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Forestry plan could allow extensive logging in Nooksack watershed

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The upper Nooksack is a rugged, forested landscape that carries glacial melt and rainfall to feed more than 1,400 stream and river miles that comprise a vast watershed. Most of the upper watershed is under federal control, and in recent years was spared the wrost ravages of commercial forestry. Until now.

In a reversal of ecological policy that’s become common in the Trump administration, the U.S. Forest Service has apparently scrapped its integrated conservation and enhancement plan (NICE) for the upper reaches of the Nooksack River and proposes instead a more extensive logging plan for the North Fork and its tributaries.

The management plan—now called the North Fork Nooksack Vegetation Project—encompasses nearly 4,000 acres just east of the town of Glacier, along Highway 542 in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. If approved, the project would allow commercial logging of nearly three square miles of forest habitat, with selective thinning on an additional 2,000 acres.

The proposed project includes a mix of commercial logging, huckleberry restoration, and repair and removal of forest roads in the North Fork Nooksack watershed. Although most of its watershed lies within the boundaries of Whatcom County, it also drains into streams in Canada and Skagit County. 

“We are looking at how to improve habitat and forest health along this corridor,” District Ranger Erin Uloth, USFS Mt. Baker Ranger District, noted in a statement. “Our goal is to create a diverse, resilient forest that provides habitat to many species of plants and animals. In this case, that means cutting trees. Cutting trees allows us to relieve overcrowded forests, speed up progress to an old-growth condition, and provide different kinds of forest habitat.”

Forestry officials say thinning in densely stocked young stands allows larger trees to grow bigger, faster—by reducing competition from overcrowding. Thinning also helps increase the amount of light that reaches the forest floor, resulting in an abundance of “understory” plant diversity and wildlife habitat.

Conservation groups and tribal governments agree there are ample opportunities for restoration in the upper reaches of the Nooksack, but say the project moves well beyond selective thinning and includes extensive clearcuts in areas prone to landslides in a critical watershed and salmon habitat. The federal forestry agency has received more than 1,500 comments on its plan.

“The Trump administration may be in its waning months, but it’s pulling out all the stops to maximize extraction of natural resources on our public lands while it still can,” board members of the North Cascades Conservation Council said in a statement. “The details of this proposal read like something from the bad old days of National Forest logging.

“It threatens to turn our green backyard in the shadow of Mount Baker into a pulp farm for Trump’s business cronies in the timber industry for years to come.”

“Regenerative harvests, also known as clearcuts, dramatically change the environment and have little environmental benefit,” Karlee Deatherage, land and water policy manager for the public policy group RE Sources, said in comments about the plan. “We strongly encourage the Forest Service to reduce or completely remove stand regeneration harvests from this plan and instead employ more environmentally sound harvesting regimes.”

Indeed, the pivot from a holistic landscape plan to restore waters and forests simultaneously as originally proposed by NICE to a more aggressive and traditional forestry plan took many conservation groups by surprise.

“For many years, the initial effort proposed some careful thinning of plantations to create conditions that will more rapidly develop into older forest conditions, doing aquatics work and road decommissioning,” Dave Werntz, science and conservation director for Conservation Northwest, said.

“This was the plan about one and a half or two years ago. The Forest Service announced NICE and started public outreach around that, and we expected that would be what was proposed,” he recalled. “Suddenly, in March or April, that comprehensive restoration effort was cancelled. About a month after that, this new project was proposed.

“‘Vegetation management’ is a term that is often used by the Forest Service to describe not a restoration project but just a forestry project—where can we cut trees—the kind of forestry that we haven’t seen in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie under the Northwest forest plan,” Werntz explained. “It proposes instead what they call ‘regen harvest,’—which can mean many things, but it typically means a clearcut: You’re removing all of the forest overstory, and you’re regenerating a new stand in its place.

“It was a surprise to us that you would propose doing this kind of intensive forestry in a riparian areas at all.”

Like many rivers in Washington, the Nooksack River has seen a century of hard use. Its upper reaches are still mostly pristine, protected as park and national forest lands. But much of the rest has been heavily logged, hardened with levee walls, farmed and altered for development.

“Given the scope of the proposed project and the very significant environmental impact it could have on the North Fork Nooksack watershed, we strongly encourage the Forest Service to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS),” Jim Davis, president of the Bellingham-based Shuksan Conservancy, noted in comments about the plan. “The unique nature of the North Fork Nooksack watershed (i.e., steep slopes, high diversity of wildlife, free-flowing rivers and streams, multiple salmon populations, and heavy recreation use) precludes application of a cookie- cutter approach to managing these National Forest lands.

“An in-depth analysis of environmental conditions, tribal treaty rights issues, and recreation needs is needed to prevent irreparable damage to the watershed,” he said. “The EIS should consider the cumulative impacts of proposed timber harvest and ongoing climate change.

“If conditions supporting Chinook degrade in the North Fork due to further timber harvest or other factors associated with the vegetation management proposal, extinction of that population will be hastened. This issue alone should compel requirement for an EIS,” Davis said.

Others expressed concerns about the steep terrain around Canyon Creek and the potential for landslides.

“The county has spent considerable money and personnel resources in the area of this proposed project, particularly to improve public safety and fish habitat in the Canyon Creek Area,” former Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer commented on the plan. “This area is prone to rain-on-snow events that have caused major flooding in the Canyon Creek area. In 1989, 1990, and 1995 large debris floods destroyed four homes and damaged a private resort, a county road, salmon habitat, and interim flood control efforts in the lower mile of Canyon Creek in the Glacier Springs community. Clear-cutting has been shown to add to these debris flood issues in many areas,“ Weimer said, cautioning that extensive clear cuts could trigger similar future debris floods.”

“To date no loss of life has resulted from these hazards, but significant risk to life safety is interpreted due to the presence of large platted developments on the Canyon and Glacier Creek alluvial fans and the very active SR 542 transportation corridor,” Whatcom County Public Works Director Jon Hutchings noted in comments on the plan.

“The combination of unstable lands, highly erosive soils and generative clearcutting is a recipe for aquatic harm in Canyon Creek,” Werntz said.

“The focus in this area should instead be in improving conditions for fish and wildlife habitat, and improving public use that can produce byproducts of restoration that can go to the mill and achieve other objectives for public lands.

“Our hope as a collective of interests is to try to shift the focus back to where the Forest Service had started, and encourage them to take up that restoration work again,” he said.

“We hope to work closely with the public on this project from the very beginning as we take a look at the area to determine what is important and what needs work,” Uloth said.

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