Twisp “Restoration” threat

The continuing (de-)evolution of the proposed Twisp Restoration Project

One of many stumps left behind by a fire crew last summer cutting large trees in what they claim was a fuel-break operation along the (formerly) scenic Twisp River road, now damaged for many years to come. —Phil Fenner

 

The raucous roller coaster that is the Twisp Restoration Project (TRP), once a 77,000-acre “landscape level” logging project that encompassed practically all of the Twisp River Watershed, has taken an unusual turn.

On January 26, 2022, the Forest Service, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, announced it has reduced the project from the original 77,000 acres down to 24,000 acres. Good news?

The agency cites the Cedar Creek Wildfire of 2021, which burned around 10,000 acres of the TRP project area, as the reason for the size reduction. North Cascades Conservation Council is heartened, but curious as to why the 53,000-acre reduction due to a 10,000-acre wildfire.

Revealingly, during its teleconference presentation, the Forest Service off-handedly disclosed that it had removed all the spotted owl Late Successional Reserves from the logging project. N3C had expressed serious concerns over logging these federally designated ancient forest reserves, so it appears our vigilance paid off.

However, there remain a number of unresolved issues, which N3C is taking up with our attorneys Liam Sherlock and Esack Grueskin. Conjoined with the impending ecological impacts of the project, the two primary legal issues are: (1) violation of the National Environmental Policy Act by the Forest Service, and (2) the favoritism shown by the agency to the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (NCWFHC) in the preparation and implementation of the project.

The Forest Service’s final decision is expected spring 2022, with logging projected to begin this fall.

Even though the TRP has been reduced in size, the plan would still log 24,000 acres—including trees up to 25 inches diameter—and incise three miles of new road. There remain impending impacts to everything from pine marten and pileated woodpecker habitat, to sedimentation that could impact the endangered salmon and bull trout that inhabit the Twisp River.

The Forest Service plan will pay the timber sale contractors with trees. This will create an incentive to log the larger, more fire-resistant trees that provide the best habitat and represent future old growth. Additionally, a provision in the plan called “Conditions-Based Management” will allow the contractors to remove trees not officially designated for cutting.

The focal point of N3C’s legal concerns is that the Environmental Analysis for the project includes only a single Alternative: the Forest Service’s preferred plan. Under NEPA, the Forest Service is directed to prepare a suite of alternatives to address specific “Needs,” in this case the agency’s unjustified insistence that naturally wet, intermittently dense forests constitute a fire hazard.

Twisp River Basin from near Elbow Coulee -Jim Scarborough

Beyond legal process, N3C contends that the project will not significantly influence the intensity of a wildfire that could threaten the ecosystem or downriver private property. The prospect of logging to reduce wildfire danger remains an unproven concept, as the science on the issue has not revealed decisive results from past fuels reduction logging projects.

There remains a serious problem with the Forest Service’s special relationship with the NCWFHC, composed of 23 interest groups ranging from county government to timber industry lobby groups, and limited conservation interests. Last December, the Forest Service revealed the new, reduced-acreage plan to the Collaborative in a special meeting, and received its comments on the changes.

But when N3C discovered the insider meeting, we asked Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr to publicly release the new information the Collaborative was given, and to re-open the public comment period. We were turned down.

There are strong indications that the Forest Service engaged the NCWFHC in the development of the TRP prior to any public notice of the existence of the project. We have submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act, and are investigating whether these exclusive meetings constitute a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act or the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Our concerns over the Twisp logging show are not limited to the threats to important habitats and fair process. The Forest Service’s plan involves four timber sales to be logged over a 20-year period. The Twisp Corridor, surrounded on both sides by the Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Area, has only ever been used as a recreation portal with eight wilderness trailheads and six campgrounds.

Twenty years of logging operations could render the area practically unusable to the people who revere this unique and incredible ponderosa pine forest.

 

 

/Published in Winter 2022 issue of The Wild Cascades