Restoration is urgently needed to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, according to a recently released assessment of forests in the Northwest.
Among 19 national forests examined in the Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, which includes the Methow Valley Ranger District, was found to be the forest most in need of restoration including mechanical (timber harvest) and prescribed fire treatments.
The Bioregional Assessment of Northwest Forests, released this month, evaluates conditions across 24 million acres of national forests in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, the Bioregional Assessment (abbreviated BioA) aims to help the agency modernize management plans for forests and grasslands in the region.
For nearly a century the Forest Service followed a policy of suppressing most wildfires in national forests, “fearing resource damage and impacts to private property and communities,” the BioA said. That suppression policy has come to be seen in recent decades as damaging to forest ecosystems.
“Forests that need mechanical and fire treatments tend to be overly dense and are places where past fire exclusion deprived these systems of multiple important disturbance cycles,” the assessment said. “We estimate that about 7 million acres across the BioA area need restoration through mechanical treatments or fire. In the frequent-fire-dependent ecosystems east of the Cascade Range … restoration to increase resilience is an urgent need.”
The role of fire
The assessment found that as a fire-dependent landscape, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest should have had natural fire on almost 90,000 more acres than it did during the decade from 2008-2018. During that time, about 20,000 acres in the Okanogan-Wenatchee had prescribed fire and hazardous fuels reduction through timber harvest.
“Land management … that provides for use of treatments that close the gap will help restore the role of fire,” according to the study, which recommends expanding timber harvest as a restoration tool. But forest managers also need to allow natural fire to play a larger role in restoring landscapes that have lost their natural resilience, the BioA said.
“It is not practical to use only mechanical harvest and prescribed fire to meet landscape resource objectives because of the vast geographic scope of the challenge. Therefore, to help affect landscape-level change and promote broad-scale ecological sustainability, integrity, and resilience, we need to leverage fire, one of nature’s own tools, to help restore ecosystems,” the BioA said.
“Updated land management plans need to support the use of natural fire as an ecological tool and use a risk-based strategy to identify places on the landscape where fire can safely and effectively be managed to benefit resources,” the report said. “There are opportunities in our frequent-fire dependent systems to manage wildfires to reduce fuels and improve forest conditions when the fires are safe for firefighters and the public and do not threaten communities or structures.”
That will require planning to protect the growing number of people living within the wildland-urban interface — near national forests and grasslands that are at risk of extreme wildfires, the report said. “During the past few decades communities have experienced some of the largest and most impactful fire seasons in recent memory. As the amount of wildland-urban interface has increased, so has the risk of wildfire impacts to people and communities.”
Land management plans need to better address strategic wildfire-risk mitigation in and around communities and provide protection for critical infrastructure, such as power lines and telecommunications sites, in the wildland-urban interface, the study said.
Fire and fuels management is one of five categories of resource management changes that are addressed in the assessment. The study also examines ecological integrity, sustainable timber, habitat management and sustainable recreation, and makes recommendations for actions in each category.
The Bioregional Assessment is intended to provide the information needed to help modernize 19 forest management plans that fall under the Northwest Forest Plan. Most of those plans are at least 25 years old and in need of updating, according to the report. The BioA is intended to reduce the time needed to complete those updates.
“Rather than being confined by administrative boundaries, our regional approach to modernizing land management plans in the BioA area will be an opportunity to understand the individual contributions of each national forest and grassland as well as their collective contributions to community needs and ecological integrity across a broad landscape,” the assessment said.
Work on the BioA began in 2015 with 19 public listening sessions throughout the Northwest. Following the release of the BioA this month, the Forest Service will begin public engagement in Washington, Oregon and California to identify and understand issues and opportunities important to the communities in the region before beginning any formal plan revision or amendment actions.
The full Bioregional Assessment and information about updating forest plans in the Northwest are available online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r6/landmanagement/?cid=stelprd3831710.