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Chumstick coalition proves the value of collaboration

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If you're disheartened by the acrimony in Congress these days and our elected officials' inability to address complex and substantive issues, I invite you to turn your attention to the efforts of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition.

The tiny nonprofit with few resources but a plethora of partnerships is doing what seems impossible — making the Chumstick Valley and by extension Leavenworth, safer and more resilient in the face of wildfire. We ought to be standing up, applauding and emulating CWSC's collaborative approach to addressing this issue.   

I heard Annie Schmidt, CWSC's executive director, give a presentation last week about what that organization has accomplished by working extensively with local, state and federal agencies as well as private landowners, businesses and conservation organizations. They are implementing a strategic approach to reduce the threat of fires. It's hard to imagine any agency or nonprofit working alone could match what the coalition has accomplished in identifying critical areas to be treated and in providing incentives and education to help landowners make their lands safer.   

The efforts paid off in the Eagle Creek fire last summer when the treatments that had been done on private lands kept the fire from being more destructive. The only structure lost was a chicken coop, and Schmidt said no chickens were lost. "It was awesome," Schmidt said, as she showed a slide of fire near a residence with firefighters routinely handing the blaze.  

The Chumstick area is 50,000 acres in size and there are more than 700 landowners involved, many of whom have residences in the forest. According to Schmidt, 98 percent of the timbered area has higher than average fuel loads, making it susceptible to bigger blazes. More than a century of firefighting has put the forests in an unnatural state with denser stands of trees. Developing approaches to bring the forest back to a healthier state is slow and tedious, but worth the effort.   

If you look at a map of the Chumstick, fire has blistered wide swaths of acreage around the Chumstick in the past few decades. The names of the fires are familiar: Rat Creek, Dinkleman, Fischer, Eight Mile, Tyee, Round Mountain and others. The Chumstick area is the "hole in the donut," Schmidt observed, and it's only a matter of time before it faces more fires.  

The principles of the coalition are simple. "We are a collaborative that believes more can be accomplished by working together than working alone and share risks and rewards," Schmidt said. "We can't prevent fire, but we can be more adaptive, recover faster and more resilient."   

The work of the coalition is the reason why Leavenworth was one of eight communities nationwide to be designed as a Fire Adapted Community pilot site.  Leavenworth was also recognized as a Firewise community in 2010.  It is heartening to be in a region where cooperation and collaboration is a strong part of the culture. The Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition shows us how we can attack massive problems at a local level by working together rather than operating in silos.   

What other challenges could be solved this kind of collaborative model?