The Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative: A growing influence

It may seem counterintuitive, but some forests, particularly many in the eastern Cascades, have too many trees for their own good. These dense forests are more prone to disease, insect infestations and wildfires.

The challenges facing these forested ecosystems have prompted the creation of the Tapash Collaborative. Together, they’re leading a wide scale shift in land management to focus on ecological restoration. They recognized early that solutions to these issues lie at a scale that transcend ownership boundaries. Their cooperative approach is now receiving national recognition.

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Background

The Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative (tapash.org) extends from forested flanks in the East Cascades to arid, sage-dotted hills in the Columbia Basin. These rugged hills and canyons support some of the few remaining mature groves of ponderosa pine in the state and provide habitat for the declining white-headed woodpecker, golden eagles, Rocky Mountain elk and mountain lions.

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Much of this land is managed by five separate agencies including the Yakama Nation, USDA Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). For DNR’s part, some of its most notable lands are encompassed in the area, such as the Ahtanum State Forest, Wenas foothills and the new Teanaway Community Forest.

Objective

Each party recognize that they share common goals on the landscape and, by working together, can achieve more significant and durable outcomes than by working individually.

Their effort is primarily focused on the million acres of forested lands along the eastern edge of the South Central Cascades from Wenatchee south to the Oregon/Washington border. Within this area, the partners conducted a 300,000-acre assessment of the viability and critical threats facing the landscape’s key habitats. Among many other things, they determined the kinds of open patches within the forest that critical for native species which were historically maintained by fire.

Using this science, the Tapash Collaborative is implementing strategies to increase the number of acres restored through controlled burns and thinning. Selective culling of smaller trees increases forest resiliency by creating fewer, bigger and more fire-resistant trees. Selective thinning helps restore the natural pattern of more frequent, less severe fires that benefit and balance the ecosystem.

The objective, is to restore the resiliency of forest and aquatic ecosystems in order to continue providing critical fish and wildlife habitat and ecosystem services, while reducing the risk of catastrophic fire to local communities in the face of a warming climate.

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The Manastash-Taneum Resilient Landscape Restoration Project

In the fall of 2014, the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative launched the Manastash-Taneum Resilient Landscape Restoration Project covering a 78,650-acre subset of land in a flagship effort to demonstrate largescale ecosystem restoration, on land and in streams, for the benefit of people and nature-despite the challenge of many ownerships.

The project area spans shrub-steppe foothills, dry ponderosa pine forests, dry mixed conifer lowland forests to moist mixed conifer forests. It’s home to many species, including several of concern such as the Northern Spotted Owl, Steelhead and bull trout.

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In 2016, a Landscape Evaluations and Prescriptions study conducted research and then set collaborative restoration goals. For example, the study identified over 17,000 acres of land where active management, such timber sale thinning, could better align the forests with their historic patterns and prepare them for the future impacts of a changing climate.

In the face of the challenges faced by this landscape, caused by both past management decisions, current spruce bud worm threats, and the anticipated impacts of climate change, the collaborative didn’t waste much time getting projects on the ground.

Achievements

In 2016, the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative and partners completed an array of treatment and restoration efforts. Projects to improve forest health and aquatic conditions included U.S. Forest Service work to address floodplains, Nature Conservancy tree plantings, Yakama Nation stream enhancements, WDFW timber harvests and more, including several DNR projects.

Last year DNR successfully offered the opportunity for logging companies to complete commercial timber harvests in ways that enhanced forest health across 573 acres of land. The sale was essentially a thinning project to remove Douglas-fir trees damaged by spruce bud worm. The healthy Douglas-fir trees were left to further mature, as were larch and ponderosa pine trees. The commercial sale (pictured at top) generated $224,284, most of which will go to support public services via trust beneficiaries.

DNR also worked with the WDFW and Yakama Nation to complete fish passage improvements such as repositioning flood debris, taking down fences and removing fish blockages. This project in the Taneum Creek watershed had the significant additional benefit of supporting the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Plan-another large-scale project that intersects across much of these landscapes.

Education is also a big part of the Collaborative’s efforts. DNR is a state leader in its advocacy for FireWise communities and participates in the greater Cle Elum Fire Adapted Communities group. In addition, DNR staff participated in a Cle Elum presentation last week, “Living in the Era of MegaFires,” designed to create engagement and dialogue around how we, as a society, can live in places that have wildfires.

Another DNR project currently under way is the creation of a six-mile shaded fuel break. The break will provide wildfire protection to state trust lands and nearby communities by pre-establishing areas where fuel loads are low, reducing fire intensity at strategic locations within the landscape.  The intention is to maintain the canopy of the forest while providing road systems where fire suppression would be more likely to succeed.

Key to last year’s success was an array of well-recognized names. They include the University of Washington, WA Conservation and Science Institute, Stewardship Forestry and Science consultants, the WA Wildlife and Recreation Program, Bonneville Power Administration, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group and Salmon Recovery Funding Board. Many other organizations also provided input into last year’s projects through the Tapash Collaborative’s wide-reaching network of stakeholders.

Projects like these are creating a more resilient mosaic of forests with varying ages, densities and habitats.

Opportunities for many

The Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative’s members are using they study’s science and objectives also help them maintain sustainable recreation opportunities while balancing ecological objectives with economic viability, such as continuing to produce commercial timber products where possible.

Their project’s emphasis on removing smaller trees through thinning provides a mechanism to produce small-diameter logs. This helps to address forest health issues, while also creating economic opportunities for mills, including the Yakama Nation. The Yakama Nation owns and operates the only log-milling facility in southeastern Washington, though logs purchased from DNR lands may go to, and provide local economic benefit to, any number of mills across the state.

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Nationally recognized sustainable forestry

In recognition of the Collaborative’s work, in September the Manastash-Taneum Resilient Landscape Restoration Project received the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) national Leadership in Conservation award.

The award further recognized DNR for its national leadership in research and collaboration on forest health. According to SFI, DNR is one of 14 government agencies in the United States that are SFI program participants.

The SFI program’s President and CEO, Kathy Abusow, further shared that DNR’s example of participating in more than 60 research projects every year, such as several on this landscape, played a big role in the decision.

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A path to more resilient forests into perpetuity

In a recent report, The Nature Conservancy found that about 30 percent of all forests in eastern Washington are too densely packed with trees and other vegetation. The lack of harvesting combined with fire suppression has increased fuel loads.

The project is demonstrating the benefits of using responsible harvesting to return forest ecosystems to those similar to before fire suppression became a dominant feature of forest management, yet it’s about more than just wildfires.

At its heart, the collaborative and its Manastash-Taneum Resilient Landscape Restoration Project recognize that good forest management and responsible harvesting allows fire-, insect- and disease-resistant forests to thrive and better benefit a diversity of species.