By Chris Branch and Mike Anderson
The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative — which we proudly co-chair —– is a broad coalition of local and tribal governments, public agencies, and private organizations working together to improve forest and stream conditions in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Okanogan and Chelan counties.
Our 22 members range from conservation organizations like the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest to timber industry representatives with Hampton Lumber Company and American Forest Resource Council.
The Collaborative formed in 2013 because of growing concerns about wildfire risks to communities and worsening forest health conditions in this area. We all supported the Okanogan-Wenatchee’s scientifically rigorous Forest Restoration Strategy, but we recognized that the U.S. Forest Service lacked the necessary support and resources to effectively implement it. By working together collaboratively, we were determined to help the Forest Service accelerate the pace and scale of science-based forest restoration activities.
One of our first undertakings was the Mission Restoration Project, located in the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds close to Twisp. Early in 2015 — while the Forest Service was focused on managing recovery from the South Summit Fire — members of the Collaborative commissioned a study by a consulting ecologist, conducted road surveys, organized field trips, and developed a proposed purpose and need statement for the Mission project. When opponents of the Mission project sued the Forest Service, Collaborative members filed legal briefs in support of the project. Fortunately, the lawsuit was dismissed, and now the forest and stream restoration work of the Mission project is about to commence.
Last fall after the Cedar Creek Fire, we hosted a field tour in the Methow Valley with Congressman Dan Newhouse and the chief of staff for Sen. Patty Murray, along with officials from the Forest Service, Yakama Nation and Colville Confederated Tribes. We have been urging members of Congress to increase funding for the Forest Service to step up its efforts to plan and implement forest restoration and community protection activities in the Okanogan-Wenatchee. Congress recently made sizeable, multi-year appropriations for these types of activities in the bi-partisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The good news this month is that a significant portion of the new federal infrastructure funding is heading to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest to reduce wildfire risks to vulnerable communities, including those in the Methow Valley. The chief of the Forest Service on April 11 announced that, as part of the agency’s 10-year Wildfire Crisis Strategy, $102.6 million will be allocated to the Central Washington Initiative over the next three years. With this increased funding, the Forest Service expects to reduce wildfire risk to local communities and improve forest conditions on 124,000 acres of the Okanogan-Wenatchee.
Moreover, on April 19, the Biden Administration announced that the Okanogan-Wenatchee will receive $1.4 million for restoration work this year through the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. This will likely be the first installment of a decade-long commitment by Congress and the Forest Service to support collaborative restoration and monitoring in the area.
The infusion of new federal dollars will complement funding provided by the Washington state Legislature to implement the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan. The DNR brings valuable scientific expertise to our Collaborative, as well as legislative authority to speed up the contracting process.
Assessments conducted in 2020 by DNR’s Forest Health Science Team found that 75,500 to 111,500 forest acres in the Methow Valley and Twisp River forest health priority planning areas were in need of treatment to improve resilience. The DNR will be updating these assessments of treatment need to reflect the impacts of the two large wildfires in the Methow Valley last summer.
Public involvement in these large-scale forest restoration projects is an important component of their successful outcomes, as is the ongoing monitoring of their implementation and adapting management as the science and new information unfold. Many people who live in and care about the Methow Valley have shown keen interest in improving forest conditions and reducing wildfire risks.
The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative will continue to assist the Forest Service as the agency ramps up its restoration work. Local residents who are interested in learning more about the Collaborative are welcome to attend our quarterly membership meetings, talk to staff in our member organizations, or visit our website at ncwfhc.org.
Chris Branch is an Okanogan County Commissioner. Mike Anderson is a senior policy analyst for The Wilderness Society.