Comments on the proposed Midnight Restoration Project indicate pervasive concerns about the impact of the project on the forest and the Methow Valley at large, with some people suggesting the forest would be better off without the thinning and logging.
More than 100 individuals, organizations and companies provided comments to the Methow Valley Ranger District about the proposed 53,000-acre project.
The Midnight Project encompasses the Twisp River, Wolf Creek and Rader Creek watersheds — specifically, areas the ranger district eliminated from the Twisp Restoration Project until the impacts of the 2021 Cedar Creek Fire could be evaluated.
The Midnight Project is intended to address four needs: create a forest with balanced vegetation and reestablish more frequent fire, protect wildlife habitat, provide a safe and efficient transportation system, and reduce fire risk to communities.
Despite overall reservations about the project, many people supported thinning small trees and using prescribed fire as part of forest restoration. But almost all objected to the proposal to cut old-growth trees and to include commercial logging. Many people were concerned that there would be insufficient oversight of timber companies and no way to hold them accountable.
In fact, many local residents questioned the underlying rationale for the Mission Project, and some said it would harm plants and wildlife. Many said that wildfire is a natural ecological process that rejuvenates a forest.
Still, there was noteworthy enthusiasm for the treatments proposed in Midnight, particularly from some conservation groups, homeowners’ associations for developments near the project area, and timber companies.
The Pine Forest Homeowners Association declared its “emphatic support” for the interventions. Pine Forest has been working to increase forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire, and noted similarities in forest conditions between their private land and the adjacent National Forest that need interventions.
But many people questioned the necessity of cutting trees so far from residential areas and encouraged the ranger district to focus closer to towns. “Stop making wildfires the bad guy and start spending money instead on fire-hardening homes and towns,” said one.
The Midnight Project is based on an evaluation of the entire landscape, and many backed that approach.
Don’t cut old growth
Most people were adamant that no large, old-growth trees should be cut. Many questioned why the definition of large trees in the Midnight Project is different from that in the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy. The Midnight project says trees have to be 25 inches or more in diameter to be considered large, whereas the restoration strategy classifies trees between 20 and 25 inches as large.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council wants all trees over 20 inches to be retained. Some people said no trees larger than 12 inches should be cut.
The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (a group of conservation and aquatics organizations, local governments and tribes, and timber companies that uses consensus to accelerate forest restoration) supports the site-specific nature of the proposed treatments. But the collaborative asked for more details about the impacts on wildlife habitat, particularly in light of climate change. The collaborative also asked whether the number of trees left standing per acre describes conditions immediately after implementation or 10 or 20 years later.
Many commenters questioned the plan to remove so many trees as climate change intensifies, particularly since forests act as carbon sinks. “Change your mission to conservation and carbon storage,” said one.
Collaborative member Conservation Northwest supports the proposal overall, but said guidelines for removal of trees with a certain threshold of parasitic dwarf mistletoe would allow too many trees to be cut. The group wants to ensure that habitat for owls, lynx, woodpeckers and other wildlife is improved by the project.
The North Cascades Conservation Council submitted another alternative for consideration that they say will protect communities while preserving ecological functions of the forest.
The project will decommission some roads but add others. Some people asked that existing roads be converted to trails for hikers and bikers, and others asked that all roads remain open.
Timber companies’ wants
Hampton Lumber praised the proposal because it balances ecological restoration with a need for timber, in particular because their Darrington-based mill has become increasingly dependent on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
But Hampton urged more flexibility so that they can remove trees as large as 30 inches and leave larger gaps between trees, depending on the area. The company pointed to the important socio-economic contributions of the timber industry and urged the ranger district to allow logging year-round to attract more bidders to a timber sale.
The American Forest Resource Council, a trade association for the regional timber industry, urged the ranger district to include the provision of timber products as part of the purpose and need for the Midnight Project.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) strongly supports the Midnight Project. DNR urged the Forest Service to incorporate as many commercial treatments as possible to achieve ecological, economic and social goals.
Many people were distressed by logging last fall in the Mission Restoration Project in the Buttermilk Creek area, not far from Midnight, where independent monitoring found loggers had removed more trees than allowed.
People want assurances that the same thing wouldn’t happen on the Midnight Project. Some proposed having an independent party oversee the logging. Others said the ranger district should clearly mark all trees to be removed, rather than leave it to the discretion of timber companies. Many want built-in accountability and consequences for timber companies.
But a majority want no commercial logging at all. “The landscape belongs to the people, and should not be plundered for logs to sell overseas,” said one.
A number of commenters complained that the forest health collaborative had had more than a year to consider the proposal as it was being developed, whereas the public had only a few weeks’ notice to review complex documents and provide comment.
Digesting dozens of pages of technical project descriptions, maps, and supporting materials made it hard to provide input, some said. “It would be very helpful if you wrote in simpler English, making reading much easier to understand,” said one.
The ranger district expects to start analyzing the Midnight comments in the next couple of weeks, said Deborah Kelly, a public affairs specialist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The agency anticipates releasing an environmental analysis on Midnight in late fall or early winter, with a decision due next summer.
The ranger district considers all comments to help identify issues for further analysis. That includes deciding whether to consider and develop proposed alternatives that meet project needs, Kelly said.
Some people said that the size of the Midnight Project — and the impact of climate change — make it significant enough to require an in-depth environmental impact statement. Some said the U.S. Forest Service should give the public more alternatives to review, not just the Midnight proposal and the status quo.
An environmental analysis doesn’t require a certain number of alternatives, Kelly said.
People can learn more about Midnight and read public comments on the project website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/okawen/?project=63933.