Yakamas take lead on restoring forest health

Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.February 2, 2014 

Wildfires don’t respect property lines as they blaze through forests. Neither do insects that wreak havoc on healthy trees.

The forests along the eastern slopes of the Cascades are increasingly threatened by both, and Central Washington’s major forestland owners -- the state, the U.S. Forest Service and the Yakama Nation -- have realized that they need to work together on the forest health issues that threaten them all.

To that end, the Yakama Nation is testing a new collaborative management concept known as an “Anchor Forest.” The approach drew the attention of the deputy undersecretary for the federal Department of Agriculture for natural resources, Butch Blazer, who came to Central Washington late last month to check out the plan.

“They call this concept Anchor Forest because this is tribal land -- these people are not going anywhere. They’ll be here forever,” Blazer said.

Blazer, a member of the Mescalero Apache Tribe of New Mexico, is no stranger to tribal resource management. After touring the Yakamas’ sawmill and forests during his visit, he said the tribe’s priority was working to balance forest restoration with strengthening the timber economy.

Tribal goals of managing forests in perpetuity provide a foundation of sustainable management for the wider region, said Lloyd McGee, eastern forests program manager for the Nature Conservancy. Unlike private timber companies, tribes generally don’t sell off their land or develop it if the forest becomes less valuable.

The Anchor Forest concept involves tribes, state and federal agencies sharing research, funding and personnel on forest restoration efforts, while also working to expand the region’s timber harvest to improve local economies, McGee said

There are clear reasons for the partnerships. Of the Yakama Nation’s 1.4 million-acre reservation, 650,000 acres are forested, and much of that forest land abuts either the Gifford Pinchot or the Wenatchee national forests.

The Anchor Forest concept is backed by the Intertribal Timber Council, an association of 70 timber-owning tribes across the country. A $1.1 million grant from the Forest Service is funding a study of three Anchor Forests in the state, based around forests owned by the Yakama Nation, the Colville Tribes, and the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes.

Phil Rigdon, the president of the ITC and the natural resources director for the Yakama Nation said that many tribes depend on healthy forests for revenue.

“The tribes, we’re here. These are resources that we depend upon,” Rigdon said. “The type of fires that we are starting to see, those risks are real and can have a huge detrimental impact on the things the tribes value.”

Large, intense wildfires are evidence of unhealthy forests, McGee said. The forests of this region were once adapted to frequent, low-intensity wildfires. But decades of fire suppression have allowed fuel to build up and small trees to grow in dense, flammable stands.

These crowded conditions reduce the health of trees, giving insects, such as the spruce bud worm, the perfect opportunity to spread and damage, or kill, trees.

“In doing the forest restoration activity that needs to be done, you’re going to reduce that (fire) risk,” Blazer said. “But, again, that restoration work is expensive.”

Restoration can often involve removing or thinning smaller -- and artificially thick stands -- of trees, allowing others to grow in historically natural patterns. That can be expensive, however.

Small trees and woody debris aren’t as valuable as large logs, but forest managers in the region are working to develop new markets for the wood product that needs to be cut and cleared.

“There’s got to be a way to make it economically viable to get the smaller material out of the forests,” Blazer said.

“The goal is not to cut trees based on what sawmills need,” McGee said. “We need sawmills aligned with products that come off the projects that are doing good ecological restoration.”

The Yakamas own the only remaining sawmill in the region. It employs about 200 people, Rigdon said, and supports more jobs in the tribe’s forestry program.

A key part of the Anchor Forest plan, Rigdon said, is a study to determine how much wood should be coming off the region’s forests so the tribe and others can develop a market for those timber products and plan investments in new sawmill equipment or to build a pellet plant, for example.

Another critical step, Rigdon said, is working through the roadblocks that make it difficult for the tribes, Forest Service and the state to collaborate.

Here, they have a head start because they have already been working together for several years through an effort known as the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative.

Karen Bicchieri, who manages the Tapash, says everyone involved wants the same thing -- resilient forests. The Tapash, named for the Yakama word for Ponderosa pine, has been focused on local cross-boundary restoration efforts since 2007.

The Anchor Forest concept is starting with the Yakama Nation because the Tapash collaborations set the stage, Blazer said. After his visit he said he was excited about the potential for partnerships and finding ways to share funding across boundaries.

Under the federal Tribal Forest Protection Act, tribes can work with the Forest Service to do thinning or assist on forest-health projects on land near their reservations. The program was created in 2004, but McGee said not many tribes have taken advantage of the opportunity to date. The Anchor Forest collaborations may help with that.

As a concept, Anchor Forests is taking on many of the challenges facing Washington’s dry forests all at once -- fire risk, fading health and falling harvests -- but Blazer said that this holistic approach is more likely to succeed and be a model of other western forests facing similar concerns.

“In working together to improve the health of the ecosystem, we’ve got to be balanced and do it in a way that is beneficial from a social standpoint to build and sustain communities,” Blazer said. “When you bring (the tribes’) traditional knowledge with Western science, you can really develop strong forest management. There’s lots to learn from each other.”

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