Goal is to restore healthier, more-resilient forests
By Ann McCreary
A draft Environmental Assessment (EA) has been released by the U.S. Forest Service for the Mission Restoration Project, which proposes thinning, prescribed burning, soil treatments and changes to roads on 50,200 acres of national forest land in the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek drainages.
A 30-day public comment period on the draft EA began Jan. 31. The Methow Valley Ranger District will host a public meeting about the Mission project on Feb. 8, from 3–6 p.m., at the Methow Valley Community Center in Twisp.
The primary goal of the Mission Restoration Project is to restore the health of forest and aquatic ecosystems that have been altered by human activities, and make the landscape more resilient to disturbances such as wildfire and climate change.
About 23 percent of the land within the project area — a total of 11,436 acres — would be treated through thinning, prescribed burning or soil improvements, said Meg Trebon of the Methow ranger district, leader of an interdisciplinary team that developed the EA.
The draft EA describes three alternatives for action, including a required “no action” alternative that would maintain current management practices.
The Forest Service’s proposed action, Alternative 2, includes commercial and non-commercial thinning; prescribed fire; closing, opening and decommissioning roads; temporary road construction; replacing culverts; enhancing beaver and fish habitat; and soil restoration treatments.
A third alternative was developed in response to comments received on the project, and calls for more aquatic restoration in the watersheds. It includes activities proposed in Alternative 2, with the addition of further road closures and decommissioning, and measures to control sediment and erosion at stream crossings.
The project is intended to address changes in the structure of forests in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds that have resulted from past management practices, including decades of wildfire suppression.
The result of those past practices is “a large increase in densely-stocked stands with multiple canopy layers or closed canopies” that create a “contiguous or unbroken pattern” in the watersheds, which is out of synch with natural patterns of forest growth.
That leaves forests vulnerable to dwarf mistletoe infection, insect attacks, and devastating crown fires, according to the EA.
“The risk of crown fire initiation and spread … are greater than historical conditions, particularly in the Buttermilk watershed, due to increased tree density and development of forest stands with multiple and closed canopy layers across the landscape,” the EA said.
Both action alternatives propose thinning and/or prescribed fire on 10,968 acres, of which 10,256 acres would be thinned.
Commercial thinning would take place on 1,952 acres, resulting in 6.3 million board feet of merchantable timber, Trebon said.
Non-commercial thinning would take place on 8,304 acres. That includes 6,458 acres of ladder fuel reduction, which would remove conifers up to 8 inches in diameter, and 1,703 acres of plantation thinning, to remove understory small-diameter conifers, such as Douglas fir and spruce trees.
The thinning is intended to reduce competition among trees for limited moisture, reduce the risk of extreme fire behavior, promote resilient stand structure, and encourage development of large trees, the study said.
Thinning would also take place on 22 acres of wetlands around Blackpine Meadows and Mission Pond to reduce encroachment by conifer trees.
Prescribed fire would take place primarily in forests that have been thinned.
The 10,968 acres proposed to receive prescribed fire treatments include 7,363 acres of underburning and 2,848 acres of hand-piling and pile burning.
Up to 2,000 acres of prescribed fire would take place each year over the next 15 years, said Holly Krake, public affairs officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Within the 50,200-acre Mission project area, 23,000 acres are considered to be in the wildland-urban interface, where forest lands abut residential areas. About 30 percent of wildland-urban interface area in the project area — 6,842 acres — is within proposed thinning and prescribed fire treatment units, Trebon said.
Wood from thinning slash would be available for firewood collection in areas that are accessible. No thinning or prescribed fire would occur within Forest Plan old growth or wilderness areas, Krake said.
Soil restoration treatments using equipment that breaks up compacted soils is proposed on 468 acres. Culverts would be replaced at 23 locations to remove barriers to fish or to install larger culverts.
Beaver habitat would be enhanced at six sites and woody debris would be enhanced on 8.2 miles of streams to improve fish habitat under both alternatives.
Alternative 3 includes armoring road surfaces with rock at 33 stream crossings and constructing open fords with rocks at four stream crossings to reduce sediment and erosion.
The bridge across West Fork Buttermilk Creek would be replaced in Alternative 2, the proposed action, to restore motorized access to roads west of the bridge. The bridge has been closed due to safety concerns for several years. It would remain closed under Alternative 3.
Both Alternative 2 and 3 propose building 1.2 miles of temporary roads, in nine segments, that would be decommissioned after use.
There are 56.7 miles of open Forest Service roads in the project area. The proposed action would maintain 53.1 miles of open roads for recreation access, while Alternative 3 would maintain 39.8 miles of open roads when the project is completed.
Under the proposed action 33.6 miles of roads would be decommissioned, including 2.2 miles of currently open roads, 19.2 miles of closed roads and 12.1 miles of unauthorized roads in the project area.
Alternative 3 calls for decommissioning 56.2 miles of roads, including 6.1 miles of open roads, 37.1 miles of closed roads and 13 miles of unauthorized roads.
The Mission project area includes Smith Canyon, Elderberry Canyon, Ben Canyon, Chicamum Canyon, Mission Creek, Black Pine Creek, Nickel Canyon and Hornet Draw.
The project area also includes a small portion of the Twisp River watershed that was added at the request of adjacent private landowners to reduce wildfire hazards on National Forest lands adjacent to private lands.
The Mission Project plans were developed in keeping with the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy, which evaluates and plans for large landscapes and develops interventions designed to benefit the entire area. This would be the first project within the Methow Ranger District carried out under that strategy.
The draft EA and instructions on commenting can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49201. A final EA and draft Decision Notice is expected in the spring of 2017.