By Marcy Stamper
Some conservationists had their worst fears confirmed about what was behind the barricades on Twisp River Road when they finally got a look at the forest and found dozens of massive old-growth snags had been felled, and some areas left with only a few trees standing. The area has been closed to the public since early August as part of firefighting efforts in the Cedar Creek Fire and post-fire rehabilitation.
After the road reopened, local conservation groups took a trip to the end of the road over the weekend. “Based on previous conversations with Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest staff, [the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC)] expected to see small tree thinning and brushwork. Instead, they were surprised to find large openings cleared with heavy machinery and that almost all the old-growth, large-diameter snags were cut down along the 10-mile stretch — some still with green tops,” MVCC said in a media advisory on Sept. 21. MVCC is dedicated to the protection of the Methow Valley’s natural environment.
MVCC Executive Director Jasmine Minbashian told the Methow Valley News that she’d expected to see thinning of small-diameter trees and removal of low vegetation, but instead found what appeared to be “random, haphazard” cutting. She counted some 50 snags of approximately 200-year-old trees, some 30 inches in diameter, between Buttermilk and the end of the road that had been felled.
Resource advisers from the Methow Valley Ranger District instructed fire crews to limit the cutting of live trees greater than 25 inches in diameter, according to the guidelines for the Cedar Creek Fire. The guidelines instruct crews to leave any snags felled within riparian areas on site. There are also requirements to leave woody debris in areas of old-growth forest.
Overall objectives for contingency lines remain consistent for the duration of the incident, said Victoria Wilkins, a public affairs officer with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The ranger district and resource advisers provide basic guidelines to the fire crews, but can’t make tree-by-tree decisions. “We have to give teams and crews latitude to manage those risks,” Wilkins said.
The district’s resource advisers coordinate with fire crews and communicate objectives, but they are not necessarily on the ground at every location. Particularly with two large fires burning simultaneously — which the Methow experienced this summer — it’s not feasible to have an on-site discussion at every location, Wilkins said.
“We deeply appreciate the good work of firefighters to protect our community. We also support thinning and prescribed burning to reduce fire intensity and increase forest resilience,” MVCC said. “But in this case, we question whether this amount of resource destruction was necessary given the location and timing.”
Old-growth snags provide crucial habitat. These areas near the valley bottom are wetter and highly productive, Minbashian said. Trees like that — and the wildlife habitat they provide — won’t come back for hundreds of years, she said.
There was very little of this old-growth reserve remaining in the watershed, Minbashian said. “I was absolutely heartbroken to see the really aggressive logging operations in this sensitive and unique area,” she said.
The upper Twisp River is one of the few areas in the Methow Valley that’s designated as nesting, roosting and foraging habitat for endangered spotted owls. It also provides habitat for bull trout, Minbashian said.
Snags provide important wildlife habitat, but they can also pose a danger to firefighters because they can fall, Wilkins said. There’s no way for the district to know why specific trees have been felled, she said.
Photos show that in some areas near the road, fire crews cut almost all trees and covered the ground with a layer of dead branches and needles. Branches and slash laid on the ground are typically part of suppression rehab, used to minimize soil damage and address run-off, Wilkins said.
But Minbashian was concerned that some of these practices could increase wildfire risk in the future.
The primary control line in the upper Twisp River drainage was Abernathy Ridge, a large, natural feature several thousand feet above the drainage, Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr said last month. Twisp River Road was their contingency line.
To prepare for a potential burnout to protect homes in the Twisp River basin in case the fire crested the ridge and made its way down to the road, fire crews thinned trees along an approximately 10-mile stretch on the upper Twisp River Road, from Buttermilk to the area burned in 2018 by the Crescent Mountain Fire, Furr said.
Because the road has been off-limits, the timing of the cutting and other suppression activities isn’t clear. Daily updates from the incident management teams indicate that they were scouting long-term strategic actions in the Twisp River drainage in the second week of August in case the fire made its way down from Abernathy Ridge. They also improved control lines in the area.
Residents of Twisp River Road were evacuated on July 31 but allowed to return home on Aug. 6, when the evacuation level was reduced to Level 2, meaning people should be ready to leave. The area from Elbow Coulee Road, about 5 miles west of town, through Buttermilk, 6 miles west of there, was reduced to Level 1 — be aware of a fire in the area — on Aug. 10. All evacuation orders for the road were lifted on Aug. 22.
There are a handful of houses west of Buttermilk. The rest of the road goes through the national forest, where there are half a dozen campgrounds and trails.
No public process?
Many valley residents and members of conservation groups have been questioning the actions taken in the name of firefighting when no one could witness what was happening.
The area has received particular scrutiny 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.
Under normal circumstances, the U.S. Forest Service is required to provide opportunities for the public to evaluate and comment on a proposal like the TRP. The National Environmental Policy Act establishes stages for input, analysis of alternatives, and an appeal process.
“These practices, done out of sight, underscore the importance of public engagement and accountability,” Minbashian said.