New grants help collaboratives restore forest health, fire resilience

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources is empowering communities to tackle important forest health issues with two new grant programs. These programs, which support DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, aim to create forests that are resilient to wildfires, insects and disease by supporting large-scale forest restoration efforts led by groups called forest collaboratives.

Forest collaboratives bring together those who know the forests best – conservationists, tribes, timber workers, scientists, recreationists, local government, and other community members. Despite this diversity, they all have one thing in common – an inclusive, science-based approach to forest management. And by designing restoration projects in an integrated way, forest collaboratives work toward healthy forests that provide meaningful ecological, economic, and cultural value for Washingtonians.

Of the two new grant programs, DNR’s All Lands Forest Restoration Grant Program supports forest treatments, such as the thinning of small-diameter trees and controlled burning to reduce underbrush and fire risk. The second grant program, the Building Forest Partnerships Grant Program, funds facilitator time, meeting spaces, forest field trips and other opportunities to forge relationships and reach consensus on forest management.

Nine forest collaboratives from around the state received a combined $1.8 million through these two grant programs, and they are leveraging the funds in innovative ways to increase the pace and scale of forest health treatments in Washington.

This map shows the forest collaboratives in Washington state that received grant money from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. (The Nature Conservancy image)
This map shows the forest collaboratives in Washington state that received grant money from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. (The Nature Conservancy image)

Darrington Collaborative

The Darrington Collaborative was established in 2015 in the rural timber town of Darrington in Northwest Washington. It has a 10-member board made up of diverse perspectives, including representatives from Washington Wild, Hampton Lumber, American Whitewater, and the Glacier Peak Institute. The shared goal is to increase sustainable timber harvests while improving the ecological function of forests and watersheds in the Darrington Ranger District of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

“The Darrington Collaborative has been a unique and rewarding experience for the community of Darrington to build trust with industry, environmentalists and local leaders to provide economic benefits to our community through sustainable logging, forest restoration, and education,” Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said.

Prior to the creation DNR’s grant programs, the Darrington Collaborative was focusing on small projects to help build shared understanding about different management approaches. Now, with nearly $125,000 from the DNR grants, and a $25,000 match from Hampton Lumber, it is moving on to a project covering 30,000 acres around the Darrington Ranger District.

This project will gather the technical information necessary for forest health treatments that enhance old growth characteristics, thin overstocked second-growth stands, and improve roads and aquatic conditions. This investment will expand the U.S. Forest Service’s ability to get work done in the forest, accelerating the timeline for treatments in this area by more than a year.

Glacier Peak Institute will lead a team of Darrington High School students to collect and analyze data so the collaborative can monitor the ecological impact of the project.

Local companies will benefit from contracting restoration work and from timber harvests in the thinned second-growth stands. The surrounding community will benefit from additional recreational opportunities, and wildlife dependent on old growth forests will benefit from improved habitat conditions.

Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition

Located in the Wenatchee River watershed near Leavenworth, the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition is primarily focused on the problem of severe wildfires. Identified by multiple analyses as one of the highest-risk wildfire areas in the state, the forested landscape around Leavenworth is scattered with private homes.

Like many areas east of the Cascades, historically frequent, low-intensity fires were an essential part of healthy forests. A century of fire suppression, however, has created dangerous buildup of low-value woody debris. Prescribed, or controlled, burning and other tools can reduce those combustible materials and get the forest back to a healthy balance, but prescribed fire can also be challenging to implement, especially across different landownerships.

In Leavenworth, this problem is compounded by the fact that the burn season is short at such a high altitude. Long winters and long fire seasons allow only about six weeks in the fall and six weeks in the spring to conduct prescribed burns.

“There is just no way to get rid of enough fuels right now, with the lack of nearby timber mills and restrictions such as the local apple maggot quarantine area” said Corrine Hoffman, director of the coalition. “Removing fuels is a huge challenge in the Leavenworth area.”

Tree farmer Ross Frank, former chair of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, talks to members of The Nature Conservancy in June at the Red-Tail Canyon Farm in Leavenworth. The Chumstick coalition facilitated the meeting, allowing members of The Nature Conservancy to meet potential forest health partners in Washington state. (The Nature Conservancy photo)
Tree farmer Ross Frank, former chair of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition, talks to members of The Nature Conservancy in June at the Red-Tail Canyon Farm in Leavenworth. The Chumstick coalition facilitated the meeting, allowing members of The Nature Conservancy to meet potential forest health partners in Washington state. (The Nature Conservancy photo)

Like many large problems, the solution requires an all-hands-on-deck approach for treating forested landscapes. Joining with federal and private forest landowners, Chelan County Fire District 3, Chelan County, The Nature Conservancy, and others, the Chumstick coalition has a two-pronged approach: public outreach and direct landowner assistance.

About $125,000 in DNR grant funding is empowering the coalition to not only expand these activities, but plan and carry out a larger project that coordinates treatment across private and public land. The coalition will work with landowners to assess their properties and apply necessary forest health treatments while working with the Forest Service, which will do its own treatment on land adjacent to these properties.

Strategically investing in a large, cross-boundary project, rather than one-off projects that exclude the surrounding property, creates a continuous landscape of resilient forests.

Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition Director Corrine Hoffman, far left, and Mike Smith, a volunteer coordinator and firefighter with Chelan County Fire District 3, talk to elementary school students about wildfire and its effects on forest ecosystems during the Wenatchee River Salmon Festival last summer in Leavenworth. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition Director Corrine Hoffman, far left, and Mike Smith, a volunteer coordinator and firefighter with Chelan County Fire District 3, talk to elementary school students about wildfire and its effects on forest ecosystems during the Wenatchee River Salmon Festival last summer in Leavenworth. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

Northeast Washington Forest Coalition

The Northeast Washington Forest Coalition has raised the bar for forest collaboratives everywhere since it started working on forest restoration on Forest Service land in 2002. Despite having forests that produce less board-feet per acre than forests in other parts of the state, Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington has become the largest timber-producing forest in the region, largely thanks to the work of this coalition. The coalition also restores and protects important wildlife habitat, thins forests to reduce the risk of uncharacteristically large wildfires, and produces stands of trees that are larger, healthier, and more in line with historical conditions.

Formed in 2002, the coalition includes diverse interests such as Vaagan Brothers Lumber, Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, Resolute Forest Products, the Kalispel Tribe, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Avista Corporation, Conservation Northwest, and The Lands Council, as well as consultants working in private forests, wildlands safety, and forest biomass. Technical advisers provide important insights and connections with even more diverse groups and interests.

Previously, the coalition’s projects have focused on the Colville National Forest. Now it is starting a new project, called Sxwuytn (s-who-ee-tin), the Kalispel Salish word for connections or trail, in a 90,000-acre planning area that includes a checkerboard of land controlled by the Forest Service, the Kalispel Tribe, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, DNR, and private landowners.

“We at NEWFC are thrilled that our Washington state legislators and the Department of Natural Resources have tackled the issues of forest health, restoration and resilience head-on,” said Gloria Flora, Executive Director of Sustainable Obtainable Solutions. “They’re using science, planning and supporting our on-the-ground action to increase the pace and scale of restoration across all lands. That shows real leadership and allows us to help our forests and communities even more effectively.”

This project is uniquely suited for the collaborative to take on – with a combined $425,000 from DNR’s two grant programs, the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition is engaging in and coordinating public outreach, connecting with a wide range of landowners, and building broader community support for forest management and restoration through involvement and education.

Grant funding also supports surveying forest roads, analyzing aquatic conditions, and accelerating the planning process. The Sxwuytn Project takes the planning process to a new level by inviting the public to help plan and prioritize a menu of treatments that all landowners and managers can select from to create a mosaic of forest restoration treatments across all landscapes.

Forest collaboratives: a Pacific Northwest institution

Forest collaboratives are not new to the Pacific Northwest. In the early 1990s, forest collaboratives started to form as an alternative to the litigation-heavy timber wars that pitted environmental advocates and endangered species against timber companies and rural jobs.

However, growing challenges with catastrophic wildfire, drought, and disease have made the need for collaborating on and implementing forest restoration more urgent.

Forest collaboratives don’t just address conflict, they leverage additional knowledge and resources into forest management while respecting the different values that forests provide. They also create a forum for addressing forest issues on a larger, connected landscape rather than focusing on individual tracts of property.

Want to learn more or get involved? Visit washingtonforestcollaboratives.org.