Management of old-growth forests would change
Some stands of old-growth trees and areas that provide deer habitat in the Methow Valley and Tonasket Ranger Districts are managed under 30-year-old guidelines that the U.S. Forest Service proposes to update.
The Forest Service is asking for public comment on proposals to amend “standards and guidelines” that direct management of identified old-growth stands and areas used by deer for cover and forage in the two ranger districts. The amendments to the Okanogan Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) were announced on July 14, and are open to public comment until Aug. 13.
The amendments are proposed to bring management of old-growth stands and deer habitat in line with forest conditions and science that have changed since the Forest Plan was adopted in 1989, said Meg Trebon, north zone environmental coordinator for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The changes would “apply to old-growth stands that meet a specific definition provided in the Forest Plan, including a 30-acre minimum size,” Trebon said.
The amendments would allow the Forest Service to conduct forest treatments like thinning and prescribed burning in old-growth stands and deer summer and winter ranges. The treatments are needed to address changes caused by decades of fire suppression that have resulted in forests that are denser, with multiple layers of vegetation and surface fuels, according to the Forest Service explanation of the proposal.
The proposed management changes are aimed at reducing the risk of extreme fires that destroy old-growth stands, and at returning areas of deer cover and forage to more “historic” conditions that existed before fire suppression altered forests.
Existing standards and guidelines for old-growth and deer cover have been analyzed and amended numerous times in recent years to allow thinning and prescribed fire in connection with specific projects in both the Methow Valley and Tonasket districts, Trebon said.
“When we amend these standards and guidelines over and over again, it’s a pretty clear indication that times have changed and they need to be adapted,” Trebon said. If the amendments are adopted in the Forest Plan, they would apply to projects currently being planned or future projects, but would not result in changes to projects already underway, she said.
Old-growth stands in the Methow Valley and Tonasket ranger districts developed in fire-dependent landscapes that have historically experienced frequent wildfires. Years of fire suppression have resulted in dense and fuel-loaded forests and increased the risk of “uncharacteristically severe fire behavior, with a higher likelihood of mortality and loss of habitat for species that depend on old forest structure,” according to the Forest Service’s explanation.
“Since the Forest Plan was written, accepted science demonstrates that thinning by mechanical means and treating natural fuels with prescribed fire can help maintain old-growth stands and the habitat they provide by reducing the potential for stand-replacing fires,” the Forest Service said.
Existing standards and guidelines in the Forest Plan for managing old-growth made those areas “basically off-limits to any interventions,” Trebon said. Forest managers have realized that “treating around (old-growth) doesn’t help those stands maintain any kind of resilience when fire gets into them. Our fires have become increasingly large and intense, and treating around an area to try to protect it doesn’t in fact protect it,” she said.
The current standards and guidelines prohibit “scheduled or non-scheduled timber harvest or firewood collection … in mixed conifer old-growth stands.” They also prohibit the treatment of natural fuels that have accumulated in those stands, which are defined as 30 acres or larger and comprising specific types and sizes of trees, snags and downed logs, and particular canopy and crown composition.
The proposed revision states: “No scheduled timber harvest shall be permitted in mixed-conifer old-growth stands. Materials generated by treatments in these stands may be sold as timber or utilized as firewood.”
The proposed changes also state that “treatment of natural fuels shall maintain old-growth characteristics,” which are based on a definition in the Forest Plan that describes features such as mature trees, multi-layered canopies and the lack of significant human impact on the stand.
Removing the exclusion for “unscheduled timber harvest” in mixed-conifer old-growth stands means that harvest could be allowed to address “site-specific resource needs,” Trebon said. “For example, a common need is to ‘maintain and promote late and old forest stand structure,’” she said.
“This need could be met in old-growth stands by using an unscheduled timber harvest to thin smaller diameter understory trees while retaining large and old trees and other characteristics of old-growth stands, which would reduce competition for soil and nutrients and decrease risk of crown fire initiation,” Trebon said.
“Any timber harvest is commercial, whether it’s scheduled or unscheduled,” Trebon said. “The provision for firewood collection in the proposed amendment would allow people to remove materials for this purpose if Forest Service staff determined (there was) too much debris to treat safely with prescribed burning.”
The existing Forest Plan includes one forest-wide standard and guideline and seven sets of standards and guidelines for specific management areas that describe how to manage vegetation that provides cover and forage for deer. The management is based on different formulas for each area prescribing percentages of vegetative cover to provide deer protection from extreme temperatures in summer and winter.
Those eight separate sets of guidelines would be replaced by one forest-wide standard and guideline that states: “Summer and winter range cover and forage for deer are managed with the historic range of variability for vegetation on a landscape-level basis.”
“Cover levels prescribed by the Forest Plan are no longer supported by accepted science,” according to the Forest Service’s explanation of the proposed change. Forage for deer is better in areas with less canopy closure than required in the current management plan, according to the Forest Service.
“Forested areas … that are being used by deer historically contained fewer trees with less canopy closure than currently exists and (were) less susceptible to loss from uncharacteristic crown behavior and insect outbreaks,” the Forest Service said.
“Research shows that the way deer survive winter is dependent on the quantity and quality of forage before winter,” Trebon said. Under a 50-year regime of fire suppression, forests have become increasingly dense, with more canopy cover, and that has resulted in less light reaching the floor for understory vegetation, which means less food for deer, she said. “And when we do have fires, they tend to take out all the cover.”
The changes to the plan would allow for thinning and prescribed fire treatments in deer cover areas “according to the historic range of variability for vegetation” on a “landscape level,” according to the Forest Service explanation.
That means that thinning and prescribed fire can be used to manage vegetation to make it more like it has been in the past, Trebon said. “We ask, ‘What do we think used to be there? How did this landscape look?’ We want to manage based on the historic range of what used to be there.”
The Forest Service uses different tools, including decision-making software programs, to determine historical trends of different landscapes, she said. Elevation, aspect, precipitation, environmental variables, and comparisons to similar drainages are among the considerations, Trebon said.
“It allows us to manage based on landscape-specific information about what used to be there, rather than an artificial number based on 30-year-old science. We will manage to give deer the main thing they need to survive, which is forage,” Trebon said.
If natural vegetation doesn’t support the cover amounts indicated by historic range of variability, the Forest Service should manage it to try to approach the objectives for adequate cover, the proposed standard and guideline states. “If natural vegetation doesn’t exist, we’re going to try to promote it,” Trebon said.
How to comment
Because the standards and guidelines for old-growth and deer cover have been analyzed and amended many times previously for specific projects in the Methow Valley and Tonasket districts, “additional analyses in an Environmental Assessment are not warranted,” said Kristin Bail, Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Supervisor, in a letter announcing the scoping phase of the revision process.
The Forest Service is completing its analysis as a categorical exclusion, meaning the proposed action does not result in significant environmental impact and therefore doesn’t need lengthy documentation in an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.
Comments are due by Aug. 13. After comments are received and considered by the Forest Service, there will be a 30-day opportunity comment on the amendments and the analysis. That is followed by a 45-day objection opportunity, according to Bail’s letter.
The full text of the proposed amendments is available on the project website, and comments can be submitted online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=58192.
Comments or questions may also be submitted by email to Meg Trebon, North Zone Environmental Coordinator, email@example.com or by mail to 24 West Chewuch Road, Winthrop, WA 98862.