascades Watersheds Restoration program also conducts focused work between the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Mount Rainier.

As part of our Forest Field Program, I’m excited to announce our involvement in a new collaborative effort to restore forest health in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) through the Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project (UWRPP). 

Check out a map of the project area below!

The extent of the Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project, centered around Lake Wenatchee and the town of Plain, north of Highway 2 between Stevens Pass and Leavenworth. Click here for a larger version!

Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project

Led by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in collaboration with the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (NCWFHC), the main goal of this new pilot project is to restore forest resiliency and watershed health on national forest lands, while reducing the risk of fire to surrounding communities.

The UWRPP covers 75,000 acres in the north-central Cascades, just north of Highway 2. This area is significant for several reasons. It provides important habitat for species including martens, goshawks, and wolverines. It’s partially within the Chiwawa Late Successional Reserve—old-growth forest that’s important for spotted owls. Additionally, this project overlaps with the designated North Cascades Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone, offering an opportunity to improve the quality of habitat and bear food sources, like huckleberries.

The project area is also vital summer range and connecting habitat for Chelan County’s migratory mule deer. These iconic ungulates spend their summers feeding in the highcountry of the Glacier Peak, Henry M. Jackson and Alpine Lakes wilderness areas, traveling down to winter range near Plain, Leavenworth, Wenatchee and Entiat each fall. Development in their migration routes and a loss of the traditional forest mosaic, with more open meadows and slopes rich with food, have impacted the health and abundance of these herds in recent decades. A small resident herd of Rocky Mountain elk also calls the area home.

A wolverine photographed at a Citizen Wildlife Monitoring Project site near Lake Wenatchee. Photo: Conservation Northwest / CWMP

Human and recreational values abound in this landscape as well. The Lake Wenatchee area is a top destination for outdoor enthusiasts from both Western and Eastern Washington. Many thousands of visitors flock here each year to float the Wenatchee River, hike to iconic destinations such as Spider Meadows, mountain bike or ride motorcycles on designated routes, backcountry hunt or horseback ride in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, or otherwise enjoy this popular part of Washington’s Cascades.

Local communities are vibrant, too. And the nearby towns of Leavenworth, Wenatchee and Plain are no strangers to the risks of wildfire and the urgent need to increase forest resilience here. The Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project is part of the response to the 2015 wildfire season, calling for increased community preparedness and strategic planning for landscape-scale restoration to promote resilient forests.

Members of the community are active partners in the UWRPP, bringing forward key community values. Similar to the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, which Conservation Northwest is a member of, an important outcome of this project will be supporting a fire-resilient community of residents and homeowners.

Jim Passage is a local land and homeowner and member of the Plain/Lake Wenatchee community, who moved to the area with his family in part for the outdoor recreation opportunities. He has been actively involved in the project by attending meetings with the USFS, NCWFHC, Washington Department of Natural Resources and other partners.

“The environment is changing, no doubt about it,” Passage said, reflecting on the increased wildfires he’s experienced in recent years. “Reducing fuels and restoring forest health on public lands is important to me and my family because we want to preserve our community.”

Passage is one of many dedicated locals who would rather put forth the effort to make their community more resilient to wildfires than abandon it.

“That’s why I’m supporting the Upper Wenatchee Restoration Pilot Project,” he said.

Forest roads like this one are important for public and emergency access, but they can also negatively impact wildlife and fish habitat. We’re working to find the right balance. Photo: Kelly Smith

Another major goal of the project is improving the health of wildlife habitat and the four watersheds within the project area. We’re considering strategies that include selectively thinning trees, increasing the use of prescribed fires, and restoring meadows and reconnecting floodplains. For healthier watersheds, we’re addressing factors such as road density, stream crossings and culverts to accommodate changes caused by climate change.

The UWRPP is considered a pilot project because we are trying a number of new approaches to test our efficiency and effectiveness in strategic, landscape-scale restoration. For Conservation Northwest, we see this as a chance to inform how we move forward to meet the needs across the entire 4 million acres of the OWNF.

Though the project is still in the planning phase, we’ve been involved since its conception. I am on the core team, which includes members from the USFS and NCWFHC, and I’m also the project chair for the terrestrial subgroup. My role in the UWRPP is to fully consider and explore ways to improve the landscape for wildlife and promote forest resiliency during the planning phase.

Throughout 2018, the UWRPP has identified which data and resources we need to best inform the restoration this landscape. The USFS will officially initiate the project development in early 2019, and a final decision on the project will be made later that winter. Implementation will begin in the spring of 2020, and Conservation Northwest will work with partners to ensure its success.

We’ll provide suggested comments on the UWRPP when the scoping comment period opens early next year.

We know healthy forests and watersheds go hand-in-hand with healthy, prosperous communities and abundant wildlife. For the Upper Wenatchee Pilot Project, restoring forest health is especially important as these communities learn to coexist with wildfire.

Learn more about collaborative efforts to restore Northwest forests through our Forest Field Program.
Morning fog lifts over the Lake Wenatchee area on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo: Chase Gunnell