Environmental assessment looks at forest health plan
By Ann McCreary
A public comment period has been extended until April 1 on a draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for the proposed Mission Forest Restoration Project.
The 30-day extension is due to confusion about the publication date of the legal notice for the first comment period, said Meg Trebon of the Methow Valley Ranger District.
The Mission Project proposes commercial and non-commercial thinning, prescribed burning, soil treatment and changes to roads on 50,200 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek drainages.
The work is intended to restore the health of forest and aquatic ecosystems that have been altered by human activities including fire suppression, according to the study. The goal is to make the landscape more resilient to disturbances such as wildfire and climate change.
The Mission Project proposes to restore ecosystems over a large landscape with interventions designed to benefit the entire area. About 23 percent of the land within the project area — a total of 11,436 acres — would be treated.
The draft EA, a 424-page document released in late January, describes three alternatives, including no action. Alternatives 2 and 3 both propose thinning and/or prescribed fire on 10,968 acres. Commercial thinning (timber harvest) would take place on 1,952 acres, resulting in 6.3 million board feet of timber.
Alternative 3 calls for more work to improve aquatic ecosystems, including more road closures and decommissioning, and measures to control sediment and erosion at stream crossings.
The Forest Service had received 51 comments on the draft EA as of this week. Many of the commenters are Libby Creek residents who expressed opposition to the project as a whole.
Chris “Breathe” Frue, a member of the Libby Creek Watershed Association, said the large size of the project area, and a potential time frame of more than a decade to complete the project, are among several considerations that call for a more comprehensive environmental study.
“A number of factors point to the need for a more careful review of the project that this EA provides; an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) is called for,” Frue said in a letter to the Forest Service.
Frue, who has been a skeptic of the Mission Project throughout the planning process over the past two years, said that “commercial logging is the essential core of the Mission Restoration Project, and the only part of the project currently funded.”
The statement regarding funding is true in part, said Trebon. “It’s part of the proposed action that pays for itself and generates money for other proposed treatments.” Because the project is still in environmental analysis, funding is not yet allocated for other proposed actions, she said.
Funding for other parts of the project, such as road decommissioning, would come from a mix of timber sale revenues and “external sources, whether outside groups or grants.”
Trebon said some external organizations have contacted the Forest Service indicating interest in helping fund different aspects of the proposed project, such as enhancing beaver habitat.
The emphasis on reducing fuels in the forests of Libby and Buttermilk watersheds in order to reduce the potential for large wildfires “has been misleading,” said Frue, who questioned whether thinning forests would make them more resilient to wildfire, a key goal of the project.
“During extreme fire weather, no amount of logging will stop the rapid progression of wildfire,” Frue said. “Overstory treatments [reducing forest canopies] are controversial in their effectiveness at modifying fire behavior.”
He argued that homes near national forests should be protected by “preparation in the home ignition zone, not logging miles away in remote forest landscapes.”
In addition, Frue said, “large, severe fires are endemic to the dry western forests of the U.S. Most of the acreage burned historically every year in the western U.S. is by a relatively small number of these large fires.”
The Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) expressed support for a “comprehensive plan to address several issues and needs at the landscape scale.”
MVCC, a local conservation organization, said the draft EA addresses concerns about removing large, old trees that MVCC expressed in the earlier scoping phase of the project.
“In the draft EA it appears that the Forest does not intend to remove trees greater than 21 inches or approximately 150 years old,” said Brian de Place, MVCC executive director.
However, MVCC urged the Forest Service to address other concerns in developing the final environmental study, including the need for “a fully-funded monitoring and adaptive management plan” to evaluate the effectiveness of the project while it is underway and make adjustments if needed.
MVCC said it supports aquatic restoration, including closing and decommissioning roads, that is included in the draft EA’s Alternative 3.
The environmental study does not adequately address the impact of cattle grazing that takes place within the Mission Project area, de Place said.
“Because restoration thinning had the potential to increase grazing impacts, the EA should include analysis of likely specific impact and propose activities to limit them,” MVCC said.
In his letter on behalf of MVCC, de Place also urged the Forest Service to address the need to treat shrub-steppe areas as part of the Mission Project.
“Shrub-steppe within the project area is susceptible to extreme fire behavior. Historically, this vegetative community burned often. We believe some careful prescribed burning in this community should be considered,” de Place said.
The draft EA said treatments in the shrub-steppe were eliminated from consideration because they could potentially increase spread of invasive plants, and could reduce winter range for deer, de Place said.
MVCC urged the Forest Service to “consider limited prescribed burns” that would limit loss of winter range.
The fundamental goal of the Mission Project — to restore healthy ecosystems through treatments that consider impacts of climate change — was challenged in a letter by Jeff Juel, representing Wildlands Defense, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Conservation Congress.
“The EA claims that the Forest Service is ‘emphasizing the restoration of natural processes, functions, and patterns across the landscape to build more resilient ecosystems that would be responsive to projected changes in climate,’” Juel said.
“But building ecosystems is not a human endeavor,” Juel said. “Any claim to be doing so is delusional. Ecosystems are largely defined by natural processes.”
Juel also criticized the Forest Service’s expressed goal of restoring ecosystems and forest resiliency, while “ the overriding management emphasis of the project area, especially outside the wilderness, is all-out fire suppression.” He argued that the Forest Service should allow natural fire to occur.
Frue questioned the involvement of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (NCWFHC), which includes some timber industry representatives, in the “design, data collection and analysis” of the project.
The collaborative, which also includes members of environmental organizations, Yakama and Colville tribal members, and government representatives, was formed in 2013 through the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board to promote forest restoration efforts.
“The involvement of the NCWFHC, in effect privatizing portions of the planning and implementation of management activity on federal lands, should be carefully scrutinized,” Frue wrote.
The forest collaborative helped fund some aspects of the Mission Project development, including hiring a forestry consultant from the University of Washington to evaluate data and help design proposed treatments.
Frue also raised public safety concerns related to logging trucks that would travel through Libby Creek during commercial thinning operations “on narrow, increasingly populated and trafficked roads where ice, heavy dust and blind corners are the normal state of affairs.”
Comments submitted on the draft EA would be considered “line by line” after the comment period ends April 1, said Trebon, who leads a multi-disciplinary team for the Mission Project.
“If there are a number of comments that address specifically one topic, then those get coded in such a way that we can respond to them. That’s what the comment period for the draft EA is for,” she said.
A final EA and a preliminary decision on the project are expected this summer, followed by a 45-day objection period. People who submitted comments during the scoping or draft comment period are eligible to object. A final decision is expected in late summer, Trebon said.
The website address for information on the Mission Project or to comment is: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?Project=49201.