Outdoor recreation enthusiasts in the Little Naches area can expect to see evidence of critical work to improve the area for everyone over the next year.
Restoration, logging and road repairs will cause a few disruptions, most notably the closure of Forest Road 1900 at Fawn Creek bridge in July. Forest Service recreation manager Jerry Ford knows more people than ever are heading outside with limited options elsewhere, so keeping areas accessible when possible will be a priority.
“For the most part everybody tries to minimize the impact on the public as much as possible,” Ford said. “It’s a positive all the way around.”
He said the recently completed Huckleberry project in the same area never caused any significant road closures, although some were temporarily shut down. Logging from the area over the last three years produced logging revenues of $2.3 million and set the stage for more work, according to a news release from The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service and Washington’s Department of Natural Resources.
Little Naches working group chair Lloyd McGee of The Nature Conservancy expects construction to begin in September on what’s being called the Finn timber sale. He said project officials and leaders from various groups have been able to continue moving forward as scheduled despite coronavirus restrictions.
“The collaborative stakeholders are still engaging with the Forest on Zoom, go-to meetings,” McGee said. “We’re still trying to get there before the fires do.”
Prior to those efforts getting underway, the Forest Service plans to replace a culvert on Forest Road 1900 unable to handle the pressure from a logjam in the Little Naches River.
Ford said it’s expected to take 19 days to install a new 32-foot bridge that will reduce the threat of the road getting blown out. Earl Nettnin, Region 4 director of the Pacific Northwest 4-wheel drive association, expressed some concern in a project that will make three separate passes essentially inaccessible for three weeks.
Still, he’s optimistic the Forest Service’s work through three projects over the next three years will bring a net positive for recreation users. Ford said everyone’s done a good job of working together, even as it’s become more difficult to meet in-person.
“At least monthly I meet with all the different user groups,” Ford said, noting that means jeeping, mountain biking, hiking, birdwatching and more. “I think all of us want to see the project go forward.”
Clearing away overgrowth should beautify the Little Naches watershed, opening up new vistas while making it less vulnerable to intense fires. McGee said high camping use in the area only adds to that risk and most fires are human-caused.
That could be even more of a concern this summer since developed camping sites in Yakima County can’t open in Phase 1 of Governor Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan. Ford said he’s seen dispersed camping at about four times the normal use rate, and that rose to eight times the normal rate during Memorial Day Weekend.
Groups such as Recreate Responsibly have tried to raise awareness to maintain the forest and follow “Leave No Trace” policies. Ford said he’s definitely seen some negative effects, including more trash, although the addition of dumpsters along State Routes 12 and 410 seems to be helping.
Restoration work could mean the elimination of some roads, something Nettnin said he and Wayne Bell, the representative for the Chinook Pass Cabin Owners Association, want to see limited. McGee said careful consideration goes into deciding what low-usage roads considered too expensive to maintain can be decommissioned while also considering the needs of emergency personnel, Forest Service workers and recreation users.
Taking care of nature remains a high priority for the Little Naches Working group and its partners.
The Forest Service, DNR, Conservation Northwest, the Yakama Nation, the Nature Conservancy, the Yakima Fish and Wildlife Board, and the American Forest Resource Council are among those with vested interests in the projects. Vegetation restoration and thinning treatments are designed to improve forest health while protecting valuable habitat for elk, spotted owls and fish.
McGee said the Forest Service projects, including overall environmental analysis, layout and design will cost around $2 million for the Finn timber sale, the Crolo Stewardship contract scheduled for next spring, and a timber sale for the Upper Naches in 2021. Most funding comes from the general budget and the national Collaborative Forests Landscape Restoration Program.
Those efforts will create plenty of new jobs and additional revenues from logging operations, although McGee said those won’t match the $2.3 million generated by the Huckleberry project. In 2017, the Forest Service estimated restoration in the Little Crow area could produce 46 million board feet, and Boise Cascade anticipated about 10% less.
Mixed conifer stands of Douglas Fir, White Fir, White Pine and possibly Ponderosa Pine at lower elevations will be thinned out to reduce fire risk. McGee said the stakeholders also plan to look at how to restore the floodplain and protect the fisheries in the watershed.
Visitors to the area should certainly be prepared to come across logging trucks and Forest Service employees or contractors assisting in restoration efforts. Ideally, they’ll be able to work mostly unseen and leave the outdoors experience better than they found it for everyone.
“These activities have already considered the value of recreation and the stakeholders,” McGee said. “We’re working together to restore these landscapes and still leave the quality of the experience when people come to this watershed."