By Ann McCreary
The case for thinning forests to improve their health and reduce fire risk was made last week by a panel of four people offering different perspectives.
The discussion featured private landowners, a conservationist and a small lumber company representative, who told an audience at the Twisp Valley Grange that selectively cutting trees plays an important role in protecting the dry forests of eastern Washington.
The panel discussion on Sept. 22 was sponsored by the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit forest conservation organization, and the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, formed in 2013 to promote forest restoration.
Vicki Simmons of Mazama described how she evolved from a property owner who planned her house “so as not to take out any trees” to a community activist who has advocated for thinning trees and removing fuels in her forested neighborhood.
After the Needles Fire in 2003 came within one-quarter mile of her Lost River home, Simmons began working to obtain grant money to reduce forest fire risk on private property in Lost River, and then held discussions with the U.S. Forest Service about the fire threat from overgrown forests on adjacent federal lands.
Due in part to strong community support, the Forest Service allocated $1 million for a project that will thin smaller understory trees in forests near Driveway Butte, Sandy Butte, Lucky Jim Bluff and Lost River Road.
The “Lost Driveway Hazard Fuels Thinning Project” will thin trees on almost 1,500 acres that abut private properties in the first phase of a larger project.
“Humans have changed the course of nature” by suppressing fires that are a natural part of the dry forest ecosystem, Simmons said. “Thinning and fuels reduction is what gets us back to what Mother Nature intended.”
Another private landowner, Ross Frank of Leavenworth, has been involved for several years with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition (CWSC), a grassroots organization formed by local citizens to address wildfire issues in the Leavenworth community.
The coalition has received grants to plan and implement wildfire risk reduction programs, and Frank advocated the grassroots approach to protecting private property.
“It’s citizens taking care of our own neighborhood and empowering ourselves to take care of our own destiny in dry forests. It’s making a real physical change to your home and your woodlot and a change in your culture and how we live in dry forests,” Frank said.
“The effective work done today is at the grassroots level. In the public arena you have to hold on to your shorts and get ready for a long ride.”
The federal government is not adequately addressing the extreme fire risk in national forests where fires have been suppressed for decades, he said. “We’re out of scale … we treat 3,000 acres and have 300,000 acres that need treatment,” Frank said.
“We need a clear, concise mandate from Congress to make a change in the physical landscape. Until there is a clear mandate for acres to be thinned, we’re not going to accomplish anything of real substance,” he said.
Change in mindset
Mike Anderson, a 30-year member of The Wilderness Society, described a similar change in mindset from his early days of involvement in the spotted owl controversy and “fighting timber companies.”
Over time, he said, “it became clear that just protecting forests from logging or creating wilderness wasn’t doing it, especially for the dry east side” of the Cascade Mountains.
Anderson said he became involved forest restoration initiatives in Oregon to thin trees and conduct burning on thousands of acres. “The thought of taking a chainsaw to these [forests] bites into people’s sensitivity about what is right for the landscape environmentally,” he said.
He commended a forest restoration strategy developed in 2010 for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as “science-based.”
“It looks at the historical landscape and tries to restore the natural resilience of the landscape,” Anderson said. The forest restoration strategy is proposed for a 50,000-acre project in the Libby and Buttermilk creek watersheds, he said.
While cutting trees to thin forests may be objectionable to many conservationists, “the threat to forests is not the timber companies, it’s climate change,” Anderson said.
A challenge to carrying out forest restoration projects is making the work economically feasible, Anderson said. In Oregon, for example, a lumber mill that had previously processed old growth timber retooled the mill to be able to process small trees that were thinned as part of the forest restoration work.
“Thinning is not going to make anyone rich. It’s at best a break-even proposition,” he said.
Matt Scott, of Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville, said the company adjusted the mill to be able to work with small diameter trees harvested through restoration projects.
The company collaborates in many forest stewardship projects, conducting thinning and grinding slash in forests to improve fire resilience, Scott said. Vaagen is also able to process biomass to sell to generating plants, he said.
He said Vaagen’s collaboration with environmental groups has resulted in no appeals of their timber sales in the past decade.
Having a local company that is able to utilize and sell the byproducts of forest restoration projects improves their viability, the panelists noted.
“The choke point in our area is we can’t move the product out of our area economically,” Frank said. He said a small dimensional saw mill in the Leavenworth area closed after the Forest Service said it could not commit to providing the needed volume of wood over the long term.