Northeast Washington tribes focus on forest thinning


The importance of thinning forests and maintaining active management of the forests is a fact that’s been established even on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., this summer mentioned a video from the Spokane Tribe with time-lapse video showing the efficiency of the tribe’s forest fuel reduction program in the face of a wildfire.

Another Eastern Washington tribe also recognizes the need for active forest management. As wildfire becomes more prevalent, the Confederated Colville Tribes are planning to reopen a sawmill that can process ponderosa pine.

“If you look at it from a forest management standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to have a pine sawmill,” said Cody Desautel, the tribe’s natural resources director.

Ponderosa pines represent about 35 percent of the tribe’s commercial timber, and the percentage could grow as foresters plant more of the hardy, drought- and fire-resistant ponderosas. Historically, about half of the trees on the reservation were ponderosa pines, according to old logging records. Yet there isn’t a local sawmill that specializes in pine boards.

When the tribe salvaged trees from last summer’s wildfires, some of the logged pines were trucked more than 100 miles to a mill in Cle Elum. Reopening the Omak sawmill will give timber managers more flexibility with harvest and salvage operations, Desautel said.

“We’ve burned a lot of acreage in the last 15 years,” he said. “We’re getting a big fire almost every year.”

Active management means healthier forests, tribal leaders say.

Desautel’s staff has studied photos of the Colville Reservation taken during the 1930s. They show widely spaced trees, with fewer per acre. That’s an approach that could help the tribe retain healthy forests in a warming climate, he said.

“We’re seeing longer, drier summers,” Desautel said. “It’s hard to imagine, but some of the trees I’m planting today will be growing for 120 years.”

In the Umatilla National Forest, which covers 1.4 million acres in Southeast Washington and Northeast Oregon, the Forest Service is seeing tangible results from thinning projects.

Hans Rudolph with the Oregon Department of Forestry said thinning very recently completed south of Tollgate this summer was the reason at least one home was saved during the Weigh Station Fire this summer.

“This was the first time I, personally, had the opportunity to see an active fire go through a treated stand,” he said. Rudolph and his team hope to publish a study providing details on how the fuels reduction treatment impacted the severity of this fire.

“Yes, I have seen these types of projects in forests before, and seen fires afterward,” said (Leonard) Carter, who worked for many years as a logger before moving to Umatilla County. “It works.”

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorial board said the thinning projects will make the national forest less vulnerable to large wildfires.

Taking steps over time to make the forest less susceptible to devastating fire is good planning and great public policy.