Map courtesy of USFS The Mission Restoration Project covers more than 50,000 acres in the Buttermilk Creek and Libby Creek watersheds.

Map courtesy of USFS

The Mission Restoration Project covers more than 50,000 acres in the Buttermilk Creek and Libby Creek watersheds.

Mission Project affects Buttermilk Creek, Libby Creek watersheds

By Ann McCreary

Public comment is being accepted until May 31 on the U.S. Forest Service’s Mission Restoration Project, which proposes forest thinning, prescribed burning, soil treatments and changes to roads within a 50,200-acre area in the Buttermilk Creek and Libby Creek watersheds west of Twisp.

The Methow Valley Ranger District has begun the environmental review process for the Mission Project, which is needed to address declining “ecosystem health and resilience” in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds, according to a letter issued last week by Methow District Ranger Mike Liu.

While the Mission Project area encompasses more than 50,000 acres, only about 20 percent of the total area will undergo some kind of treatment such as tree thinning, commercial harvest, prescribed burning or road changes, said Meg Trebon, leader of an interdisciplinary team that conducted an ecosystem analysis for the project.

Forest research has found that past forest management practices — fire suppression in particular — have contributed to changes that make forests like those in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds more susceptible to extreme wildfire, disease and insect attacks.

The Mission Project is aimed at restoring the forest ecosystem to better match historical conditions, and to improve forest resiliency in light of predicted warmer and drier conditions expected to result from climate change, according to Liu’s letter.

The project is named after Mission Peak, located on the boundary between the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds.

It is the first project in the Methow Ranger District to use the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy, which was completed in 2010. That strategy emphasizes planning for large, landscape-scale projects, and utilizes decision-making software to help evaluate ecosystem conditions, and compare and prioritize alternatives for restoration and management.

A description of the purpose and need for the Mission Restoration Project, proposed actions, and maps of the project are available on the Forest Service website at www.fs.usda.gov/project?project=49201.

“This is everyone’s chance to look at what we are proposing,” Trebon said. “Comments can help us fine-tune our proposal.” She said the public would have another chance to comment after a draft Environmental Assessment is issued, probably in late summer.

A total of 10,258 acres are proposed for thinning or commercial harvest to help restore historical tree species and growth patterns in the project area. Commercial harvest on 2,051 acres “would remove a variety of commercial products, supplying about … 7.8 million board feet of forest products to area mills, wood pellet manufacturers and electric power generating facilities,” according to the Forest Service.

Many purposes

Thinning would serve different purposes including promoting growth of large aspen, reducing conifer competition in some meadow and wetlands areas, reducing ladder fuels and the risk of crown fires, reducing competition among trees for limited moisture, and creating more desirable arrangements and patterns of trees.

In some areas, harvest may be restricted to winter to minimize soil compaction and displacement.  “Winter logging would impact winter recreation in the area by plowing roads open for harvest operations,” the Forest Service said. In summer the harvest would use approaches that minimize soil impacts, according to the Forest Service.

Proposed prescribed fire treatments include underburning on 7,255 acres to reduce natural accumulation of debris, and pile burning on 3,721 acres to reduce slash created by thinning. Some debris would be available for firewood collection where it is consistent with current forest firewood policy, according to the project description.

Fireline around the underburn units would use existing roads and trails where possible, and an additional 28.6 miles of hand fireline and 2.1 miles of machine fireline are proposed to secure burn unit boundaries.

Proposed changes to roads within the Mission Project area include construction of 1.25 miles of temporary roads to access harvest units while the project is underway, and decommissioning them when the harvest is completed.

Culverts would be replaced at six locations to restore fish passage, “improving access on about four miles of suitable fish habitat.”

Of 56 miles of currently open Forest Service roads in the project area, 51 miles would remain open to the public, three would be closed to the public and two would be decommissioned after the project is completed.

Of 65 miles of currently closed roads in the project area, four would be opened to the public, 41 would remain closed and 20 would be decommissioned post-project; and of 15 unauthorized roads, one would be opened to the public, three closed and 11 decommissioned after the project.

No activities are proposed to take place on 15,770 acres of Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness land within the Mission Project boundaries.

Two acres of underburning and 900 feet of hand fireline are proposed in the Sawtooth Inventoried Roadless Area to create a burn unit boundary. No roads would be constructed in the roadless area, according to the project description.

The project proposes understory thinning and prescribed burning on 116 acres of the Sawtooth and Twisp River Late Successional Reserves, which are managed to protect and enhance old-growth forest conditions.

Adverse conditions

In identifying needs for the project, the Forest Service cited numerous adverse ecosystem conditions within the project area, including:

• Damage to aquatic habitat caused by roads that funnel sediment into streams, and changes in vegetation that have reduced water flow and wetland habitat in some areas.

• Loss of quality habitat for northern spotted owls, northern goshawk, white-headed woodpeckers, western gray squirrels and other species as a result of past management actions and changes in vegetation compared to historical conditions.

• Soil compaction in previously harvested areas that limits native plant growth, reduces resiliency of plant communities and compromises natural soil functions.

• Changes in vegetation composition and structure from historical conditions, including unnaturally dense and uniform forests that are more susceptible to insects, disease and extreme wildfire.

• Deteriorating road conditions due to lack of adequate funding for maintenance, resulting in issues such as undersized culverts that allow sediment to enter streams and damage fish habitat, and roads that have structural and safety concerns.

The Forest Service also cited wildfire risk in the wildland urban interface as a need to be addressed through the project.

Dense forests near some private land in the project area could encourage movement of fire from the forest floor up into the canopy, resulting in “crown fire behavior that increases risk to life and property, limits direct (fire) suppression opportunities, and promote large fire growth,” according to the Forest Service

Additionally, fuel accumulation and vegetation along Forest Service roads 4300 and 4340, which are primary travel routes through the project area, may increase fire intensity and “limit the use of these routes during wildfire evacuation or access for suppression resources,” the project description said.

The project proposes treatments to reduce the risk of crown fire in areas of urban wildland interface and along the main Forest Service roads in the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds.

Planning for the Mission Project got underway more than two years ago, but progress on the project was delayed because Forest Service staff had to deal with the extreme wildfires of the past two summers, Trebon said. A small section of the project area — 1,245 acres in the lower portion of the Libby Creek drainage — burned in the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, she said.

After the initial public comment period ends May 31, issues raised in comments will be identified and alternatives will be developed. An Environmental Assessment is projected to be ready for public review in August 2016, and a decision is expected in February 2017.

Electronic comments can be submitted to: comments-pacificnorthwest-okanogan-methowvalley@fs.fed.us. Letters can be addressed to Meg Trebon, Methow Valley Ranger District, 24 W. Chewuch Road, Winthrop, WA 98862.  For further information contact Trebon at 996-4032.