Among the First of the Climate Refugees

Map courtesy of United State Forest Service The Mission Project encompasses about 50,000 acres in the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds.

Map courtesy of United State Forest Service

The Mission Project encompasses about 50,000 acres in the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds.

Plan is part of ‘landscape vision’ for forest management

By Ann McCreary,

If nature were allowed to run its course, portions of the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds would have experienced natural fires every five to 15 years.

Those fires historically played a role in keeping forests healthy — burning at low intensity, clearing out smaller trees and brush, and ultimately preventing extreme wildfires that spread out of control and destroy forests.

Humans, however, have changed the natural course of fire throughout the West, just as they have in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds.

“There would have historically been more frequent fires, about every 10 years in those dry, ponderosa pine sites,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service.

“Since the 1940s and ’50s, it’s up to six cycles that fire has been suppressed. Because of effective firefighting, what fires did start we caught them small, so you didn’t see the historic under-burning,” said Liu.

As a result, the forests in the Libby and Buttermilk areas, like many forests around the nation, have become unnaturally dense, overgrown and vulnerable to extreme fire, insects and disease, according to Forest Service officials.

The Forest Service is developing plans to conduct thinning, prescribed burning and other forest and aquatic treatments in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds as part of the “Mission Project,” which will employ the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy for the first time in the Methow Ranger District (see related story).

The strategy aims to restore forests’ natural resilience to wildfire, insects, disease and climate change. It differs from past forest treatment practices in some key ways, most notably the size of the project area. The Restoration Strategy emphasizes evaluating and planning for large landscapes and developing interventions designed to benefit the entire area.

In the case of the Mission Project, the area encompasses about 50,000 acres in the two watersheds at the western edge of the Carlton Complex Fire perimeter.

Those watersheds are a priority for restoration because they are among the drier watersheds in the Methow Valley and have consequently missed numerous natural fire cycles, said Liu.

Support, suspicion

The prospect of forest restoration work in the Mission Project area is welcomed by some Methow Valley residents, and greeted with skepticism by others.

When Robert Rivard learned about the Mission Project, he wanted to make sure that Forest Service land bordering his property, near Buttermilk Creek off Twisp River Road, was included in the project.

The initial proposed boundary of the project ran along a ridge above the area where Rivard lives, and he wanted the lines redrawn to include densely wooded Forest Service land adjacent to about 80 homes and cabins in the area.

At the suggestion of Forest Service officials, Rivard helped organize his neighbors into a Firewise Community in October, because that designation improved the likelihood for funding treatments on adjacent federal forests. The designation also helps communities compete for funding to conduct treatments on private land. To be designated a Firewise Community, homeowners must obtain a risk assessment, create an action plan, conduct a firewise event and invest in firewise activities. 

“We were able to get this Firewise Community [designation] through the state in record time — nine days,” said Rivard, who worked for 15 years as a firefighter and smokejumper and is uneasy about the condition of nearby national forests.

“I look at the woods. I see the potential,” he said. “We asked that the thin strip between Buttermilk drainage proper be extended to include us.”

The Buttermilk area was threatened by the Little Bridge Fire in 2014, and the Twisp River Fire last summer, raising consciousness among his neighbors, Rivard said.

“The timing was right for the Mission Project. We felt we needed to talk to the Forest Service and some kind of joint agreement. And with another big fire season this year and with the [firefighter] fatalities, we felt we needed to get something going,” Rivard said.

As a result of the Buttermilk landowners’ request, the Forest Service revised the Mission Project boundaries to include the small stretch of section of forest land where Buttermilk Creek comes into the Twisp River drainage by the Buttermilk neighborhood.

Pema Bresnahan, a resident of Libby Creek, has a different view of the Mission Project and has spoken publicly against it. “I see a lot of problems in the scale they are talking about, both in ecological effects and cost,” she said.

“The Mission area is my home.  It’s one of the remaining unburned areas and it’s an oasis for wildlife,” she said.

Bresnahan said she is concerned about the project’s potential impact on an18,000-acre roadless area within the project boundaries, and questioned the effectiveness of logging to improve forest resiliency.

“One can find volumes of research to show that this approach, especially in our area, is not economical or necessarily effective in reducing fire severity,” Bresnahan said. As an example, she cited a 2008 study in the Open Forest Science Journal, which found that while treatments to reduce forest fuels can be effective, the probability of treated areas encountering fire before fuels come back is lower than generally assumed.

Bresnahan said she is concerned that a “landscape-level logging operation on the Libby Creek and Buttermilk watersheds” will be the result of the Mission Project. “How much of it [the project area] is going to be actually impacted by huge machines that run on those tracks and destroy everything they go over?” Bresnahan said in a recent interview.

“I don’t think mechanical thinning is appropriate in that area, except in proximity to structures,” she said, suggesting that thinning be restricted to areas within one-quarter mile of residences. “I want a buffer zone around the houses and leave the rest of the reforest as is, and give the Forest Service the opportunity to do controlled burns.”

Liu said he understands why the public may question the Forest Service restoration plans.

“I think some of the individuals have looked at past logging practices and have been disappointed with that,” Liu said. “Maybe there is a lack of faith in the current science that’s being used, or a lack of confidence that what we’re proposing will in fact benefit the system.”

Forest Health Collaborative

The Forest Service is being assisted by the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative in moving the project forward. Formed two years ago, the collaborative includes conservation, timber industry, government and tribal representatives interested in increasing the scale and pace of forest restoration projects.

While the Mission Project will evaluate approximately 50,000 acres, the actual area of land to be treated is more likely to be about 10 percent of the total area, said Lloyd McGee of The Nature Conservancy, one of the organizations in the Forest Health Collaborative.

“We start with a landscape vision. This does not mean we’re going to log the whole landscape. What it means is when we do thinning, we want to be able to see where it fits into the larger landscape … where we can strategically place thinning treatments so that we don’t get a megafire,” McGee said.

“That 10 percent or so [to be treated] is based on where there is current access, and where there is no other protection prohibiting management because of endangered species or some other designation that does not allow mechanical treatment or prescribed burning,” McGee said. 

The Forest Health Collaborative hired Derek Churchill, a University of Washington researcher and forestry consultant, to conduct a landscape analysis and develop recommendations for possible treatments in the watersheds.

The landscape analysis looks at a range of factors, Churchill said. Using aerial photos and historical photos, it evaluates how much the area has changed from its natural, pre-fire suppression state; it evaluates the risk of extreme fire; it assesses the condition of habitat for species such as spotted owls and salmon.

“It really is a holistic landscape or watershed-wide approach. We’re looking at habitat, fire, insects and disease, aquatics across whole watersheds. We’re looking at all of those and the tradeoffs of those together in one framework,” Churchill said.

The analysis also evaluates how the watershed could be affected by climate change, and compares current conditions in the project area to historical conditions in drier watersheds to guide how treatment can take into consideration a warmer, drier future.

“We think Buttermilk in 50 years is going to be more similar to other watersheds in the region that are currently in a drier condition,” Churchill said.

To assist in the project, McGee and other members of the Forest Health Collaborative have conducted field surveys to gather information on potential aquatic restoration needs and proposed treatment areas.

Liu said the work done by the collaborative and Churchill has been helpful because much of his staffs’ time has been consumed by dealing with two consecutive extreme fire seasons.

“They’ve been able to keep this project moving forward even when we were occupied with fire suppression, suppression repair and recovery,” Liu said.

Liu said he expects the collaborative to provide the Methow Ranger District the results of the landscape analysis and recommendations for areas that could benefit from treatment before the end of the year.

“We’ll review that recommendation and I’m sure modify as we feel necessary,” Liu said. “That will be packaged up as a proposed action, which will be sent out for scoping as we initiate the NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] process. Scoping could begin in January — that’s a rough target.”

After public comments are gathered, the district will draft an Environmental Assessment, which would be available sometime in the spring of 2016, Liu said.

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