Restoration planned for Libby, Buttermilk creek watersheds

By Ann McCreary

The Methow Ranger District is preparing to issue a description of its proposed action for the Mission Project, a large forest restoration project planned for the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds.

The announcement of the proposed action, and explanation of the purpose and need for the project, is anticipated in mid-April and will initiate the public scoping process, said Meg Trebon, the interdisciplinary team leader for the Mission Project, and fire/fuels/air quality specialist for the Methow Ranger District.

During scoping, the public has 30 days to comment on the plan as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.

The Mission Project proposes to conduct thinning, prescribed burning and other treatments within a 50,000-acre area in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds. The area has been chosen for the project because the U.S. Forest Service has determined that forests in those watersheds have become unnaturally dense, overgrown and vulnerable to extreme fire, insects and disease.

The scoping process provides the public an opportunity to raise concerns and issues relevant to the project.

Using that input, the Forest Service will determine whether it needs to revise plans or create new alternatives, Trebon said.

Depending on factors such as staffing and wildfire activity, a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) would likely be issued in July, initiating another public comment period, Trebon said.

The tentative timeline would call for the final EA in the fall and a final decision notice at the end of the year, she said. The project would get underway in 2017.

New approach

The Mission Project would be conducted using the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy, an approach developed in recent years that plans for management of vegetation, wildlife, aquatics, roads and habitat on large landscapes of 10,000-50,000 acres.

Forest treatments such as thinning and prescribed burning would be conducted on a small percentage of the project area, but would be designed to impact the area as a whole, according to Forest Service officials.

The restoration strategy uses GIS mapping and software programs to evaluate current forest conditions and compare them to historic conditions, before they were impacted by human activities such as fire suppression and logging. Forest treatments are intended to restore natural resilience to wildfire and disease, and to help forests survive a newer threat – climate change.

The Mission Project would be the first project in the Methow Valley to utilize this landscape-scale forest restoration strategy.

Changes in the forests of the Libby and Buttermilk drainages are largely a result of decades of wildfire suppression suppression, according to Forest Service officials.

Libby and Buttermilk are dry, low-elevation watersheds that traditionally would have experienced natural wildfires every five to 15 years, said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger.

Those naturally recurring fires burned at low intensity, clearing out smaller trees and brush and preventing extreme wildfires that destroy large tracts of forests.

However, after nearly 80 years of fire suppression, national forests like those in Buttermilk and Libby watersheds have become so dense and overgrown that they are at risk of unnaturally devastating wildfires that have become more common in recent years, Liu said.

In public meetings about the Mission Project held over the past year, some residents living near the project area have questioned the need for the project and the effectiveness of forest restoration in general, while other residents have lobbied to have forests near their homes included in the project.