Planned Big Valley timber harvest called ‘industrial scale’ project, ‘clear-cut’
By Marcy Stamper
A logging and a timber sale proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on hillsides above Big Valley and below Sun Mountain Lodge would create “a 600-acre clear-cut in the middle of the valley,” according to one critic.
That assessment by Peter Goldman, an attorney with the Washington Forest Law Center, is among the concerns raised by conservation groups, forest scientists and Sun Mountain Lodge about a proposal by DNR to log 735 acres, mostly in the Wolf Creek area, that would leave an average of just 26 to 30 trees per acre. That’s a significant contrast with the now heavily forested slopes, which contain some 150 trees per acre, said Goldman.
DNR first proposed the sale last fall under its Forest Improvement Timber (FIT) program, which is intended to restore forest health and reduce wildfire risk.
Many who submitted comments to DNR on the sale said they were concerned about its visual impact and potential negative effects on the valley’s tourism industry. Others said the logging could actually increase wildfire risk.
DNR has proposed the logging for the Virginia Ridge and Wolf Creek areas, plus a small section near Mazama. DNR slightly revised the sale after the first round of comments, shrinking the project by 15 acres, from 750 acres to 735, and increasing the number of trees that would be left per acre from 21 to 26, with 30 per acre in the section visible from Sun Mountain Lodge.
The largest unit, about 390 acres, goes from the Methow River to the gravel section of Wolf Creek Road and up the slope from there, a width of about 1/2 mile. Most of the thinning and logging would occur west of Wolf Creek Road, according to Jake Townsend, a silviculture forester with DNR. Unit 2, about 300 acres, is on Virginia Ridge. Unit 3 is 15 acres and is reached from the Mazama Bible Camp Road off Highway 20, about 11 miles northwest of Winthrop.
Leaving healthy trees
DNR proposes to leave the largest, healthiest trees, mainly Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine. The majority of trees to be harvested will be from 8 to 18 inches in diameter.
The objectives of the project are to restore the forest to healthier conditions, with more widely spaced trees that would be well-adapted to more-frequent, low-intensity fires, according to DNR. “The sale was designed with environmental protection in mind,” avoiding steep slopes and keeping sediment from running into rivers and creeks, the agency said.
In comments submitted in December, Susan Prichard, a fire ecologist based in Winthrop, said that thinning trees without also treating the area with prescribed fire “would inevitably increase surface fuel loads and the potential for a high-intensity surface fire with a high likelihood of spread to adjacent forests and shrub steppe.”
George Wooten, a conservation associate with Conservation Northwest, agreed in comments for the organization that the existing forest conditions — with closely spaced, skinny trees of fairly uniform age — are not healthy. But taking out too many of those trees could exacerbate the unhealthy conditions by eliminating the canopy that keeps the forest moist enough to regrow a healthy understory. The resulting forest would be even drier and therefore more prone to wildfire, said Wooten.
The owners and managers of Sun Mountain Lodge, which is adjacent to one of the logging units, are particularly troubled about the potential economic impact on the lodge. In comments to DNR, John Barline, an attorney for Sun Mountain, noted that the unit on Virginia Ridge would be visible from 75 guest rooms. Sun Mountain’s biggest concern is noise from logging equipment. Sun Mountain draws guests for weddings and for quiet hikes in nature, said Barline.
Wooten also raised concerns about the impact on wildlife habitat. With less vegetation and no plans to rehabilitate an abandoned road that has been eroding into the Methow River for years, the logging would wash more sediment into the Methow River, increasing threats to endangered salmon.
New forest strategy
The Virginia Ridge sale was designed before the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for Eastern Washington that was adopted last year by DNR in response to unanimous direction from the Legislature. Conservation groups say the sale is at odds with that new approach.
“The sale presents a huge opportunity for DNR to demonstrate a model for managing state lands in Eastern Washington to minimize fire hazards,” said Maggie Coon, chair of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC). But the plans for the sale resemble standard commercial harvest more than forest restoration, said Coon.
“The … Virginia Ridge sale could be interpreted as an old-fashioned high-grade commercial harvest with little-to-no gains for dry forest restoration,” said Prichard, who helped review the restoration strategy for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
While the forest law center recognizes that the forest is overstocked and supports appropriate treatment, “they’re taking out a massive amount of volume here under the guise of forest health,” said Goldman. The proposal would create massive slash piles 15 to 20 feet high, he said.
“This is the biggest logging the valley’s ever seen. It’s an industrial-scale logging project,” he said. The forest law center is urging DNR to leave 40 to 60 trees an acre, twice as many as in the current plan.
May 30 auction
DNR has set the timber auction for May 30. The state Board of Natural Resources will review the sale at its meeting on May 1. The logging would be completed by the end of this year, with slash piles to be burned late fall or early winter 2019.
DNR foresters have issued a mitigated determination of nonsignificance, meaning the proposal would not have adverse impacts on the environment. The mitigations for the project are decisions by DNR not to harvest trees in riparian and wetland areas, even though state law permits logging in those areas, said Robert Hechinger, proprietary forester for DNR’s Northeast Region.
MVCC is encouraging DNR to slow down the process to allow for “meaningful public input.” If DNR wants to proceed with the sale as currently designed, it should conduct a thorough environmental impact statement, said Coon.
People can comment on the sale through Monday (April 23) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the sale is available from DNR’s website at www.dnr.wa.gov/state-environmental-policy-act-sepa under Timber Sales, then under Northeast, then under Virginia Ridge FIT Timber Sale #96324.