Forum stresses ‘defensible space’ around homes
In an era of increasing impacts from climate change, logging and thinning projects cause ecological harm to forests and won’t protect communities from destructive wildfires. Instead, we should focus on areas where people live by clearing vegetation and hardening homes.
Those were the central points at “Visions for a Fire Safe and Ecologically Sound Community,” a forum held in Twisp last week. The forum featured forest scientist and wildfire-management expert Dominick DellaSalla; Methow Valley residents Ric Bailey and Michael “Bird” Shaffer, who’ve been working on forest-health issues for decades; and environmental attorney Liam Sherlock. About 70 people attended.
The North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC) helped organize the discussion because of its concerns about the impacts of U.S. Forest Service restoration, thinning, and logging projects in the Methow that encompass almost 200,000 acres, Bailey said for the NCCC.
Wildfire is part of living in the Methow Valley, and to think you can control fire is not realistic, Bailey said. Naturally ignited wildfires replenish the soil, he said.
DellaSalla and the other panelists stressed that they’re not opposed to thinning or logging. But any restoration plan has to consider the entire valley and conserve the ecosystem for future generations, Bailey said. DellaSalla maintains that areas that have been logged tend to have higher-severity fires.
It’s also crucial to remove slash piles once the work has been completed so that they don’t add more flammable fuel to the forest, Bailey said. In the Buttermilk area, after logging and thinning in the Mission Restoration Project, “there are clear-cuts choked with flammable logging slash, which has been there for two summers,” Bailey said.
DellaSalla, who studies biodiversity and climate change, said the situation is growing dire, with the Earth on the cusp of warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius. While firefighters succeed in suppressing 98% of fires, the other 2% burn in such dry conditions and hot temperatures that they can’t be put out, he said.
Fires bring ecological benefits, whereas many aspects of fighting fire — such as soil damage from bulldozers and the use of chemical retardant — harm the environment, DellaSalla said.
Logging adds carbon to the atmosphere by removing large trees, which hold the most carbon, and by adding emissions from heavy equipment, DellaSalla said. Moreover, logging equipment, ground disturbance, and tree removal disrupt microrhizomes, a vital underground network that trees use to communicate, he said.
The U.S. Forest Service restoration projects aim to return the forest to historic conditions, but Bailey contends that the agency has selected a particular point in time, whereas forests have been evolving since the last Ice Age.
Millions of homes have been built within or near forests, directly in the path of wildfires, DellaSalla said. Rather than spending so much money in the backcountry, the emphasis should be on creating defensible space around homes and on hardening the structures themselves with nonflammable materials, he said. Ground fuels should be cleared within a 2-mile perimeter around private property, Bailey said.
NCCC contends that forest projects proposed in the Methow Valley Ranger District have been fast-tracked, with insufficient opportunity for public involvement. The group says the projects aren’t based on the latest science and that they violate environmental laws and will have a detrimental impact on the Methow’s resource-based economy.
NCCC submitted an alternative plan for the Twisp Restoration Project, but says the Forest Service has refused to consider it.
Co-presenter Michael “Bird” Shaffer grew up on Poorman Creek. He studied environmental research and outdoor recreation and worked as a firefighter. “We can’t control wildfire, but we can work with it,” Shaffer said. We can create a plan that’s driven by ecology, not by economics, which can be a source for jobs in the woods, he said.
Several panelists raised concerns about the logging and thinning done in the Mission Restoration Project in the Buttermilk Creek watershed. The Mission Project used an approach that allowed loggers to select trees based on a description in the plan. But members of the public and an independent review by a forester contend that loggers cut more — and larger — trees than allowed. Paying loggers by the tree, rather than negotiating a flat rate for the project, provides an incentive for them to cut more trees, Bailey said.
Sherlock is lead attorney in NCCC’s lawsuit challenging the Forest Service’s planned logging of the Twisp River watershed.
Sherlock provided an overview of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which supports science-based decision-making and provides opportunities for public participation in plans by federal agencies such as the Forest Service.
NCCC contends that when the Forest Service reduced the size of the TRP by more than two-thirds after much of the area burned, the change was significant enough to require public input. The lawsuit also argues that the Forest Service must do an environmental-impact statement to look at the cumulative impact of all proposed forest-restoration projects in the area.
Attendees asked for more specifics about the panel’s proposals, including clearing a 2-mile buffer around homes, which would be substantial, one said.
One audience member was concerned by the fact that many forests near the Methow have burned at such high severity that they’re not likely to regenerate. “That’s not normal or sustainable,” she said. It can take years for a forest to regenerate, particularly when soils are dry, DellaSalla said.
“We have to get to coexistence with fire,” DellaSalla said.
The Okanogan Conservation District has cost-share programs to help people create defensible space and for home hardening. For more information, visit www.okanogancd.org or call (509) 422-0855.