USA — Six years ago, Congress selected Central Washington as one of 10 places nationwide to test a three-pronged program to restore ecological balance to forests, protect rural economies and reduce wildfires.
Now a newly released federal report praises the national Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act as successful so far. Its credited with reducing fires on nearly 1.5 million acres, harvesting millions of dollars in timber and supporting more than 4,000 jobs annually.
While the program got off to a somewhat slow start locally, supporters say its collaborative strategy is paying off and interest is growing nationally.
So often, it seems that conversations about forestry get stuck in extremes the people who dont want any trees cut or people who are more focused on what you take off the forest than what you leave behind, said Chris Topik, who works with The Nature Conservancy on forest issues across the country.
I think the lesson is that by investing upfront time in community collaboration, you can get more work done and not get derailed by those outliers who are going to litigate.
Locally, the effort known as the Tapash Collaborative so far shown modest results, but is now poised to make significant progress.
I think the idea was to build over 10 years, said James Schroeder, the director of the Eastern Washington Forests Program with The Nature Conservancy, a member of the collaborative group. In the Tapash landscape, what we are seeing now is bigger projects with shorter planning and more support. I think over the next five years well see even more.
The Tapash group is made up of the regions major landowners, the Naches and Cle Elum Ranger districts, the Yakama Nation, the state departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife, and community groups, including recreation, timber industry and conservation interests.
Named after the Yakama word for Ponderosa pine, the collaborative was formed in 2008 to help the regions major landowners learn from each other and start working together. In 2010, it won the federal grant of about $10.8 million to fund 10 years of work on 1.6 million acres of forest in need.
That federal funding can only be spent on physical work in federal forests, not on lengthy and sometimes contentious planning processes, said Jodi Leingang, coordinator for the Naches Ranger District.
But the collaborative pulls in funding from the other landowners and outside groups as well, so that they can all try to find ways to do more work across the region with the available funds, she said.
Since 2010, the local program has reduced wildfire risks on 16,800 acres out of a 10-year goal of 50,000 acres, and harvested 90 million cubic feet of timber out of a 10-year goal of 326,000 million cubic feet.
One example of the work is the thinning, controlled burning and creek restoration conducted last year in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, west of Naches, which is a patchwork of state and federal lands. Similar projects are in development for the Little Naches Creek area, north of State Route 410, and the Manastash Creek area, west of Ellensburg, Leingang said.
The collaborative aspects of the program can come from public participation in planning or on the ground work, such as when crews from the Yakama Nation have lent their skills to help the Forest Service plan timber sales. State programs that help private forest landowners pay to do thinning work to protect their homes and the adjacent public lands, Leingang said.
She says she also counts the established partnerships and community work group as results that are just as important as the acres thinned or timber harvested.
Bringing the public into the planning process slows things down at the beginning so it can go faster later, she said. Those relationships have a huge value and Im more excited about the next five years.
But challenges remain.
The collaborative had planned to use controlled burns to reduce brush and fuel in large parts of the forest, but that has been difficult because of air-quality concerns over smoke.
One of the barriers Tapash has really struggled with has been the burn bans. Thats limited some of the outcomes we hoped to achieve when we wrote the plan, Schroeder said. But we cant do it all mechanically. We really have to use fire as a tool in the forest. The flip side is that if and when a wildfire comes, that will certainly put tons and tons of smoke in the air and reduce what we value in the forest.
Another stumbling block, Leingang said, is that the region doesnt have as many sawmills and forest products businesses as it used to. In fact, the only sawmill in the region is the Yakama Nations in White Swan.
That means theres less demand for the wood coming off of the forest and fewer trained people to do the needed work, she said. The collaborative also aims to support the Yakama mill and encourage development of more local businesses doing restoration work or using the small diameter trees being thinned out of the forests.
Lastly, the partnerships have also given the Naches Ranger District the confidence to look at more large-scale and controversial restoration projects, Leingang said, such as working in beloved recreation areas. That means theres lots still to debate, from where to harvest timber to which roads to close.
Its not all singing Kumbaya, thats for sure. But at least people understand the challenges and trade-offs we face, she said.