CLE ELUM — A large log loader quickly felled and collected several small-diameter trees from a dense patch of forest heading up toward Cle Elum Ridge on Tuesday morning.

Across the road, naturally fire resilient pine trees stood tall with plenty of space to breathe, further protecting them against future fires thanks to previous thinning operations. Looking south toward Cle Elum, smoke from area wildfires obscured typically pristine views.

The growing threat of wildfire has inspired logging operations such as the one organized by The Nature Conservancy, which manages nearly 49,000 acres owned by the Central Cascades Forest. This project’s expected to last until 2022 and treat 340 acres within about a mile of the nearby towns, giving them a little more protection from the megafires devastating mountain towns throughout the West, including Malden in Washington last summer.

“We are working with the community to build proactive forest resilient strategies, where we’re putting people in control and letting them chart their future so that we have a future that is strong and resilient and safe and our communities can thrive,” TNC Forest Partnerships Manager Darcy Batura said. “We need restoration quickly and at a scale to improve forest health to reduce the risk to frontline communities and livelihoods and the human health that depend on these forests.”

Much more work will follow after the logs have been sent to mills in White Swan (pine), Cle Elum (grand fir) and Tacoma (Douglas fir). A masticator typically comes through to clean up shrubs and young trees, then prescribed fire will follow to clear out more fuels once fire danger dissipates.

Kittitas County Commissioner Laura Osiadacz said community members have learned to accept the extra smoke and other inconveniences associated with forest restoration. Even when a ban on recreation for TNC’s Eastern Washington lands is lifted after fire season, users should go online to the Central Cascades Forest website to see which trails and roads remain closed for logging purposes.

Scaling up

The pace of forest health treatment must increase substantially for the state to meet its goal of 2.7 million acres in Eastern Washington by 2037.

Batura and Osiadacz praised the progress of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, led by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. Earlier this year, legislators passed House Bill 1168, which created a dedicated fund of $125 million every two years, including $31.4 million for forest restoration, and another $5.9 million for workforce training.

The Nature Conservancy is committed to contributing however it can, and it’s already treated 1,000 acres near Cle Elum, with plans for 5,000 more on the parcel owned by Central Cascades Forest in the next few years. Most of the work is done by local contractors with a vested interest in protecting the community.

Rob Deter of Iron Mountain Logging in Cle Elum gets up by at least 3:30 a.m. to start loading his truck every day, since work must completed by 1 p.m. to reduce fire danger. He’s a fourth-generation logger with 40 years of experience and plenty of friends who lived through the terrifying but ultimately unrealized threat of the Jolly Mountain fire in 2017.

Contributing to forest restoration fulfills a nearly lifelong goal for Connor Craig, who owns a company called Wildfire Safe in Peshastin. His vast experience fighting fires gives him a unique insight into how to thin out tree stands to prepare them for prescribed burns and limit fire danger.

“We want it to be a mosaic landscape,” Craig said. “We want fire to govern the density of our forest and that’s what we’re setting it up for.”

The work in the Central Cascades represents a small fraction of what needs to be done, and Batura said rapidly building up infrastructure will be key to achieving meaningful progress. The Nature Conservancy is working on a large-scale programmatic burn plan across Cle Elum Ridge and wants to promote similar stewardship with the state and federal partners such as the Forest Service.

Saving snowpack

This logging project on a piece of land called “How Go” is expected to not only help reduce fire risk, but also help preserve the state’s most valuable water source.

TNC aquatic ecologist Emily Howe said climate change poses a significant threat to the snow in the mountains, which holds about 2/3 of the Yakima Basin’s water supply each year. Prior to her research, no studies had been conducted to determine how varying degrees of tree canopy cover could reduce or increase snowpack.

“Even if we reduce our carbon emissions really quickly, we’re going to be living with the impacts of climate change for decades to come and it’s most likely going to get a bit worse before it gets better,” Howe said. “So we really need local adaptation strategies, and that’s what this project is really about.”

Preliminary data from the past three years shows less dense forest and more open spaces in the canopy means deeper snow. That’s great news, said Howe, since it’s compatible with the science behind reducing fire risks.

She’s continuing her work by asking loggers to thin trees to different densities on experimental research units. Then, using a series of cameras and other devices, Howe’s team plans to measure snow depth and how long it perseveres on the ground.

Saving that extra water before it flows off to the ocean will require complementary projects, such as floodplain and wet meadow restoration. Like most environmental projects in the region, it all works together as part of the 30-year, $4 billion Yakima Basin integrated water management plan.

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