Twisp Restoration Plan on hold
The prolonged closure of roads and areas in the national forest because of wildfire risk and still-ongoing fire-line repair has raised questions about the nature and extent of logging carried out during the firefighting.
Although the areas are still off-limits, people have seen full logging trucks and massive piles of trees near the North Cascades Smokejumper Base and the Goat Creek Sno-Park, which have stoked suspicions.
“I hate to figure the worst, but if they’re using the fire as an excuse to bypass environmental laws, that’s just unacceptable,” said Ric Bailey, a member of the North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC). Bailey, who lives in Winthrop, has been trying to get an accounting from the Methow Valley Ranger District about logging, especially in the Twisp River drainage.
U.S. Forest Service personnel staffing a roadblock on Twisp River Road about 12 miles west of Twisp said there was still a lot of heavy equipment working on restoration and repairing fire lines, which made it unsafe for people to travel in those areas. Roads that lead up drainages from Twisp River, including Little Bridge Creek, are also closed.
Residents of Twisp River Road who’ve had front-row seats for a month as logging trucks, chippers and other heavy equipment lumbered along the road daily also wondered about the operations. Some of those residents reached out to the ranger district for details, but the district didn’t yet have a tally of how many trees had come out of that drainage, they said.
Most logs appeared to be of fairly small diameter, one resident said. Guidance from ranger district resource advisers instructed fire crews to limit the cutting of live trees greater than 25 inches in diameter, according to records from the district.
Bailey has a keen interest in the area because of the Twisp Restoration Project (TRP), which proposes to treat 77,000 acres with thinning, logging and prescribed fire. Much of the area covered by the project coincides with areas burned or threatened by the Cedar Creek Fire. Bailey even submitted an alternative proposal to the Forest Service for the TRP that he says would provide ecosystem restoration without having to log large trees to fund the project.
“I’m very disturbed about the TRP,” Bailey said. As the fire progressed, it seemed to him that the district wasn’t fighting the fire, but was instead implementing the Twisp project without the appropriate public process, he said.
Bailey, a former logger and firefighter, said he has great respect for firefighters and understands that their safety is the top priority. Still, he questions why they were logging along the Twisp River, 5 miles from the fire front.
Bailey wants the ranger district to open the area to the public for a tour. “The lack of transparency just kind of makes you wonder what’s going on,” he said.
Trees are cut to enable firefighters to work safely in an area and to reinforce control lines by burning out vegetation ahead of the approaching fire. Some trees were cut to reduce immediate hazards to firefighters, while others were removed after the fire passed through to take out hazard trees, according to Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr.
Fire as pretext?
Questions about the tree removal “have risen very quickly to the top of our list of concerns,” NCCC president Phil Fenner said. “It looks like logging, using the fire as a pretext,” he said.
Aerial photos and reports from the Forest Service would go a long way toward helping people understand the process, said NCCC board member Dave Fluharty.
NCCC, an all-volunteer group founded in 1957 to promote wilderness, wildlife and recreation, doesn’t take a position on the recent work done to contain the fires — they’re simply raising concerns, Fluharty said. “It’s all being done under this emergency silence, rather than more transparency,” he said.
Even if they cut only small trees, heavy equipment could compact the soil, making it harder for the area to recover, Fenner said. If fire breaks were constructed in roadless areas, which are candidates for addition to designated wilderness, it would be very concerning, Fluharty said.
Forest health collaborative
The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative works with the Forest Service to increase the pace and scale of restoration in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The collaborative hasn’t been involved in the Methow Valley wildfires and doesn’t expect the Forest Service to consult with them about fire suppression or post-fire restoration, collaborative co-chair Mike Anderson said.
Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch, Anderson’s co-chair, said he and Anderson had informally discussed the fires and their potential impacts on the forest, but hadn’t raised the issue with the collaborative. Branch considered asking the ranger district if they could get a look at the operations in the Twisp River drainage, but said he hadn’t pursued it while the work was still underway.
Branch, who has also worked as a firefighter, said he understands that firefighters build contingency lines far from a fire in an area they know they’ll be able to defend.
In the past, the collaborative has toured areas used as a fire break, where they learned about how fire crews make decisions, Branch said. The collaborative may consider policies for wildfires and after-fire actions but, because it’s such a diverse group, developing any guidance takes time, he said.
The Okanogan County commissioners also talk with the Forest Service during wildfires – for example, to urge them to hire local contractors – but they don’t get involved in firefighting or forest practices, Branch said.
Many say that having more information would enable people interested in the forest ecosystem to evaluate the net benefit. Are some fire-prevention strategies causing more harm than a fire would? Fluharty said. NCCC understands the need to protect homes and property, but the organization wants to be sure that it’s done in a smarter, comprehensive way, he said.
Some of NCCC’s concerns relate to larger conservation issues. The group would like to see firefighting practices planned on a forest-wide basis so they’re most effective, Fluharty said. For example, forests provide crucial habitat and are increasingly important for their carbon-storage capabilities to combat climate change, Fenner said.
Impact on Twisp Restoration Project?
Because the Twisp watershed is a high priority for restoration, the forest health collaborative has been working closely with the Forest Service to address issues with the TRP, Anderson said. They’re concerned about the potential impacts of the Cedar Creek Fire on both terrestrial and aquatic areas, he said.
The TRP has been put on hold, both because ranger district staff have had to focus on the fires and because much of the area was affected by the Cedar Creek Fire and will have to be re-evaluated, Furr said.
The collaborative is eager to hear from the Forest Service about the fire’s impacts and how the agency intends to move forward with the Twisp project in the coming weeks and months, Anderson said.
At base, NCCC wants to ensure that the Forest Service follows laws that require the agency to present a proposal, look at alternatives, and take public input. “This is public land, and they are entrusted to manage it for us,” Fenner said.
Once the roads are open and people can see the condition of the forest, NCCC hopes that information will be taken into account during the review of the TRP, and lead the Forest Service to adapt prescriptions accordingly, Fenner said.