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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Multiagency effort spawns giant forest, recreation project in Pend Oreille County

Mark Turner of Spokane leads a hike on the trail along Bead Lake, northeast of Newport, with the Inland Northwest Hikers Meetup group in 2011. An expansive forest and recreation project in Pend Oreille County would mean a new trailhead and parking at Bead Lake. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Fred Willenbrock For The Spokesman-Review

NEWPORT – Twenty years ago, the proposal being presented at public meetings in January for forest restoration and recreation projects on 90,700 acres in Pend Oreille County would only have been a pipe dream.

That was at the height of the “timber wars,” pitting pro-logging interests against environmentalists and bringing logging to a halt.

The project area north of Newport and east of the Pend Oreille River is a patchwork of tribal, state, federal and private lands. This is the first time that a tribe is doing environmental analysis for the forest service using state funds. When complete, it should vastly improve forest and watershed health for all land owners with a bonus of increased recreation opportunities.

Project area land owners are: Colville National Forest, 41,600 acres; Kalispel Tribe of Indians, 3,700 acres; Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 8,200 acres; private, 37,000 acres; and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 200 acres.

All the actual work in the project will be done on forest service land, but the partners hope others will follow, especially private timber land owners. The DNR and Kalispel Tribe have been working on forest health and watershed improvements on their land already.

This project is the culmination of years of increasing forest fire danger caused by poor forest management and a new spirit of collaboration between forest managers and some environmentalists. It is also a milestone for this new-age management, because it is the first project in the nation with so many partners working on this large of an area.

But it isn’t without challenges.

“Get past the feel-good part and reality is, it is hard to get agreements,” said Gloria Flora, project coordinator for the Sxwuytn-Kaniksu Connections Trail Project. “We proceed with caution.”

The Kalispel Tribe refers to the project as Sxwuytn (s-who-ee-tin), a Kalispel Salish word that roughly translates to connection or trail. This planning effort is also referred to as Kaniksu Connections to acknowledge the building and strengthening of connections and relationships across landscapes and boundaries.

Flora said that everyone won’t agree with what the group proposes and challenges in court are possible. But she said she feels that “old-school protests” need to change.

She points to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals statements last year in the ruling in favor of the Colville National Forest and its large A to Z forest restoration project in Stevens County. The court said the environmentalists objecting had a chance to be at the table in the planning process and should have been involved but weren’t.

Flora has been at the table for forest planning projects for many years. She has worked 23 years in forest management around the country with the past seven in this region.

She founded and directs Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure the sustainability of public lands. Her former forest service career included serving as forest supervisor on two national forests.

Given the scale of forest health problems in Eastern Washington, the DNR, federal agencies and other partners agree that to meaningfully reduce wildfire and forest health risks, it will take coordinated actions across land ownership boundaries at a watershed scale. The forest land owners can’t just work their patches independently or not at all.

This project should test whether the public is ready to accept this new way of doing things.

The three meetings in January are one part of the National Environmental Policy Act process. NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental effects of their proposed actions prior to making decision.

Although the final list of proposals and details for the project won’t be published and released to the public until the first meeting in January, a draft of priorities has emerged from the many workshops during the past year.

A similar project adjacent to the Sxwuytn project is being designed by the Panhandle National Forests. It should be ready for review next year. The majority of the project is forest service land in Idaho. They will also use the authorities that allow them to partner with the Idaho Department of Lands, Kalispel Tribe and others.

These projects combined will involve almost 200,000 acres. They include the areas impacted by the 2015 Tower Fire. The Kaniksu Complex, which included the Tower Fire and six smaller fires, burned 26,093 acres. The fire was near the Kalispel Reservation and inspired tribal leaders and others to realize they needed to improve forest health.

Roads removed

Among the most important for watershed improvements in the area will be removal of former logging roads.

“Intensive look at roads and which are not needed,” Flora said of the group’s planning work.

The project calls for decommissioning 140 miles of roads with building less than 5 miles. This doesn’t mean closing down the forests, Flora said. For timber harvest and projects, they plan to use temporary easements and other methods. Some of these will be available because of the authorities and resources of the DNR partnership.

On the recreation side, new trails, trailhead parking and off-road vehicle areas will be created.

Flora said that logging methods have changed so roads close together aren’t as necessary.

“Glad to have it (road removal discussion) out there,” said Gayne Sears, Newport-Sullivan Lake District Ranger. “People have misconceptions about forest roads. Many are grown over and not usable.”

But they still cause erosion and other issues, she said. Some have wooden culverts that have failed.

Other restoration work will include thinning, tree planting, prescribed burning, and fish passage and stream habitat improvement.

“I’m excited about recreation changes in the project,” Sears said.

Among them is adding 4 miles of trail around Bead Lake to complete the loop.

Other recreation work proposed includes a new trailhead and parking at Bead Lake; off-highway vehicle connecting routes to existing trails; a boat launch dock at Bead Lake; parking expansion at some trailheads and several new trails.

“Never would have been able to do work without this project,” Sears said.

Sears agrees with Flora that there will be some problem areas, but she doesn’t think they are controversial. Part of the planning process has been talking to private land owners like those around Bead Lake.

“We’ve been reaching out more,” Sears said.

Land owners are rightfully concerned about erosion and other issues related to logging necessary for forest stand thinning, Sears said. The Bead Lake area is difficult to work in because of steep mountains and lack of access.

How it’s funded

Once the forest service and stakeholders agree on a plan and the forest supervisor approves it, they still have to find funding. Sears said the forest service didn’t have funding to even do the planning work, but now it is completed.

Sears said they will use stewardship concepts, which allow them to trade timber for restoration work. They will also apply for grants for recreation projects and partner with other organizations.

The Kalispel Tribe has already contributed to the project and could do more during implementation.

After the public meetings in January, the forest service will review the public comments and, if necessary, look at making adjustments to the project actions. It could prepare a second proposal if necessary, but most likely it will just make adjustments to the original project, Sears said.

By next summer, they will have a final review with another round of public comment meetings. The goal is to approve the plan in March 2021, with work beginning that summer.

During the life of project, which could last 20 years, they estimate about 20 million board feet of timber will be harvested as part of thinning and other work, Sears said. But much of the work would most likely be done in the first five years with other projects that take longer like stream restoration spanning the full length of the project.

‘A big problem, 100 years in the making’

“It was a perfect storm,” Flora said of how the project started with several unrelated events.

She credits the DNR with the inspiration by doing its 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, published in 2017.

Chuck Hersey, a DNR manager in the forest health and resiliency department, was the leader on the plan project.

The report states that in Central and Eastern Washington alone, there are millions of acres of unhealthy forest. More than 33 organizations and agencies came together to address the forest health crisis through the strategic plan. This plan, grounded in science, set a goal of restoring millions of acres of forest to healthy conditions, increasing fire resilience and better protecting communities.

Hersey said their research found that many smaller areas had been treated but were surrounded by other areas that weren’t.

In 2015, devastating fires in Washington got the attention of the Legislature. It funded the 20-year planning report in 2016, which was released in 2017.

“We had a big problem, 100 years in the making,” Hersey said.

“From the report, we had data to drive actions,” he said.

It showed the worst areas, where a lack of treatment had caused unhealthy forests. Many were made up of a patchwork of owners including state, federal, tribal and private.

“We looked at what areas were at high risk and prioritized,” Hersey said.

The area near Usk and the Kalispel Reservation was at the top of the list.

The DNR met with the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, forest service, Kalispel Tribe, local governments and private land owners.

They selected a planning area and the Sxwuytn project was born.

The Legislature created grant funding for planning and implementation of these projects. The Sxwuytn project was the first to receive a $400,000 grant to pay the Kalispel Tribe’s resource department to do the environmental assessment work on forest service land. The Tribal Forest Protection Act gave the Kalispels the authority to do the work on federal land.

During the past two years, the state has granted about $1.5 million to other projects in the state, Hersey said. It plans to continue the program in the future.

“First time in the nation that a tribe has performed a NEPA analysis of this size on federal land,” Hersey said. “Without the tribe, it (the Sxwuytn project) would not happen.”

Tools such as the Good Neighbor Authority allowed the state to assist federal forests, he said. DNR contract mechanisms work faster and are less cumbersome than the federal government’s. The DNR can also use their Its staff to assist where the forest service may be understaffed.

Feds in charge

The forest service owns the land and oversees all aspects of the project, Hersey said. It still must comply with its policies and federal laws. In essence, the tribe and all participants work for the forest service.

There are some area environmentalists who refuse to be part of the collaborative planning process. They are said to believe that projects labeled as improving forest health to prevent fires are just cover-ups for increased logging. They don’t believe the science supports the methods being used to reduce forest fire threats.

Hersey said there is no way to stop forest fires when there is a combination of dry woods, dense vegetation and high winds. But recent science is showing that thinning, controlled burns and other techniques to restore natural, healthy stands can stop firest.

He said this work can also make a forest come back faster after fire and assist fire suppression efforts.

“This is really a diverse mix of everything,” Kalispel Tribe information and outreach coordinator Mike Lithgow said of the project partners and funding.

For several years, the Kalispel Tribe has worked collaboratively across property lines to rehabilitate 100 miles of streams and rivers with the goal of establishing native fisheries. Some of this work has overlapped the Sxwuytn project.

Rodney Smoldon, Colville National Forest supervisor, has led his forest’s nationally recognized effort to try whatever is necessary to improve forest health in the 1.1-million-acre forest. Under his leadership, the forest has increased timber harvest from 40 million board feet to a regional high of 120 million board feet. This equates to more forest health improvements, but Smoldon also recognizes that it is good for the local economy.

Smoldon has said that they have done a fraction of the forest health work needed. He said he likes the new resources that come with partnering with state and tribal governments.

“When partnering with tribes our work increases exponentially,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) has championed several measures over the past decade that paved the way for this project. The Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004 and more recent legislation allows tribes to help improve forest health of nearby national forests to protect their reservation forests. Other legislation allows the forest service to contract with the DNR to do work on federal land.

Smoldon said the DNR is good at partnering and leveraging funds for these forest health improvements. In some ways, it can act faster and more efficiently.

“Many forests in the country are using some of these tools, but none are using all of them like we are in this project,” Smoldon said.

Flora said the Colville National Forest got involved because its budget has been too small to do the work needed to promote a healthy forest and prevent wild fires. They also wanted to do something.

“It takes a forest with a mindset to do this,” Flora said. “I can think of 10 forests in the country that wouldn’t do it.

“They have to be open and willing to listen. They might have to do things differently.”