The Forest Service faces big challenges throughout the West, with record-breaking fires and severe funding shortages, as budget originally intended for forest management and restoration is instead used to battle these fires.
These two circumstances have created a backlog of much-needed forest restoration work. Without changes, we will never be able to catch up. A study by the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy found nearly 2.7 million acres of forest in Eastern Washington need restoration.
One example is the Mill Creek Watershed on the Colville National Forest. This 50,000-acre landscape, which burned in 1927, has been widely used by people. We’ve logged, mined, grazed cattle, camped, hiked, fished, ridden mountain bikes and ATVs all over this forest.
But now, dead and dying trees, washed out roads, over-used campgrounds, low water quality and other issues threaten the area. The Colville National Forest and the public at large recognize the need for restoration work on this landscape.
Proactive management is needed to restore the health of the forest in the Mill Creek Watershed, but the Forest Service lacks the funding to implement a comprehensive restoration plan for this watershed.
That’s where the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, of which The Nature Conservancy is a member, comes in. NEWFC is an alliance of timber companies, conservationists, business owners, tribes and forest professionals. Since 2002, NEWFC has been working together to find common ground and move the region forward with new solutions to forest management problems.
NEWFC is supporting two “A to Z” projects in the Mill Creek watershed that combined, will develop a comprehensive restoration plan for 50,000 acres, with active treatments on about 20 percent of that land.
These are complete forest restoration projects that include forest thinning and controlled burning to reduce forest fuels, restore streams and riparian zones, repair roads and close some roads harmful to fisheries and water quality, and restore wildlife habitat. No old growth trees will be cut.
To solve the funding problem, these “A to Z” projects will use funds and personnel provided by a private contractor to plan and implement these forest restoration projects.
The Forest Service retains all decision-making and is accountable for the outcome of the project, but the savings generated by using contractors allows the Forest Service to implement more projects and ultimately treat many more acres. The private contractor will recover their investment through the sale of forest products that are a by-product of the ecological restoration work.
The contractor, in this case Vaagen Brothers Lumber, is willing to invest the money in planning and implementing the restoration work, paying for road repairs and stream improvements, as well as the timber harvest, because otherwise they’d never be able to harvest.
The Forest Service has contracted with Vaagen Brothers to manage the project. Vaagen Brothers then has contracted with Cramer Fish Sciences as a third party to carry out the study and design. This leaves design of the project in the hands of a capable environmental scientist with no stake in the timber harvest.
There are strong safeguards embedded in the contract that keep control of the harvesting decisions in the hands of the Forest Service. With these safeguards in place, The Nature Conservancy fully supports this pilot project.
This solution is one that meets ecological goals for healthy forests that protect clean water, are good for fish and wildlife, maintain beautiful recreational lands, and help to maintain the region’s natural-resources-based economy.
Over its 14 years, NEWFC has collaborated on more than 30 large-scale restoration projects.
The Nature Conservancy and our other conservation partners in NEWFC, The Lands Council, Kettle Range Conservation Group, and Conservation Northwest, applaud the creative thinking and strong commitment to problem-solving behind this pilot project that leverages a significant new funding source. We must continue to be creative problem solvers if we are to succeed in increasing the pace and scale of this vital ecological restoration work.
At the end of the day, national forests belong to all of us. Who among us doesn’t want clean air and water, the chance to see a moose on an early morning camping trip or the peace and solitude the forest gives to us.
James Schroeder is the Washington director of forest conservation and partnerships for The Nature Conservancy.