By Natalie Johnson
Representatives from the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative plan to meet with the U.S. Forest Service for the first time Thursday (April 1) to discuss questions and concerns about the Twisp Conservation Project.
“There are a lot of experts in this valley, which is one of the reasons I think it is important for the Forest Service to actively collaborate and engage with the community,” said Mike Liu, co-chair of the collaborative’s projects work group, which will meet with representatives from the Forest Service and its Methow Valley Ranger District this week. “I’m glad to see that the district is very open now to receiving that and collaborating, working with people who really have not only the experience, but also the interest in how we can come up with the best management we can do on the landscape.”
The collaborative is made up of a diverse group of conservation groups, community groups including the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), timber companies, Native American tribes and county government representatives, among others.
The Twisp Restoration project received nearly 1,000 comments during an initial comment period 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 initial comment period for the draft Environmental Assessment (EA), MVCC expressed concern that itself and the collaborative were not involved in the process of drafting the 77,000 -acre restoration project, which includes wildfire mitigation through timber harvest and prescribed burns, habitat restoration and other aspects.
After the comment period was over, the collaborative reached out to the Forest Service to suggest a series of work meetings to discuss aspects of the plan that were causing concern, said Liu, who was for nine years the district ranger in the Methow Valley, and now works for Conservation Northwest.
“It is the collaborative’s meeting. They’re holding it,” said District Ranger Chris Furr of the Methow Valley Ranger District. “The big thing for us is just providing additional details and insight into the proposal, but we’re really going to be responsive to things that the collaborative brought forward and that they’re interested in.”
Some of the collaborative’s concerns include whether wildfire treatments such as logging or prescribed burns would take place in riparian, old growth or inventoried roadless areas, and how they could affect endangered species such as the spotted owl. The collaborative is also interested in learning more about the exact size and areas of the treatments, Liu said.
“I think probably the biggest ones are to get clarity around the scale of the treatments,” he said, adding that the collaborative would like to know more about “the ecological need for the amount of treatment that is proposed, where they’re spatially located, as well as the rationale or the need for treatments that are in more sensitive habitats.”
Many of the comments on the draft EA concerned the Forest Service’s plans to cut down what were classified as medium-sized trees, which could in reality be some of the oldest trees in targeted areas.
“There’s a lot of interest in the preservation, if you will, of large and old trees over 150 years old that are really deficient on the landscape due to past harvest practices,” Liu said.
While the west side of the state can produce huge trees in old growth areas, the drier east side of the Cascades is “less productive,” he said, meaning a tree of 20 to 30 inches in diameter might be very old.
“What we actually get are these short stubby trees. They certainly can get large in girth but as far as density we definitely don’t get as many,” Liu said.
The oldest trees also hold the most carbon, making them important in the battle against climate change, he added, and are some of the most resistant to wildfire.
“As the tree grows, the outer bark obviously gets bigger and just helps the tree get more fire resistant,” Liu said.
Eireann Pederson, North Zone Silviculturist for the Forest Service and one of the people who drafted the Twisp Restoration project, said the Forest Service doesn’t plan to indiscriminately cut old growth.
“We’re not looking to remove all of the largest and the oldest trees, but some of the situations that are out there warrant removal of some of the larger trees because of insects and disease,” she said.
The collaborative also previously asked what monitoring efforts would be conducted to make sure the project met conservation goals.
“We definitely will be talking with them about protocols for multiparty monitoring and talking through ideas on how to do that,” Furr said.
Forest Service staff said COVID-19 derailed or inhibited much of its public outreach campaign for the Twisp Restoration project and their ability to effectively communicate the nuances of the project. In more normal times, the Forest Service would have held more in-person meetings with the community and hosted walk-throughs of areas proposed for wildfire prevention or restoration treatments, including logging.
“Protocols did not allow us to do that,” Furr said. “It has been a challenge to keep progress moving forward.”
“We tried to do the best we could with our virtual meetings,” Pederson said.
Going forward, provided that COVID restrictions are lifted as more of the population becomes vaccinated, the Methow Valley Ranger District is planning to host at least one public meeting before the final Environmental Assessment and draft decision is announced late this summer, along with field trips to areas included in the project.
After the final EA and draft decision are announced, there will be a 90-day formal objection period. In the first 45 days, members of the public and organizations that commented earlier will have an opportunity to lodge a formal objection. In the second 45 days, the Forest Service will work to resolve the objections and draft its final decision.