Breaking Trail, and the Law

Standing on the side of a dusty gravel road overlooking a valley of tan grasses and green pines, John Rohrer, a wildlife biologist and program manager with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), points to a rock face roughly a quarter mile away and tells its story. Armed with landscaping tools and a drill, a local rock climber named Brian Burdo broke a trail through the underbrush leading up to the wall, drilled dozens of metal bolts into the rock, and named the new climbing area “The Matrix Wall”. To climbers, this development was an exciting opportunity, but to Rohrer and others in USFS, it was a dilemma. Burdo did not consult with the Forest Service before building his trail, which was not only illegal, but it also prevented the agency from conducting research that is required by law for development on public land. It just so happened that the new trail ran directly over a den used by rattlesnakes in the winter to huddle together and stay warm. This not only presents an obvious risk to trail users, but it also disrupts important habitat for these animals. The Forest Service fined Burdo for his actions, but has allowed the trail and bolts to remain in place. With the Methow Valley becoming an increasingly popular location for recreationists, the Forest Service needs to simultaneously monitor for illegal development as well as build a relationship with the local climbing community to establish strong bolting and trail-building ethics and collaborate on future projects.

Choosing a Path: The Art of Land Stewardship

Vic Stokes, a fifth generation Methow Valley rancher, is learning the art of stewardship.   He grows alfalfa on his 1600 acres of privately owned land and grazes his cattle on the local Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest.  Because the Stokes’s livelihood hinges upon access to healthy forest, Vic and his wife Carrie are acutely conscious to the physical impact left by their herd.  As Forest Service biologist John Rohrer explained, cows are neither natural nor well suited to forest ecosystems—they threaten delicate riparian zones and increase soil erosion.  For this reason, grazing on National Forest is a point of contention between environmentalists and ranchers. 

Vic Stokes believes that ranching is integral to the cultural and economic character of the Methow community.   However, ranchers must strike a balance between making a living and fostering a healthy forest. The Stokes’ regularly consult with a range specialist and have worked with local land trusts to set up conservation easements for their ranch, thereby ensuring its future use as agricultural land.  Vic remains resolute in his conviction that when practiced with attention to ecological limits, grazing can improve the resilience and stability of the range.  As the Stokes family has learned, the path of a land steward is often rocky.  Yet, between the bumps in the road, there is fidelity to both family tradition and Methow Valley homeland.  Vic explained: “I chose my path.  I chose to ranch.”

In the Methow Valley, just east of the Cascades, resource managers, loggers, and ecologists are united with the goal of restoring the forests of their home valley to a legendary “natural state.” A century of strict fire suppression has resulted in what Kent Woodruff, a biologist in the employ of the Forest Service, terms “an epidemic of trees”: forests where trees haven’t been thinned by fire, where volatile fuel is heaped on the ground. Because of this suppression, we have entered a period in which fire management has become futile. In recent years, fires have scorched the land on an unimaginable and unprecedented scale. The Methow Valley was devastated by massive fires in the summers of 2014 and 2015, a result of the multi-year drought that gripped most of the west coast. Residents are throwing themselves into projects to protect the remaining vulnerable forest from fire in whatever ways they can. For Kent, this takes the form of installing beaver pairs along creeks, to better regulate the release of snowmelt water throughout the hot summer and help the ecosystem adapt to more frequent and severe droughts. For Mike Borowski, another Forest Service employee, fire prevention takes the form of selective logging, a process called “mechanical treatment” that prioritizes greater space between trees and the reduction of fuel on the ground. No matter their vocation, folks in the Methow want to protect their home in whatever way they know how. 

Beyond One Definition

Sometimes the simplest things tend to be the most complicated. As many of the people here in the Methow Valley agree, the world’s climate is changing and with the stressors it puts on the land everything is being redefined into many meanings. Raging forest fires are decimating thousands of acres – millions of things – but are also stimulating just as many. It’s a double-sided coin. We’ve been told that people need to recognize the value of their public land and yet at every turn the forest service’s language, describing these places, suggests that the forest is a sick place. The importance of treating the ground with thinning mandates and prescribing burns to deal with the epidemic of trees in the face of fires has become increasingly significant. As long time forest service employee, John Rohrer explains, “We have domesticated and paved so much. We need to maintain wild places.” But the nature of wild things is often understood as freed from the need to be maintained. The forest service uses strong language surrounding forest management, leaving little room to redefine changing times followed by altered landscapes that may not mirror our past understanding of things. Today forest fire fighter Dan Robbins shared his insight that, “There is no more normal” in the growing mosaic of forests spurred equally by fire and the forest service’s thinning. What disturbs it has become a choice, one of the few many here agree we have, so long as we can act fast enough.

 

Collaboration in the Methow

The greatest good for the greatest number over the long run.  This mantra comes from the first Chief of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot and guides the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Service as they manage public lands.   When it comes to managing grazing on public land in the Methow Valley, this seemingly straight foreword statement is quickly complicated as the Forest Services balances their multiple use mandate to permit grazing and protect forest growth and ecosystem health.  Environmental groups in the Methow Valley protest grazing on public land because cattle inadvertently squash fish eggs by stepping on them, killing an essential element of the ecosystem.  Other contentious issues such as timber treatments and forest fire prevention cause internal tension as employees with varying backgrounds disagree on priorities and work through solutions.  When discussing how to manage these diverse opinions, Forest Service employees such as Wildlife Biologist Kent Woodruff and Fire Management Officer Matt Ellis advocate for interdisciplinary collaboration with an emphasis on building relationships in the community.  With a team consisting of foresters, biologists, botanists, timber sale experts and fire managers, the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Service works within the constraint of insufficient funding and conflicting public opinions to use their vast array of backgrounds, opinions, and knowledge as an asset to get a comprehensive understanding of issues, follow their mandate, and find collaborative solutions.

When Catastrophe isn’t the Worst

In 2014 and 2015 severe and unprecedented fires, propelled by an increasingly warm and dry climate, devastated parts of the Methow Valley. Homes burned to the ground, cattle herds demolished, memorials for fallen firefighters, and hillsides stained a shimmery black are just a few markers of how acutely this community was wounded by burning forests. People here are working valiantly to recover, but ecologically the issue of fire is not so black and green. 

Fire is a natural aspect of the landscape here, as much in its place as the ponderosa pines and the beaver dams. Though crispy burnt trees may appear utterly catastrophic, in the Methow forests there are no ecological winners and losers. At some of the burn sites in the Methow charred stands of trees may never regrow, but many here do not see this fully as a tragedy. While some species continue to suffer in the wake of the great burns, others are being given the opportunity to thrive. One such notable plant, the sagebrush, has been waiting in the wings at many locations, and fire was its cue to take over the stage, ushering in a new ecosystem. Animals, plants, and people who have depended on the forest must either adapt or move somewhere new, but for the species that rely on sagebrush fires are an opportunity to thrive. It is painful for many in the Methow to see the charred remnants of forests accompanied by encroaching sagebrush, but change is not devastating for all.

Public Grazing: A Service to Our Forests?

In the Methow Valley of north-central Washington, controversy over public-lands grazing burns as brightly as anywhere, and it’s up to US Forest Service District Biologist John Rohrer to keep the air clear of smoke. Visitors and newcomers to the Valley from Seattle are appalled by eroded watersheds, trampled meadows and incongruous fences they perceive to be spoiling their National Forest. Cattle, Rohrer admits, also pose a serious hindrance to wolf recovery. However, he recognizes that “ranching is a way of life, a vocation,” and that ranchers “aren’t getting rich, they’re just getting by.” Rohrer explains that grazing permits, by keeping ranches in business, prevent or postpone ranchland from succumbing to environmentally-devastating subdivision and development. Fourth-generation Methow rancher, Vic Stokes, offers further perspective, emphasizing that the annual cycle of raising and moving cattle fosters “a lot of sense of place, and…of purpose,” and especially an ethic of “hard work.” Each US Forest Service grazing permit allows 800 cow/calf pairs to inhabit an allotment from June to September. The Forest Service is invested in mitigating the erosion caused by cattle, but removal of cattle from public lands seems unlikely: permits that not only allow, but mandate grazing of eligible land have been integral to the Forest Service’s production-oriented mission since the agency’s establishment in 1912. A century later, an increasingly conservation-focused society questions whether grazing on public land still stands up to Gifford Pinchot’s founding ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

Rodents to the Rescue

“Beavers are the only animals that really change landforms,” says Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist who works for the Forest Service and runs the Methow Beaver Project. In the Methow Valley, an region often characterized by seasonal fires, beavers play an important role in stream habitats. Beavers first dam up streams with mud, sticks and fallen trees creating a large still section of water where the beavers then build a lodge to live in. This area serves many useful ecological purposes. The pond becomes a habitat for fish and salamanders to live in as well as a place where larger animals like moose, deer and wolves can come to drink water and find food. The pond holds water from snow melts and then lets the water out slowly during the summer. When a fire comes through an area of stream altered by beaver the marshland can provide a fire break and offer protection to the animals and trees in the wetland. In turn this stream habitat is more resilient after fires. The Methow Beaver Project takes beavers from places where landowners don’t want them, and then match the beavers with mates at a local holding facility. After that they choose a spot in the forest that could be improved by beavers, they release the beavers into the stream and then continue to monitor them. Since the Beaver Project started they have placed approximately 330 beavers in drainages up and down the Methow Valley, providing helpful climate adaptation for stream ecosystems. 

How Can Humans Best Manage Nature’s Forests?

The forests in the Methow Valley are burdened with an “epidemic of trees” from 100 years of fire suppression, according to Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist for the US Forest Service. Forests now have denser tree cover and underbrush. With the effects of climate change fast approaching, the Okanogan National Forest will encounter more varying winters and hotter, drier summers. With more fire fuel and a drier climate, forest fires will burn hotter, more frequently, and scorch soil and mature trees more than previous fires before fire suppression. This trend has already become reality—each big fire year is unprecedented in magnitude, from 10,000 acres in 1994 to over 625,000 acres in 2015. These mega-fires burn hotter and turns the landscape into “black toothpicks,” requiring primary succession and a slower recovery process than for smaller ground fires the forests are accustomed to. Beyond ecological and wildlife ramifications, mega-fires impact communities by burning down homes and threatening the health of firefighters; scorching public graze lands and cattle; and polluting the air with smoke and vast influxes of carbon dioxide. The Okanogan National Forest and others like it need adaptive management to help lessen the effects of climate change. There could be more rigorous thinning, logging, and forest underbrush removal, and/or an expansion of prescribed burns to create fire breaks and reduce fuels, but there are challenges: funding limitations, NEPA processes, risks to ecological intactness, smoke regulations, and community support. Remediation may not even be effective. But the train is undeniably accelerating. Though any action may not be perfect, as Kent says, “it’s hard to be too bold.”

Issues of Trust: Ranching in the Methow

Trust underlies decision making in the Okanogan–Wenatchee National Forest. Specifically, cattle ranching on public lands breeds conflicts among a diverse public. To city-dwelling environmentalists, it is hard to comprehend why the USFS allows cattle to trample riparian areas and munch on native grasses. In a system where every major decision is preceded by a year-long document extensively outlining the impacts, why are ranchers allowed to continue to have a disproportionate impact on this public land?

Cattle ranchers like Vic Stokes view themselves as critical components of the American food system: they are feeding the hungry. As Vic’s son Kent explained, ranchers are environmentalists in the sense that they work with and in the environment every single day. In order to run a successful cattle operation, they have to anticipate and control elements of the ecosystem. Ranchers view their role as improving the land, holding onto multi-generational traditions, and benefiting society. 

At the root of this issue is the matter of trust. Environmentalists don’t trust ranchers to adequately care for the environment. Ranchers don’t trust that the regulations implemented by the federal government are in tune with the reality of ranching. As proven in the Methow, trust can be at least partially established through collaborative discussions. Vic Stokes summed it up stating that it’s how we disagree that matters. Hopefully, when addressing the issue of cattle grazing on public lands, we can trust the USFS to facilitate a decision that is fair to all land users including ranchers and environmentalists. 

Conserving Wild Water Through Nature's Engineers

In the full scorch of a brilliant Methow morning, a brunneous beaver paddles lazily about his concrete enclosure. The Schnauzer-sized rodent is one of four currently housed in this repurposed fish hatchery, dubbed the Methow Beaver Project. Designed to create natural reservoirs in anticipation of increasingly hot, dry climatic conditions, the organization is the brainchild of Kent Woodruff, a wildlife biologist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Service and self-professed “beaver believer”. His team works with locals to remove unwelcome beaver from drainage ditches and cattle pastures, then release these natural engineers into strategically chosen wild locations where they will hopefully create new wetland ecosystems.

This facility is merely the holding/mating site (as Kent puts it, “match.com for beavers”) but two days prior we went slogging through a marshy meadow that, thanks to two of the project’s furry alumni, now sustains a myriad of plant and animal species, including willow trees, trout, and even gray wolves. Woodruff, who himself resembles a grizzled silvertip badger, waxes dynamic before the fruits of his progeny’s labor, his raspy voice rising to a gruff guffaw before falling to a barely audible whisper. The scene is wonderfully picturesque: a verdant jungle of grasses and brush rising out of a layer of water knee-high to a tall man. The architects themselves aren’t visible, but the ripples of feeding fish and carnivorous tracks in the mud decisively validate the project’s slogan of “increasing stream diversity one beaver at a time."

Trampled by Tourists

Recreation in the scenic Methow draws in hordes of visitors each year. Valley locals have watched “West Siders”—as they are often called—flock from Seattle, Tacoma and Portland to the Methow in search of less crowded recreational opportunities. This tourism has brought in significant revenue and development to the valley, but increased traffic comes at a cost.

Heather is a small woody plant that grows in alpine areas where shallow soils made rich Mount Mazama ash soils. Heather is hardy enough to withstand harsh winter conditions and deep snow burial, but fully-formed communities can take as long as 10,000 years to develop. Increased recreation is threatening heather, and the impacts are noticeable. Heather is trampled by hikers on the sides of wet and muddy trails, particularly in the spring as snow thaws. In an attempt to escape poor trail conditions, people walk on the heather, which destroys it and threatens the species is some places. 

The Forest Service is working to mitigate this impact and to protect heather for the future. The agency identifies volunteer work, spreading knowledge and maintaining a presence as the three most important aspects of their plan. Educational signs are used to increase public knowledge, volunteers work to replant heather in many areas, and improving trail conditions in sensitive places is an ongoing project to help protect this fragile, threatened plant. In the face of pressures to overuse parts of the Methow, work is being done to preserve what has been growing here for centuries.

Wolf Re-entry Conflict in the Methow Valley

Wolves are returning to Washington for the first time in 100 years. In the heart of the Methow Valley, ranchers are concerned about an increasing wolf population and thus, the safety of their cattle. Conservation Northwest, an environmental group based out of Seattle and Bellingham, WA, believes that by the year 2021, up to 400 to 500 wolves could populate the state of Washington, but only if the public prioritizes their safety. Currently, if a wolf pack kills more than four cows in a site where wolves are not listed as federally endangered, the ranchers are free to protect their cattle by killing the offending wolves. No wolves have been harmed in the Methow, as they are listed as endangered in the region, but tensions are on the rise. Recently, the Profanity wolf pack killed six cows, leading ranch owners to struggle with the fact that these wolves are actively being protected by people like Jay Kehne, Conservation Associate for Conservation Northwest. Jay works to inspire ranchers that wolf conservation, herd safety, and economic stability can coexist. A man of deep passion and knowledge, Jay loves the wolves he is working to protect but must face opposition regularly from those who view wolves as singularly dangerous and disruptive. Wolves will only be returning to Washington if people like Jay continue to inspire dialogues of wolf conservation and the benefits of reentry. 

When the Sawmills Close

The Methow Valley is broad like the back of a lumberjack. On each muscular shoulder thrive millions of ponderosa pines, nestled between dry sagebrush country and the moister dominion of Douglas firs in the high North Cascades. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest flanks the small rural towns of Winthrop and Twisp, whose communities have relied for decades on the forest’s abundant natural resources. In the 1990s, environmental groups concerned about irresponsible logging practices in the Pacific Northwest began crusading against timber harvest on public lands. Many sawmills, including the local Twisp mill, closed their doors as the number of available federal logging permits plummeted. 

“Environmentalists rejoice when sawmills close,” said Mike Borowski, Timber Contract Administrator and Forester for the Okanogan National Forest District, “but it just means that the cost of hauling lumber goes up.” Borowski has worked in the Okanogan District for over a decade. He believes conscientious forest management depends on the ability for commercial timber companies to thin trees, and explained that many environmental entities did not anticipate the far-reaching consequences of mill closures. Timber must now be transported to the nearest mill in Kettle Falls, 140 miles away. As a result, local loggers have lost the ability to compete with corporate bidders for federal contracts. Rural families, unable to find jobs, abandon their lifelong homes for more metropolitan areas, leaving behind an unstable economy. To stay afloat in the wake of change, both forests and communities must balance both ecological needs for resource protection and economic needs for resource development.

Redefining Beauty

In the Methow Valley in North Central Washington State, the US Forest Service is “redefining what beauty means,” as Phil Brick, professor at Whitman College says. Staff with the Forest Service, including Matt Ellis, Dan Robinson, and Mike Borowski work in the field of forest management. They employ a variety of techniques in effort to prevent the destructive impacts of wildfires throughout the Pasayten and Sawtooth wilderness areas in a region with a scarred past of increasingly frequent fires. Common practices include logging, controlled burning, and ladder fuel reduction (in which the lowest, most at-risk branches on trees are burned off), which all aim to prevent spreading of fire. Looking at a sparse hillside in Cub Creek, the men see a logging job well done. In comparison to lush forests on the surrounding peaks, it’s hard to see this area as a prime example of healthy and beautiful. To be able to see its beauty, one must know that the dense, fire-prone forests commonly idealized as untouched nature in the public eye do not usually resemble historic lands unaltered by human behavior. What these men do is try their best not to stop fire completely, but to create the environment of their described “ideal world,” one in which the effects of climate change and resulting fire dangers are mitigated.

Empty Prescriptions, Black Toothpicks: The Forest Service’s Modern Struggle

In the Methow Valley, WA the United States Forest Service is waging a war against wildfire. In 2014 and 2015, severe wildfires devastated the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, leaving much of the landscape covered in, as USFS wildlife biologist Kent Woodruff says, “black toothpicks.” The war against fire consists of three fronts: fuel reduction and relocation, a fight against outdated policy, and a campaign to educate the public about sustainable forest management. Mike Borowski, a forester and timber sale administrator, works to reduce fuel loads within national forest land through commercial sales to logging companies. Others orchestrate prescribed burns to remove excess fuels that transform small burns into blazing infernos. The Forest Service also enlists the help of the public, allowing those with permits to cut snags for firewood. 

However, old policies, including Late Successional Reserves (LSRs) – stands of old growth forests reserved for endangered wildlife habitat even in the absence of those threatened species – can prevent effective forest management. The management is halted by environmental groups, who appeal proposed forest plans that would allow more management options. These issues, according to USFS rangeland manager John Rohrer, stem from a lack of public education about forest management. When the reasoning behind USFS practices isn’t understood, the proposals are more likely to be rejected., leaving the USFS with their hands tied. The inability of the agency to act how it must is best summed up by Rohrer, who firmly states: “we just need more flexibility to respond to changing times.”

“A Finer Paintbrush” for Spotted Owl Habitat

The Methow Valley District of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is proposing to eliminate Late-Seral Reserves (LSRs), areas designated by President Clinton in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan to protect old-growth habitat for federally-endangered northern spotted owls. Over 280 species depend on the large-diameter trees and standing dead trunks, known as snags, that exist in LSRs, where logging and firewood harvest are prohibited. Kent Woodruff, wildlife biologist for the Methow Valley District, thinks LSRs are outdated. He points to Goat Creek Watershed, a vast LSR where no spotted owl has ever been found. Here, one in every ten Douglas-firs stands dead due to tussock moths. Allowing locals to harvest firewood would reduce forest-fire risk and garner support without impacting the snag habitat required by species such as pine martens and northern goshawks. Federal LSR policy fails to recognize both the absence of owls and the abundance of snags. “We need to work now with a finer paintbrush,” says Woodruff. He envisions a dynamic forest plan in which habitat is preserved based on the presence of certain species. Climate change, fires, and invading barred owls are forcing spotted owls to change their habitat choices, and wildlife managers need flexibility to respond. Furthermore, nonsensical policy diminishes trust of local citizens who must now drive 30 miles to harvest firewood. The outdated LSRs, says Woodruff, “are ammunition for people to say we are mismanaging our forest.” Environmental groups, citing distrust of Forest Service accountability, oppose the Methow Valley District’s proposal to eliminate LSRs. Currently, the proposal is stalled at the Regional Office, and that’s where it’s likely to remain.

Fishy Business in the Methow

Here in the Methow Valley on the Eastern side of the Cascades, the rivers run with summer chinook, steelhead, bull trout, and a variety of other threatened fish species dependent on the land health of the surrounding watersheds. The National Forest surrounding the idyllic valley is crowded with stands of Ponderosa pines and Douglas Fir. There are fifteen grazing allotments on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, assigned to various ranchers from the valley below. The historically decimated salmon runs are making strides in restoring their populations, but are hindered by the trampling of redds in the cobbled stream bottoms and the loss of riparian habitat from hungry cattle. When asked about the benefits of cattle grazing on these public forest lands, grazing manager for the Methow John Rohrer answered that the allotments are “helping people make a living, as long as the effects are managed.” Opponents of grazing on public lands argue that the federal grazing fee is negligibly low, effectively acting as one of several federal subsidies to struggling ranchers. Local ranchers and the Forest Service aren’t the only stakeholders either. The Yakima Nation has invested considerable time and money into rehabilitation efforts in drainages like Goat Creek. However, these efforts are undercut by the continued presence of cattle in these areas and their associated negative effects. Ranching livelihoods are a historic and and romanticized way of life in the West. Despite the importance ofcontinuing tradition, we need to examine whether the government, and the land, can still afford it.

Here to Stay

“We need to kill the Profanity Pack.” These are words many environmentalists would not say in regards to a wolf pack. Yet, Jay Kehne, a member of Conservation Northwest, believes this is what the state of Washington must do. The Profanity Pack is one of nineteen wolf packs currently living in Washington. Losing one pack will not be detrimental to the species but sparring them could be costly to cattle in the Methow.

 Most wolves will not kill cattle. Only twenty percent of wolf packs will depredate or hunt cattle. In fact, cameras have recorded wolves and cows crossing paths and not having any conflict. However, wolves are social creatures so when one does depredate, it will teach that particular hunting method to the rest of the pack—creating a major threat to ranchers.

Conservation Northwest has taken a difficult step by announcing support of culling the dangerous wolf pack. By making this concession, the organization has mollified the rancher side without risking the survival of the species as a whole. Ranchers get what they want—and what some would say they deserve—while environmentalists effectively communicate they’re willingness to compromise when it’s right. Amidst the scene of a fiery partisan issue, wolves are back in the Northwest and they are back to stay.

NEPA: Help and Hinderance in our National Forests

“This land is your land, this land is my land” turns out to be more true and more complicated than Woodie Guthrie probably ever imagined, and has been realized in the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest in Northwestern Washington. National Forests are public land, meaning that the land belongs to the people and the federal government invests money into the Forest Service to maintain its integrity. The National Environmental Policy Act, enacted in 1969, both provides accountability for the Forest Service to follow all the federal laws and protections surrounding National Forests and informs the public on any decisions made about their land. Any management action of the Forest, from prescribed burns to restoring wildlife habitat, requires the creation of a detailed NEPA document: a process that can take from 3 to 5 years. The frustration with this process is evident in Forest Service employees John Rohrer, Mike Borowski and Kent Woodruff, who recognize that much more aggressive action is needed in National Forests to assure that they will survive into the coming years of climate change. In the long run, the lengthy processes required by NEPA may be causing more harm than good to the most sensitive species of the forest. The combination of the rigorous decision making process and the decreased budget of the Forest Service both stand in the way of making more significant change, and when asked what is preventing the Forest Service from being more flexible in face of a changing climate, John Rohrer said “bureaucracy”.