Gifford Pinchot National Forest stakeholders are processing the outlook of fire resiliency in the Little White Salmon watershed in Southwest Washington.
Official discussions between members of the South Gifford Pinchot Forest Collaborative — environmental and timber groups, state and federal agencies, local governments and the public — spurred from the U.S. Forest Service’s proposal for fire risk mitigation in the watershed.
Jessica Hudec, a Forest Service ecologist focusing on Western Washington, said management is crucial as impacts stemming from climate change evolve, chiefly those that lead to wildfires. The plan proposes that roughly 6,900 acres of young forest plantations and 7,100 acres of mature and transitional forest be commercially thinned. Up to 1,600 acres would be noncommercially thinned.
During the collective’s monthly meeting in May, members spoke to officials involved in the planning process about its scope and the watershed’s foreseen climate change influences. As the project progresses, some requested further details surrounding species surveys, soil impacts and fuels reduction for proposed regeneration harvest.
Cascade Forest Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said the proposal’s thinning component may unnecessarily remove mature tree stands, which would otherwise become old growth forests and carbon sequestering boons.
“With some of these large, older trees, they’re very difficult to replace,” said Ashley Short, Cascade Forest Conservancy policy manager, in an interview. “Once they’re gone, it takes 100-plus years to grow back.”
Others said the thinning proposal isn’t extensive enough.
Overall, actions have yet to be polished.
“As we refine our proposal, we will continue to weigh costs and benefits for different resources at various scales to get to the best proposal for the most resources in the right locations using the best available science and information we have right now,” Hudec wrote in an email.
The Little White Salmon watershed is included in the Northwest Forest Plan, which, among its numerous preservation strategies, includes an aquatic conservation strategy.
Environmental advocates are seeking assurance that riparian health will be prioritized, referencing the regional plan, notably as it relates to commercial thinning in the landscape. A noncommercial approach would leave downed trees to function as habitat for wildlife, specifically in stream systems where fallen logs would create cool water pockets for fish, Short said.
Collective members also requested a precautionary approach in proposed areas where northern spotted owls have historically nested, though there isn’t new data that indicates the owls remain in the area.
Project planners will consult U.S. Fish and Wildlife related to species habitats if applicable, Hudec said, adding that actions will align with climate change vulnerability assessments, the Department of Natural Resources landscape evaluation, climate change and hydrology reports, as well as a regional climate change adaptation framework.
The Little White Salmon watershed’s landscape is diverse and, when compounded with uncertainties on how climate change will present itself, is beautifully complex. The watershed is in a transitional area between drier eastside forests and wetter westside forests, which host a menagerie of biodiversity.
It’s among the most vulnerable areas within Gifford Pinchot facing stressors like drought, pests, disease and fire, Hudec told the collective.
Though the forest has always contained natural “fuel,” or combustible material found in dry vegetation, the early onset of hot summers and frequency of droughts are increasing the likelihood of wildfires.
The state Department of Natural Resource listed the Little White Salmon watershed as a priority landscape in its 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which identifies ways to improve forested areas amid increasing climate stressors.
For each priority planning area, the science team conducts a landscape evaluation that focuses on how the current landscape has departed from historical conditions and how well suited it is for anticipated climate change and fire risk, said Garrett Meigs, Department of Natural Resources forest health scientist.
Based on this evaluation, the agency recommended treating between 21 percent and 32 percent of the Little White Salmon’s forested acres, which will mostly be applied to eastern portions of the watershed.
Proposed wildfire mitigation work in the Little White Salmon watershed will go through an environmental analysis to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act.
The draft will likely be prepared by early summer of 2024, with a final environmental assessment and corresponding actions occurring later that winter.
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