It is possible to avoid repeated outbreaks of the kinds of fires that charred tens of thousands of acres in North Central Washington and choked the region in smoke, but that will require a radically different approach to managing our forests.
The regime of litigation and conflict that exists today needs to be replaced by a locally focused collaborative effort to find practical solutions to improve forest health.
The good news is that just such an effort will be launched in 2013 based on a model that has been successful in finding balanced solutions to vexing resource challenges throughout the country.
This week, I met with members of the steering committee that are working to set up a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The group includes representatives from Chelan and Okanogan counties, the Colville and Yakama tribes, The Nature Conservancy, the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust and the Wilderness Society.
The reality they see is that continuing managing forests as we have recently guarantees we will experience major fire events like those we saw this fall, when more than 75,000 acres were charred in the region at a cost of more than $40 million, not to mention the smoke that choked the Wenatchee Valley for more than three weeks.
We have unhealthy forests that are susceptible to high-intensity fires because of years of fire suppression and a lack of effective management of these lands. Turn the clock back 30 years ago to the heyday of the timber industry and the methods used were unsustainable because of the environmental damage being done.
Since that time, the pendulum has swung dramatically back the other way to the point that we have a barely functioning timber harvesting industry and virtually no mills left to process the wood. Forest fuels have continued to accumulate and there are significant pest issues to boot, creating a forest health crisis. The process of managing the forests has been overwhelmed by political and legal gridlock that has paralyzed the Forest Service.
This has proven that failure to manage the forests is as unsustainable as harvesting too aggressively.
What it will take to find that balance and restore forest health in the non-wilderness areas of the forest is thoughtful use of all the tools available, including prescribed burning and selective logging.
Steering committee member Bud Hover, an Okanogan County commissioner, has seen a similar collaborative effort to restore salmon bring jobs and healthier runs of salmon to the Methow. The work funded by the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board shows that “you can have both salmon and the economy.” That led to a salmon run recovery without sacrificing jobs or damaging agriculture, Hover said.
Hover believes that a forest-wide collaborative effort is the only way to solve what is a catastrophic problem in the forests. “For me, it’s about protecting the communities that we have and trying to enhance the lives of the people,” said Hover.
Paul Ward, fisheries program manager for the Yakama Nation, has seen a similar effort — the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative — work effectively. To Ward, building healthier forests is crucial to preserving their treaty rights and cooperation offers a far better outcome than litigation.
The collaborative effort in Okanogan and Chelan counties will develop a plan for the forest that is strategically broadly supported, which will give them access to a pool of federal funding and also provides a better opportunity to lobby for policy changes. There are already some important efforts under way to improve forest health, such as the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition in Leavenworth. The Forest Service has been consistently doing prescribed burning, which proved effective in reducing fire intensity in treated areas of the forest that were burned this fall.
But, as Okanogan-Wenatchee Deputy Forest Supervisor Clint Kyhle puts it, a way must be found to manage forest health on a broader scale.
Kyhle says it is far better to deal with issues on a comprehensive, forest-wide basis based on input from diverse groups. That way, the solutions stand a far better chance of getting approval by federal and state agencies. Also, such solutions will be less likely to be litigated.
The fires of 2012 illustrated why changing forest management is imperative. Done effectively, a locally driven effort can save taxpayers countless millions in firefighting costs, provide healthier ecosystems and improve the economic diversification of the region.
Cooperation has worked in many projects in the region, including Chelan County Public Utility District’s Habitat Conservation Plan, the Stemilt Watershed Plan and the Foothills Community Strategy in Wenatchee, just to name a few. There’s every reason to believe it will work on the entire forest landscape.
Those who are interested in more information on the forest collaborative can contact the Upper Columbia River Salmon Recovery Board, which is facilitating the effort, via its website ucsrb.org.