By Susan Prichard
As a fire ecologist, I recently had the honor of meeting with the President of United States to discuss the state of our nation’s forests. I then returned home to the Methow to read letters to the editor in the Methow Valley News expressing strong opposition to the Twisp and Mission Restoration projects. A community member even jokingly told me she would put her body in front of the logging trucks on Twisp River Road this summer stop the onslaught.
I’d like to tell you why I support large-scale thinning and burning projects in fire-prone, low elevation forests of the Methow Valley.
As research scientist with the University of Washington, I study how proactive management, including forest thinning and prescribed burning, can help old and mature Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests survive wildfires. Amidst distressing news about climate change and wildfires, it’s a refreshingly hopeful line of study. It gives us ways to adapt our forests to warmer, drier summers.
Even so, many people have spoken out against what they perceive as a ploy to harvest old-growth trees and a commercial timber grab. Frankly, I think the original Twisp Restoration Project environmental assessment needed modifications and much better outreach to our community. However, I’m anxious for the Methow Valley Ranger District to get started on this important project under their revised plan. I also think it is high time for our community to advocate for large-scale forest restoration.
I understand the suspicion. I grew up on Whidbey Island, and every summer my family spent weeks hiking in the Olympics and North Cascades. In the early 1980s, that meant driving through clear cuts on the way to parks and wilderness areas. I vividly remember the scarred hillsides covered in massive stumps left behind by logging ancient trees. Many of us lost trust in state and federal land management agencies during that time. As a young teenager I decided I wanted to become a scientist to guide responsible forest management.
I support forest restoration projects because in their current state forests are vulnerable not only to wildfires such as the 2021 Cedar Creek and Cub Creek II fires but also summer drought, forest insects and diseases.
Old-growth forests in western Washington mostly exist within temperate rainforests with dense and multi-layered canopies from towering, centuries-old trees down to dappled understories of vine maples, lush ferns and moss. However, in eastern Washington, dry, low-elevation forests historically were dominated by fire-maintained Ponderosa pine and open grasslands and savanna. Frequent fires once maintained bunchgrass-dominated understories that burned every five to 25 years. Although dense old forests developed on some moist sites, they were far from the norm. This valley was shaped by frequent fire.
With forced displacement of the Methow Tribe and active fire suppression, fires in the Methow Valley became rare for well over a century — from the 1880s to the early 2000s. In the near absence of fire, forests invaded patchworks of fire-maintained grasslands and shrublands and grew more choked with live and dead vegetation — continuous fuel for summer wildfires.
With dense trees and multi-layered canopies, the forests of upper Twisp River resemble old-growth forests of western Washington, but they’re particularly vulnerable to high-severity fires that leave few survivors. They also contain impressively large Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir with thick bark, high tree crowns, and charred bark that remind us that the Methow People historically maintained more open forests there through frequent burning.
Fortunately, the science supporting dry forest management today is reliable, with very strong consensus among experts. Over the past decades, ecologists have studied how restoring the structure and composition of dry forests can improve forest health and mitigate fire severity. If dry, fire-prone forests are thinned and regularly prescribed burned, the remaining trees are healthier and more resilient to climate change and wildfires.
Although the scientific evidence that justifies and guides forest restoration is strong, public misinformation campaigns against restoration are in full swing. They often play to the public’s distrust of logging on public lands or suggest that perhaps these summer wildfires are doing restoration on their own. Both arguments have been made against the Twisp Restoration Project.
Thinning is best bet
Here’s my response:
First, forests within the Twisp Restoration Project are unnaturally dense and fire-prone. Drive up Thompson Ridge Road to see the widespread mortality and damage caused by the 2021 Cedar Creek Fire when it burned through part of the original Twisp Restoration Project planning area. Strategic forest thinning, coupled with prescribed burning, is our best bet for restoration.
Rather than threatening old-growth trees, the Twisp and Mission projects will thin forests, focusing on removing small to medium sized trees to better protect mature and old trees from fire, insects, disease and drought. The past 20 years of wildfires have wiped out many of our old-growth forests. We are running out of time to protect those that remain. Check out these links:
- Story Map of wildfires in north-central Washington, 2000 to present: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/da2c6d84fa67456c87d0c2f891f3e0cf.
- Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest restoration strategy: www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5340103.pdf.
Second, because forests are so departed from historical conditions and the climate is warming, summer wildfires are burning hotter than in historical times. Landscapes in and around the Methow are anything but “natural.” Wildfires are burning uncharacteristically hot and threaten our remaining forests, fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and recreation values. You can read more about the need for proactive management here: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/64f55848f690452da6c58e5a888ff283.
Misinformed opposition to restoration forces damaging delays. Well done, forest restoration involves careful planning using the best-available science, strong community engagement and monitoring. Past restoration projects in Cub Creek and Eight Mile are beautiful examples of where the Methow Valley Ranger District thinned dense forests, leaving large old trees and intentionally burned forest understories. The Twisp Restoration Project starts soon. I encourage you to get involved, be informed and actively promote restoration that builds forests and communities resilient to fires.
Susan Prichard is a fire ecologist and has worked as a research scientist for the past 18 years at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Her main interests are in the effects of fire and other disturbances on forest dynamics, climate change on forest ecosystems, and fuel treatment options to mitigate fire severity and smoke impacts in fire-prone forests. She lives full-time in the Methow Valley. Having lived through record-setting wildfire seasons, she is focused on applied research questions that help to inform adaptive management under climate change.