Too many trees are growing on parts of the Colville National Forest.
Jonathan Day has counted up to 6,000 trees per acre competing for sunlight and moisture on sites that once had open, park-like stands of ponderosa pine and western larch.
“They’re not going to handle a changing climate very well,” said Day, a Forest Service silviculturist, who points to high-intensity wildfires on the Colville National Forest this summer as an indicator of future problems.
According to a 2014 report, between 35 percent and 60 percent of the forest in northeastern Washington needs thinning and controlled burns to get it back to historic conditions, which will make the remaining trees more resilient to drought, wildfires and disease.
In a pilot project that has attracted national attention – and some controversy – the Colville National Forest has turned to a timber company for help.
Agency officials contracted with Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. to do restoration work over 54,000 acres of the 1.1 million-acre forest. The target area burned during large wildfires in the 1920s, and the surviving trees were logged off. Decades of fire suppression prevented natural thinning of the forest that grew back, Day said.
The 10-year project includes thinning, controlled burns, stream restoration and road maintenance work. Some of the logs will be turned into lumber at Vaagen Brothers’ Washington sawmills in Colville and Usk, which employ about 200 people. Other logs will be chipped and burned for wood-fired electricity.
“We’re leaving the biggest and the best trees,” said Russ Vaagen, president of the fourth-generation, family owned timber company.
He said Vaagen Brothers is taking a calculated risk that it can do the restoration while turning a profit on the small trees harvested through thinning.
“That’s a risk we’re willing to take to move the needle forward on forest management,” Vaagen said.
The Forest Service frequently awards “stewardship contracts,” where timber companies get to harvest trees in return for other work, such as repairing roads or enhancing wildlife habitat. But this project, called A to Z, is unusual because Vaagen Brothers is also responsible for the environmental review of the proposed work, which includes harvesting 30 million to 50 million board feet of timber, said Franklin Pemberton, a spokesman for the Colville National Forest.
Vaagen Brothers has hired Cramer Fish Sciences, of Lacey, Washington, to do the environmental analysis at a cost of more than $1 million, according to Russ Vaagen.
The project must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws, and the Forest Service has the final say on what happens on the ground, Pemberton said.
“For us, it’s about adding capacity to get the work done,” Pemberton said. “We have a limited workforce. At our current pace, we’ll never get ahead of the curve … Disease, insects and fire will outpace our healthy acres.”
Nationally, the A to Z project has drawn interest as the cash-strapped Forest Service looks for way to address a backlog of unfunded restoration work.
Locally, the approach has the support of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and several environmental groups, including The Lands Council of Spokane and Conservation Northwest.
The groups endorse the idea that careful logging can create a healthier forest, particularly when the focus is on restoring landscapes damaged by past clearcuts and fire exclusion, said Mike Petersen, The Lands Council’s executive director.
The groups also were willing to test whether a timber company could deliver a high-quality environmental analysis.
“We have peers who find that idea deeply offensive,” said Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest’s executive director. “I don’t have any such concerns. I’m open to experimentation.”
Others are suspicious.
“I think it calls into question the impartiality of the analysis when a timber company pays a consultant to do the work,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
“It’s like having two foxes guarding the hen house,” said Barry Rosenberg, a longtime environmental activist from North Idaho.
They also say fire behavior has more to do with weather conditions – such as drought, heat and wind – than tree density. They cite research that says many recent wildfires in the Rockies burned through forests of lodgepole pine and subalpine fir, which tend to burn in large fires that kill most of the trees. That’s typical for those tree types, and thinning the forest won’t change the outcome, they said.
“There’s no evidence that thinning can stop fires,” Rosenberg said. “It’s one of the myths the timber industry and the Forest Service use … to justify logging.”
Along with several others, they filed an objection to environmental analysis for the first phase of the A to Z project, which calls for thinning and controlled burns on about 4,000 acres in the Mill Creek watershed 8 miles north of Colville.
Forest Supervisor Rodney Smolden withdrew draft approval for the project last month, but the agency remains committed to the work, according to Pemberton. Withdrawing a decision gives officials time to review issues raised in the objection, he said.
“We typically go back out with a bolstered project, which we hope is better in the end,” Pemberton said.
It’s true that weather dictates how destructive fires are, he added.
This summer, some previously thinned areas of the Colville National Forest experienced high-intensity fires on hot, windy days.
“Fire weather conditions set up so it was going to burn regardless,” Pemberton said.
But other areas benefited from previous tree thinning, allowing the fires to burn with less intensity and play a beneficial role on the landscape, he said.
“Six-thousand trees per acre is unheard of in the natural fire regime,” said Day, the silviculturist. “If we walk away and let a fire burn, it will burn more severely.”
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