USFS takes long-term view of forest recovery efforts
On the East Buttermilk Creek Road leading to Blackpine Lake, people have been seeing logging carrying out the first phase of the Mission Restoration Project this summer and fall.
Four members of the public got an up-close view of the project on a tour with the U.S. Forest Service in mid-September. After being contacted by Twisp River resident Tamar Baber, who was troubled by the logging and thinning done as part of forest restoration, Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr offered to meet and talk in the field with people concerned about the implementation.
Baber became interested in the Mission Project because of the Twisp Restoration Project, which will use similar treatments and is expected to start next year. So she did some exploring in the Buttermilk Creek area. She was troubled by what she found.
Although the formal public-input process on the Mission Project has ended, the ranger district saw the tour as an opportunity to bring together specialists to shed light on what people are seeing now that the work has begun, particularly after being restricted to virtual presentations during the pandemic, Furr said.
The group discussed what the forest looked like historically, how it should look today, and what needs to be done to make the forest resilient as the climate changes. They looked at a unit being logged as part of a dry-forest treatment, and another being thinned to encourage growth of aspen for wildlife habitat.
The group also got a landscape perspective of the Mission Project. From a high viewpoint overlooking the hills in the Buttermilk Creek drainage, Methow Valley Ranger District Silviculturist Eireann Pederson pointed out decades of changes to the landscape — the units currently being logged, forests that burned in the 2018 Crescent Mountain Fire, and areas clearcut decades ago that are now growing back.
The Mission Project is being carried out on a 50,000-acre landscape. Less than 4% of the total will be commercially logged, Furr said.
Years of input and opposition
The project was put out to bid in 2018 and 2019, but no logging companies bid on it until 2021, when Hampton Lumber bid $1.07 million for almost 48,000 tons of wood, three-fourths Douglas fir and one-fourth Ponderosa pine. Revenue from the sale will be used to fund restoration treatments.
The commercial logging that’s already underway encompasses 1,384 acres of ground-based logging and, on steeper slopes, 138 acres of cable logging. There will be 1,522 total acres of commercial treatment in all, Hampton Lumber Division Forester Kris McCall said.
Hampton Lumber will remove conifers to encourage aspen growth on 9 acres. Other phases of the project involve fuels reduction (removing small trees and shrubs), plus optional thinning of young forests on 1,333 acres, McCall said.
The Mission Project uses what’s called “designation by prescription,” which allows loggers to select trees for removal based on a detailed description, rather than have Forest Service staff mark trees to leave standing, Furr said. The work is supervised by staff from Hampton Lumber and the Forest Service. The prescriptions also include a minimum number of trees to be left per acre, which varies depending on the type of forest.
Much of the logging appears to adhere to the prescriptions, said Sam Israel, a forester who’s monitoring the project for the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (which helped develop the project) and the Methow Valley Citizens Council.
But Israel also had questions. It appeared that the prescriptions hadn’t always been followed carefully, with too few trees left standing in some units, he told the Methow Valley News during a separate tour of the area. Israel also had concerns about cable-logging units where it appeared that trees had been dragged across the ground, leaving deep ruts in the forest floor.
Mission Project history
The Mission Project went through the environmental review process and public-comment period starting in 2016. After the project was approved, the Montana-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Forest Service in 2019, saying that the project would harm endangered species and their habitat. The Forest Service argued that the alliance hadn’t shown that the agency wasn’t protecting wildlife. A judge agreed and dismissed the lawsuit in 2021.
Conservation groups including Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest filed briefs in court supporting the Forest Service, saying the Mission Project uses science to restore ecological resilience and that it would benefit wildlife habitat and the environment.
Some people who remember the abundant, shady forests in the Buttermilk drainage said it was unsettling to see areas where relatively few trees are left standing and the ground is covered with dead and dying branches.
Pointing to stumps more than 2 feet in diameter, Baber asked the Forest Service why so few big trees were left. The project allows the removal of trees up to 24 inches in diameter at breast height, which means stumps will be larger, the Forest Service said.
“The initial treatment phases of any timber sale or restoration treatment may look a bit jarring to those who haven’t seen a timber sale or restoration treatment during or immediately after implementation,” the ranger district acknowledged in response to questions from the Methow Valley News after the tour. “As understory vegetation grows and slash is managed through piling and burning or other means, it will quickly look healthier than it did before the treatments started,” they said.
Moreover, people who’ve become accustomed to seeing lush, green forests have gotten the wrong message. “On the east side of the Cascades, a lush forest is an unhealthy forest where vegetation has become overcrowded due to fire exclusion,” the Forest Service said
“Logging is messy. Initially, it’s ugly — I’ll be frank about that,” Hampton’s McCall said. During active logging, there’s slash on the ground and in piles. But as a forester, McCall said he sees these treatments as a work in progress and knows how the forest will look as it regenerates and provides more forage for wildlife.
The branches also protect the soil from becoming compacted when heavy equipment drives over it to remove trees, Forest Service Vegetation Program Manager Pete Weir said during the tour. Over time, the needles fall off and decompose, providing nutrients for the soil.
After they dry in a year or two, the branches are slated for a prescribed underburn to reduce surface fuels and maintain the desired vegetation conditions.
Opening the canopy and reducing tree density is intended to improve conditions in the event of a fire and to allow remaining trees to get a larger share of limited precipitation. It also lets more sunlight get to understory vegetation, the district said.
That explanation wasn’t entirely satisfactory to some on the tour. Ric Bailey, a Winthrop resident and member of the North Cascades Conservation Council, remained concerned that the slash had created a “massive fire trap.” He maintained that the Forest Service has contributed to these degraded conditions through logging and fire prevention.
Although the project is slated for prescribed burning, finding a window to do that in the brief safe season in the Methow — when fuels aren’t too wet or too dry and air-quality parameters can be met — can mean that fuels technicians can’t burn everything they’d planned in a given year (or even several years).
If a wildfire started in or moved into a treated area, firefighters could safely get into the area and would have a better chance of fighting it, because it would be more likely to remain on the ground, Furr said.
Pearl Cherrington, another Twisp River resident on the tour, asked why these treatments aren’t closer to where people live to protect homes from wildfire. The focus should be on making homes better able to withstand fires, through use of fire-resistant materials and clearing brush near houses, Baber said.
When slope and weather, such as a cold front, align, a fire can more 3 or more miles in one burning period, Furr said. By treating a landscape in strategic places, they can avoid megafires that burn thousands of acres in a watershed, Weir said.
Balancing past, present and future
The Forest Service uses the best available science to develop forest restoration projects, and the Mission Project is one of the first Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy projects to look at historical and future ranges of forest conditions and try to find a happy medium, Pederson said.
To design the project, the Forest Service looked at watersheds that showed the most significant departure from healthy conditions — in terms of wildlife, trees and water — and factored in impacts of climate change. They used that information to design interventions that will move the forest to conditions that can sustain themselves, Pederson said.
The concept is about finding a balance between a time when the Forest Service cut all the largest trees and a subsequent era where they did no management at all, she said.
Baber pointed to research that she said showed that logging and thinning alone don’t reduce wildfire risk or improve forest health, particularly without prescribed fire. She and Bailey contend that future forest restoration projects shouldn’t include any commercial logging or remove any trees larger than 10 inches in diameter.
The Mission Project doesn’t include maintenance prescribed burning over the long term, but the environmental analysis recognizes that further treatments will be needed to maintain desired vegetation and fuels conditions. Those treatments will be analyzed and undertaken separately, the Forest Service said.
The group also visited a riparian area where conifers had been cut to encourage growth of an existing aspen stand. Aspens respond to disturbance, and there are already shoots coming up along the skid trails left by logging equipment, Pederson said.
Some of the public worried that opening the forest canopy would exacerbate problems by drying out the forest floor. Removing some of the trees creates forest openings, which allows rain and snow to reach the ground, Pederson said.
But Bailey saw it differently. “What we’re looking at is more or less a glorified clear-cut,” he said.
The group didn’t visit wetlands in the project area, but some members of the public said they’d seen a wetland scraped clean by heavy equipment. They said they’d also seen evidence of cattle in wetlands.
There are active grazing leases in the Mission Project area, but there is extensive fencing to keep cattle out of ponds and wetlands, according to the Forest Service. If people see cattle in these areas, they should report them to the district office, the agency said. There is no harvest or heavy equipment being used in wetlands, they said.
Lumber and biochar
Douglas fir is being processed at Hampton’s lumber mill in Darrington. Ponderosa pine goes to Randle, in southwestern Washington. Hampton planned to send a dozen truckloads to Darrington twice a day and one to Randle. But because they’ve been having trouble hiring enough truckers and other workers, the company is hauling only half of that each day, McCall said.
The ranger district is looking at options for converting non-merchantable wood to biochar. They are currently seeking bids for biochar conversion using a mobile system called an air-curtain incinerator. If successful, several slash piles in the Buttermilk Creek drainage will be converted to biochar, which would be a first for this forest, the district said.
Commercial thinning will continue into next year and may be completed as soon as 2024, according to the Forest Service. Noncommercial thinning will be carried out over the next three to five years, and will be followed by prescribed fire and burning hand piles. The Forest Service has already completed 1,552 acres of noncommercial small-tree thinning in the Libby Creek drainage, another section of the Mission Project.