The U.S. Forest Service has proposed logging about 5,700 acres near the North Fork of the Nooksack River around Glacier, Canyon and Wells creeks. Called the North Fork Nooksack Vegetation Management Project, the proposal focuses on the timber harvest part of the Forest Service’s multiuse mandate. That puts it at odds with the priorities of some conservation groups, and it is being met with requests for further evaluation and for revisions to minimize impact on forests and rivers in the area.
RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C) are requesting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — a more in-depth study than the Environmental Assessment that is already part of the project plan.
The Forest Service is accepting public comment on the proposal through July 2.
The project is intended to “ensure that we have a diverse and resilient forest, that provides habitat for many plants and animals and supports our local communities,” said Forest Service District Ranger Erin Uloth.
There are four proposed actions in the proposal. They can be summarized as a mixture of stand regeneration (commonly known as clear cutting) and forest thinning to improve forest health and habitat, as well as a road connection to circumvent a potential landslide and the replacement of a bridge that has reached the end of its lifespan.
If the proposed work were concentrated into one spot, it would be more than the size of Lake Whatcom, which has a surface area of about 5,000 acres. The proposed cutting and thinning is about 5,700 acres out of the 80,000-plus acre project area
Natural resources in public lands
Jim Scarborough, a volunteer with N3C who wrote their initial response to the proposal, said that this logging-oriented project is likely a result of a systemic change in the culture of the Forest Service, from an administrative perspective.
“What we’re seeing, pretty much all across the country, is a really significant effort to extract natural resources from public lands,” said Scarborough.
Scarborough’s thought is reflected in a June 12 memo from the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, in which the Forest Service was directed to “focus resources on activities that support the productive use of these lands.” One way in which Perdue orders this is through increases in “America’s energy dominance and reduc[ing] reliance on foreign countries for critical minerals.”
In the section of the memo about improving access to national forests, it also ordered “modernizing and simplifying forest products permitting and the Forest Service land exchange process.”
Scarborough is most concerned about the potential negative impacts of the proposed project. Because of what he sees as its “controversial nature,” he wants to make sure that the forest’s role in carbon dioxide capture, its natural maturation, and the problems caused by logging roads are fully evaluated by an EIS.
Matt Comisky is the Washington State manager for the American Forest Resource Council, a logging industry lobbying group. He said that even after the Environmental Assessment and the finalization of the field layout process, around 20% to 40% of the acreage of projects of this scale in Western Washington typically gets deferred because smaller unmapped creeks and rivers are found when crews go out to cut the wood.
Part of NICE
Uloth, the Mount Baker District ranger, will oversee this project as it proceeds toward an estimated 2022 completion date. She is also in charge of an older project called the Nooksack Integrated Conservation and Enhancement Project (NICE).
Scarborough characterizes NICE as a “combination recreation and vegetation management project.”
“I had originally wanted to do it big, a comprehensive, holistic project, right where everything would be in it,” said Uloth. “It just became apparent that it was such a big goal, that it’s possible that that complexity would have gotten in the way of us doing it doing anything in a timely manner.”
The vegetation management project is not intended to be a replacement for NICE, but part of its long-term goals. This proposal doesn’t include aspects such as recreation and specific provisions for aquatic restoration that are included in NICE.
“It’s a classic sustainability proposition,” said Uloth. “It’s our job at the Forest Service to ensure that these forests remain healthy and can provide for us in all these different ways, forever.” She emphasized that the resource management plan for the Mount Baker national forest doesn’t allow for openings greater than 40 acres, meaning most cuts will be smaller than that.
Comisky used the analogy of a carrot garden to describe thinning. Thinning is meant to promote forests that will eventually resemble old growth timber.
However, Scarborough is opposed to clear-cutting practices in national forests. He contends that the value of living forests in capturing carbon dioxide outweighs the monetary value of saw logs.
Trauma on both sides
Both proponents and opponents of the proposed project agree that past management failures have created mistrust.
“We have generations of trauma on both sides around forest practices,” Uloth said. “I would love for this to be an opportunity for people to better understand and learn about what forestry is today, versus the trauma that people are still carrying from past practices and to better understand the mission of our agency.”
Comisky affirmed this sentiment. “Today’s clear cut is not yesterday’s clear cut,” he said.
Uloth noted that the Forest Service is not going into old-growth (80+ year) forests, saying that the current stands are “not in a condition that we would find in nature.”
Both Comisky and Uloth wanted to ensure that people understand the host of rules that are in effect for the work, and that these forests have already been changed through human impacts.
“A lot of people view a forest as a static ecosystem,” Comisky said. “All of these forests go through various dynamic stages and changes, including being regenerated naturally. We as a human species have entered the ecosystem and altered it; walking away from it does not mean that it will just naturally take care of itself.”
“If we don’t take any action at all, then you’re looking at a couple hundred years of natural process to get them to an old-growth condition,” said Uloth.
Neither the project’s scoping letter nor the Forest Service Story Map provide a timeline for thinned areas to grow into an old-growth condition, but Comisky said that management could shorten that timeframe, depending on the current age of the stand.
Comisky thinks that actively managing forests provides benefits to local economies as well as protection of the environment. He also said that the Pacific Northwest has some of the strictest forestry practices and that he would rather wood products come from here, than shipped from elsewhere in the world where it might not be as closely regulated.
“That’s the conundrum of national forests and the Forest Service that manages it,” said Scarborough. “They have a lot of competing expectations, both institutionally and also, you know, from the interested public.”
Uloth said she was a little surprised to see how many people were commenting on this project, because the initial response to the NICE project about two years ago was much smaller.
“We have so many passionate people who have really strong values and feelings around these things and I have this urgency to find a way to let them know that they may be surprised to know how much we have in common around those values,” said Uloth.