Retiring Methow Valley District Ranger has been a good neighbor and forest advocate
By Ann McCreary
When Mike Liu became Methow Valley Ranger District nine years ago, he recognized the vital relationship between his agency and the small community that is surrounded by the 1.3 million acres of national forest lands he was hired to manage.
Building community connections has been a priority for Liu, who will retire on June 22.
“I feel we have become much more responsive to the community,” Liu said in a recent interview at the U.S. Forest Service’s district office in Winthrop. “I’d like to think if you asked folks who have lived here a while, they’d say they see a more open, transparent district that’s more approachable.”
David Gottula, president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, and manager of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative, credits Liu with achieving the openness and community engagement that he sought.
“I worked on a number of community issues with Mike. He was always an advocate of the national forest being a good neighbor of the local community, while balancing the needs of the forest,” Gottula said.
“Mike has done a skillful job of representing the Forest Service within the community — and the community within the Forest Service,” said Natalie Kuehler, who was the National Forest Foundation’s local community outreach and restoration project coordinator. The Forest Foundation collaborated with the Methow Valley Ranger District on a number of forest restoration projects when the district was selected to be part of the foundation’s “Treasured Landscapes” campaign in 2015.
“I think the Methow is a really unique district, thanks to the unique community here,” said Kuehler. “People are very engaged in what happens on our public lands, and … the district ranger here not only has to manage a vast and varied forest, with a very small staff, but also has to be able to engage effectively with the community. The pressures from all sides can be tremendous — but so can the results.”
That integration of community and federal agency was often achieved through partnerships that Liu cultivated with organizations that shared goals for the national forest. One of those partnerships is with the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative, a group that formed about two years ago to bring together a wide range of trail users with a common goal of improving and maintaining trails in and around the Methow Valley.
The partnership with the Trails Collaborative “was instrumental in getting the Methow Valley Ranger District selected as one of 15 districts” in the nation that are designated by the Forest Service as “priority areas” for trail maintenance and improvement work, Liu said.
As a designated priority area, the Methow Valley Ranger District will have greater leeway and additional funding to promote trails in collaboration with organizations representing a wide range of trail users including hikers, snowmobilers, backcountry skiers and horsemen, mountaineers, mountain bikers and dirt bikers.
Partnership with the National Forest Foundation’s Treasured Landscapes program brought about $1 million in private funds to the district for forest restoration projects, Liu said. As a result, the district was able to rebuild a bridge on the Community Trail, carry out alpine revegetation at Heather and Maple passes and at Fred’s Lake in the Pasayten Wilderness, and conduct invasive weed treatments.
Along with building relationships, Liu said he has maintained two other priorities as ranger — supporting forest restoration and recreation. “I think we as a district have made progress on all three of these,” Liu said.
Restoration work has included both terrestrial and aquatic projects. Liu has earned national recognition for his work in aquatic restoration, and on June 12 in Washington, D.C., he will be presented a national Forest Service award called Rise to the Future, which recognizes employees for noteworthy achievements in the area of fisheries.
Among numerous aquatic initiatives undertaken during Liu’s tenure are projects that making the Goat Creek trail bridge more “fish friendly” by moving the bridge abutments to reduce the constriction on natural flow. The district also worked with the Yakama Nation to permit construction of a kelt weir to capture steelhead after spawning, so that the fish can be rehabilitated and returned to the river to spawn again.
The Methow Ranger District approved a new Coho salmon acclimation pond, in partnership with the Yakama Nation and Bonneville Power Administration, that will begin operating next year on the Forest Service’s Eight Mile Ranch up the Chewuch River. The district also conducted the environmental analysis and permitting for the Yakama Nation’s instream improvement projects to improve habitat for spring Chinook and other fish species, Liu said.
The district has worked as well with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation and Conservation Northwest to decommission roads that are no longer needed for access, in order to reduce erosion and sediment in streams and to restore hydrological connections, Liu said.
The district has partnered with Forest Service scientists and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on wolverine research. The district also supports an ongoing beaver reintroduction program, as well as creation of “analogue” beaver dams that provide the habitat benefits of real beaver dams by storing water that is slowly released into streams, Liu said.
The Urchin and Wrangle timber sales, and the South Summit and Mission projects are among projects undertaken during his tenure aimed at improving forest health, Liu said. He said the Mission Project, a large landscape restoration project planned for the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds, is on track for a final decision by mid-June.
The Mission Project employs a new forest restoration strategy that encompasses a significantly larger area than previous restoration projects. It is supported by the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, which includes timber industry and conservation groups, tribal government officials, elected officials and local, state and federal land managers.
The Lost Driveway project conducted in Mazama in recent years included thinning, pruning and hand-piling on forest lands adjacent to state or private property to reduce fuels and wildfire risks. And work to thin trees to protect essential emergency communications equipment located on McClure Mountain from wildfire began last year and will continue this year, Liu said.
“When complete, it [McClure Mountain] will be much more defensible in case of wildfire,” Liu said.
Among recent developments in recreation on the district is creation of new trails on Forest Service land on Sun Mountain that will start being built this summer. The district worked with the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA) over the past few years to plan the project, which will create a trail along Thompson Ridge for mountain bikers and other users.
The district also recently announced a proposal to officially adopt and make improvements to the Buck Mountain trail, which has become one of the most popular mountain bike rides in the region but has never been an official Forest Service trail, Liu said. The district is currently seeking public comment on the proposal.
Dave Acheson of Winthrop, former president of the Methow chapter of EMBA, said Liu’s “leadership and cooperation” have been instrumental in making both the Sun Mountain and Buck Mountain trail projects possible.
“Mike is a supportive and encouraging partner who recognized the importance of outdoor recreation in the valley’s economy and was willing to work to find resources and solutions to improve the trail experience for visitors and residents,” Acheson said.
“Mike’s legacy will be one of improved and expanded outdoor recreational opportunities on the Methow Ranger District that will benefit the Methow Valley’s residents and visitors far into the future. That he managed all this in historical fire seasons is even more impressive,” Acheson said.
Working with Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen, the district is supporting development of a new horse camp near Loup Loup Pass at the North Summit campground. The district has also worked with Washington State Department of Transportation to plan and develop a trailhead for winter recreation at Early Winters.
The growing popularity of Forest Service lands around the Methow Valley as a recreation destination benefits the local tourism industry, but also carries risks for the area, Liu said. “As a valley, we’re going to have to do some soul-searching on how much recreation use we want to see,” he said.
“In the nine years I’ve been here, climbing has skyrocketed in popularity. Trail running is going deeper into the Pasayten. Fat bikes, mountain bikes, ATVs — all legitimate recreation uses — have increased. Recreational pressure, which on one hand is a huge economic driver, also has resource impacts” such as erosion, damage to wildlife habitat, and crowding. “Finding that balance is going to be one of the future challenges. At what point is enough enough?”
In one example of recreation’s impacts, data from wildlife cameras along the heavily used trail to Cutthroat Lake, a popular hike off the North Cascades Highway, indicates that the number of animals in that area is diminishing as human traffic has increased, Liu said.
In coming years, the Forest Service and the Methow Valley Ranger District will have to determine “how to maintain what we have — over 1,000 miles of trails, hundreds of miles of roads, numerous campgrounds,” he said.
While the popularity of the area grows, permanent staff at the district has diminished, and seasonal staff fluctuates year-to-year depending on funding, Liu said. “But the workload is increasing. How do we continue to provide services to residents and visitors?” One answer is volunteers and partnerships, and another is becoming more flexible as an agency in receiving private donations to help with the work on public land, he said.
Liu’s tenure as district ranger was marked by several large fires that impacted Forest Service lands and staff, including the massive Carlton Complex in 2014, the devastating Twisp River fire in 2015 in which three Forest Service firefighters died, and last summer’s Diamond Creek fire that burned more than 128,000 acres in the Pasayten Wilderness.
As a result of those fires, the district and other firefighting agencies improved ways to “quickly coordinate” responses to wildfires, and learned the value of getting information out to the public as quickly as possible, Liu said. Another lesson was the critical importance of communications infrastructure during disasters, he said.
The Forest Service is still assessing the damage from last year’s Diamond Creek Fire, which burned more than 40 miles of trails either moderately or severely, Liu said. The fire was notable for the length of time it burned — from mid-July through mid-October, when winter weather finally put it out.
“That’s an insanely long period of time and during it, we hardly got a drop of rain. Even the upper elevations that normally are not conducive to fire were burning,” Liu said. “Certainly the scale and severity of the Diamond Creek Fire was outside what I would expect.”
He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the fire funding “fix” approved this year by Congress to provide dedicated funding for fighting wildfires will free up more Forest Service money for other needs such as forest restoration and recreation.
He is also hopeful that social acceptance of forest restoration practices, including thinning and prescribed burning, is growing. “Certainly, large wildfires have increased awareness” of wildfire risk, he said.
“But, as evidenced by the Mission Project, there is still a lot of contention around timber harvest, even when the goal is landscape restoration,” Liu said. Some critics of the Mission Project assert the restoration project is simply a pretext for commercial logging.
When he retires after his 36-year career with the Forest Service, Liu said he will pursue his passions for traveling — including trips to China to do rural development work — and for getting out into the backcountry. “I’m going to do more hiking and fishing,” he said. Hikers may find him on the Lookout Mountain trail, which he plans to “adopt” and help maintain.
“As an avid backpacker,” Gottula said, “whenever I talked about hiking in the wilderness with Mike, we would talk with a certain madness that can only come from two people who share personal passions … Mike loves the forests and the wilderness.”
“He is a true district ranger, never off duty,” Kuehler said. “Even on weekend hikes on his personal time, he would wear the district ranger uniform and stop to greet and talk to other hikers … he’ll need a whole new wardrobe now that he’s retiring.”