Groups say legal challenges possible
By Natalie Johnson
As many Methow Valley residents nervously await the final version of the U.S. Forest Service’s Twisp Restoration Plan, a 77,000-acre project involving a mix of timber harvesting, wildfire risk reduction and conservation, a logger-turned wilderness activist is advocating for a fresh start.
Ric Bailey is drafting his own Twisp Conservation Alternative, which he says will focus on preserving and expanding wilderness areas with minimal timber harvesting, and none of it in old growth areas.
“Our focus is on restoring the ecosystem itself,” Bailey said. “What the Forest Service is planning to do is … finance restoration by cutting old growth trees and we feel that that’s counter-productive. That’s exactly what’s supposed to be saved by law and it’s what we need to be protecting.”
Rather than sell timber to pay for habitat restoration, Bailey proposes asking for an appropriation from Congress.
“We want to identify needs that are recreationally and ecologically based and not based on forestry principles,” he said. “Forestry principles are fine for tree farms but this is not a tree farm, this is an ecosystem, so we really want to look at those needs again.”
Before retiring and moving to the Methow Valley in 2014, Bailey was executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in Northeastern Oregon, which lists among its achievements the creation of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area as part of a bid to stop the development of a dam on that part of the Snake River. Since then, the organization has worked to expand wilderness areas, promote conservation and oppose logging of old growth forests, among other efforts.
“I moved here, in large part, because of all the protected land here, the wilderness, the park,” he said. “And it seems like the woes of logging, intensive logging on public land, kind of followed me here.”
Bailey is welcoming feedback from the community on his Twisp Conservation Alternative, which he hopes will be complete this summer.
“We’re pressed for time and we know that but we’re going to proceed as if we’re working from a clean slate and hope the Forest Service doesn’t rush to issuing contracts for the logging,” he said.
The North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC), a volunteer-based group that works to preserve public lands, has expressed support for Bailey’s work.
“What we called for is a total reset, restart of the process here to make it something that is more understandable or more responsive to the actual needs of the residents of the lower valley and the need for fire protection there as well as our needs for dealing with wilderness areas as well as recreation,” said NCCC board member Dave Fluharty. “We’re in agreement [with Bailey] that there should be at least one conservation alternative.”
The Twisp Restoration Project is a broad-scoped plan to thin forested areas and conduct prescribed burns with the intention of decreasing wildfire activity, while also conducting habitat improvement and fish passage projects, closing some roads and a campground, and perhaps most controversially, adding access for all-terrain vehicles.
The project received nearly 1,000 comments at the end of last year, many of which supported the idea of conservation in the area but expressed concerns about logging strategies, including plans to harvest some of the largest trees in the Twisp River valley.
In the last week of February, the Forest Service announced that it was finishing reviewing the comments and planned to work with the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative to “address input.”
The final environmental assessment was scheduled to be released this summer, when it will be subject to a formal objection period. The Forest Service stated in February that a virtual public meeting would be announced online sometime this spring.
Bailey argues that the Forest Service proposal does not include enough collaboration from local entities.
In its comment on the project, submitted to the Forest Service last year, the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) also expresses concern about lack of local involvement.
“We are particularly concerned that this analysis has been conducted without the involvement of key stakeholders including the Methow Valley community and the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative,” the comment reads.
In addition to the lack of local input to the original plan, Bailey criticizes the Forest Service’s strategy to log for fire protection in the Methow, particularly cutting trees larger than 21 inches in diameter and in inventoried roadless areas or late successional reserve areas — older forests set aside as wilderness areas.
“It’s the most fire-resistant trees in the forest are the old growth trees and we can’t be cutting them and then turning around and saying we’re going to be restoring the forest,” Bailey said. “They’re using … this fear of fire to try and generate support for their logging program but the truth of it is that they don’t even know if their logging is going to prevent fires.”
Bailey says his project would develop a rating system for fire intensities, and design fuel reduction strategies — such as logging or prescribed burns — accordingly. The project would only propose logging of trees in previously logged stands that are “unnaturally dense.” It would also develop an evacuation system to warn campers and hikers of fires and include funding for fire-safe home projects. The plan would conduct controlled burns in areas with “ground fuel overloading.”
“There is no way that any amount of logging is going to protect homeowners or our towns here in the valley from the type of … firestorms we saw in 2014 and 2015,” Bailey said.
The Forest Service plan also proposes decommissioning a number of roads and expanding the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness.
Bailey and NCCC are both willing to explore legal challenges to the Twisp Restoration Plan if the final draft retains some of its most controversial elements.
Fluharty said his organization is particularly concerned about suspected violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Northwest Forest Plan.
“We feel like what they’re proposing is not consistent with the protections that they are by law required to take into account,” he said. “We are concerned enough to be starting to seek legal advice.”
That being said, he noted that the NCCC can’t challenge anything until there’s something to challenge — until the Forest Service has issued a determination of non-significance and published its final plan.
There’s another way this could go as well, Fluharty noted. President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 13990 on “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” states that it is the policy of the new administration to “listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment … to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver these goals.”
The order requires the heads of federal agencies to review “all existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions” taking place between Jan. 20, 2017 and Jan. 20, 2021 — the length of President Donald Trump’s term — to identify actions not consistent with the Biden administration’s policies. Fluharty thinks this could include directives on the Twisp Restoration Plan, and its focus on logging large trees.
“We’re very curious I guess to see how that direction changes what the Forest Service might actually decide to propose,” Fluharty said. “We’re kind of waiting for the shoe to drop.”
While the MVCC wrote in frustration about the lack of local input when the Forest Service project was drafted, Executive Director Jasmine Minbashian told the Methow Valley News this week that she is “optimistic” about the relationship going forward.
“I think the Twisp project, it didn’t have a strong start in terms of public involvement and … some of that was due to COVID,” she said, saying turnover among staff and other things led to the need to build new relationships between the community and Forest Service staff.
“From what I’ve seen and heard … there is a renewed commitment to work collaboratively with the community and the Forest Health Collaborative,” Minbashian said. “I am taking the Forest Service at their word.”
The MVCC is a part of the Northwest Forest Health Collaborative, which includes many organizations that filed comments critical of the plan. The Forest Service is scheduled to meet for the first time with a work group from the collaborative on April 1 to begin finding consensus on the plan.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for resolving these issues through the collaborative,” Minbashian said. “Rough start, but I think we’re back on track. And we have time now. This project is not being offered in this fiscal year so we have the better part of the year to work through these issues and hopefully that means getting out in the field and looking at some of these places on the ground.”
Minbashian said she is aware of Bailey’s work, but can’t comment on his proposal since she hasn’t seen the finished version.
To Bailey, wild, forested areas such as those included in the Twisp Restoration Project should stay as they are for another reason. They could have a huge role in one of our major global problems — climate change.
“From a climate change standpoint, wilderness is important because the best biodiversity that we have remaining in our world is the land that’s most resilient to climate change and wilderness is the best of our remaining biodiversity,” he said.
The Seattle Times reported this week that former state commissioners of public lands Peter Goldmark and Jennifer Belcher had proposed a new class of state forest trust lands — the Washington State Ecological Reserve — that would preserve forested areas as a form of carbon storage to help fight climate change.
The Times reported that current Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is opposed to the proposal, but has also spoken in favor of preserving swaths of old growth trees.
“If we’re going to look at restoring ecosystems to create more resilience to climate change, the first thing we need to do is protect wilderness and the second thing we need to do is restore areas where we’re looking at really, really drastic consequences from climate change,” Bailey said. “To me wilderness is the baseline of life, it’s as simple as it gets”
For more information, Bailey can be reached by email at email@example.com.