Thinning, prescribed burns in Twisp River drainage
The Methow Valley Ranger District has announced a public comment period for a new forest project called the Midnight Restoration Project.
The 53,009-acre project is in the Twisp River, Wolf Creek and Rader Creek watersheds.
The Midnight Project calls for:
• thinning understory vegetation on 16,548 acres.
• thinning the overstory (commercial thinning of larger trees) on 12,120 acres.
• prescribed fire (burning hand piles and understory vegetation) on 26,025 acres.
• decommissioning 52.3 miles of roads.
The public comment period ends June 9. An informational meeting is scheduled for Thursday in Twisp (see information boxes).
The Midnight project picks up most of the land that was eliminated from the Twisp Restoration Project (TRP) after the 2021 Cedar Creek Fire burned 14% of that area. The ranger district eliminated about 53,000 acres (69% of the original proposal) from the TRP that had burned or been affected by fire suppression.
The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative worked with a contractor to complete the landscape evaluation that informs what treatments are needed across the landscape, Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr said.
The ranger district says the Midnight Project is needed because the area has departed from conditions that will be resilient to disturbance and to climate change. Specifically, there is less old forest and more young, dense forest than desired because of wildfire suppression and a lack of forest management, according to the project description.
Some of the Midnight Project area also burned in the 2018 Crescent Mountain Fire. In areas that experienced a low- to moderate-severity burn in those fires, fuel loads need to be reduced to prevent the likelihood of another fire. Areas that burned at high severity are regenerating, but work is needed to facilitate the growth of seedlings, according to the project description.
Based on current vegetation, the ranger district concludes that today 20% of the upper and middle Twisp subwatersheds would experience more severe burns than would have occurred historically. That can slow or preclude post-fire recovery. Some of the interventions are intended to address the expectation of increased drought connected with climate change.
The Midnight Project plan includes a reduction of conifers in riparian areas and of some understory vegetation to promote the growth of a more diverse understory, according to the description.
The proposal includes interventions for maintaining dense forest to preserve habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl and wildlife such as lynx. Most of this crucial habitat is in areas that are “not environmentally suitable for dense forest over the long term,” particularly with climate change, according to the project description.
The proposal calls for leaving Ponderosa pine, Western larch, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine (in that prioritized order). No Western red cedar, whitebark pine or Western white pine would be removed. No live or dead trees older than 150 years would be cut, except for hazard trees and other trees as necessary for operations. “Danger trees” that threaten some roads will be assessed and felled where necessary, according to the project description.
The project would also thin about 4,100 acres of small-diameter trees in the Sawtooth Inventoried Roadless Area.
The district anticipates more than one timber sale. The project is still under review, but the Forest Service expects ranger district staff would mark trees to be left. They will also use designation by prescription, where loggers follow a detailed prescription for each area.
Reducing fire risk
The Midnight Project is intended to reduce the risk of wildfire and to provide better opportunities for fighting fire in the wildland-urban interface.
The project design calls for reducing dead and downed materials to diminish the intensity of fire lines and decrease the risks of ingress and egress during a fire. It also includes modification of vegetation and fuels along ridges and roads to reduce the risk of a crown fire that could threaten adjacent communities.
The project includes the same fuel breaks as the original TRP. Because some of those areas burned in the Cedar Creek fire, ranger district staff will do field work this summer to determine appropriate interventions.
Details about the species and size of trees that would be retained or removed in different types of forests, and about the methods that will be used (such as ground-based, cable and helicopter logging) are in the document about treatment descriptions on the Midnight Project webpage.
The proposal includes changes to the road system, including decommissioning unnecessary roads. The ranger district is developing proposals for road changes at the South Creek and Gilbert trailheads in the upper Twisp River, with the goal of creating a parking area near the South Creek trailhead so people don’t park along the road, and a new loop road to improve access to the Gilbert trailhead. Existing trailhead facilities at Gilbert such as the stock ramp, toilet and hitch rail would be moved to accommodate the road change.
Some unauthorized roads in the Wolf Creek drainage would be added to the National Forest road inventory. These include roads that have historically accessed Wolf Creek irrigation ditch facilities or provided emergency egress from the Pine Forest community.
Before it was reduced in size, the Twisp Restoration Project was the largest forest project ever proposed in the district. The ranger district issued its final approval of the reduced TRP in July 2022. A conservation group filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service over the TRP in November, contending that the revisions required a new environmental review and opportunities for public comment. The lawsuit is pending.
The ranger district will finalize the proposed action on the Midnight Project in June after gathering public input. A draft analysis of the proposed action and any alternatives is expected in fall 2023, accompanied by a public-comment period. A decision on the project is anticipated in June 2024.
A description of the project, supporting materials and maps are available on the Midnight Restoration Project website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/okawen/?project=63933. People can comment through a link on that page.
Open house on Midnight Project
The Methow Valley Ranger District is holding an open house at the Methow Valley Community Center gym in Twisp on Thursday (May 18) from 5:30 to 7 p.m. to answer questions about the Midnight Restoration Project and to introduce members of the interdisciplinary team conducting the analysis.
How to comment
Members of the public are invited to comment on the Midnight Restoration proposal.
People are encouraged to provide input on the following:
• What alternative methods would better meet the needs of the project than the proposed actions?
• Is there information about the project area that the U.S. Forest Service should consider?
• Details of concerns about potential effects of any activities in the proposal and any changes people would like to see in the plan.
• Road-related concerns, including which Forest Service roads are important for access to the project area and whether roads should be closed or decommissioned.
Comments will be accepted through June 9. Electronic comments are preferred and must be submitted through a link on the Midnight Restoration Project website at the link above. Comments can also be mailed to Methow Valley Ranger District, c/o Meg Trebon, 24 W. Chewuch Road, Winthrop, WA 98862, or faxed to (509) 996-2208.
For additional information, contact Project Team Leader Meg Trebon at firstname.lastname@example.org.