Looking to the Future
The BLM is working with its partners to bring old-growth forests to the future
I'm standing with Al Gardner, forester for the Spokane District BLM, on a dirt road within the Huckleberry Stewardship Project area in northeastern Washington.
Gardner points out stands of treated timber and masticated brush. Trees on the north side of the road are thinned and have about 10 feet of crown spacing. Brush growing under the canopy is sparse, and ladder fuels are minimal. Scattered throughout the treated areas are small spots of brush left for wildlife habitat and cover.
In contrast, Gardner points out a stand of trees to the south side of the road that have not received fuels treatment. A wall of vegetation is all that can be seen. At closer inspection the south-facing slope has ninebark, oceanspray, vine maple and alder. The brush and trees are in heavy competition, and trying to make your way through the wall of vegetation would be a daunting task. With such high vegetative competition, trees are stressed and many are susceptible to disease and insect attack.
To a forester like Al Gardner, this situation shows the stark contrast of how comprehensive stewardship management is improving forest health in areas that have suffered from the absence of fire. It is also the dividing line between a forest capable of surviving fire and one that would leave little more than matchsticks in the wake of flames.
The BLM, like many forest landowners and land management agencies in the Pacific Northwest, is dealing with a legacy of 100 years of fire suppression. Heavy fuel loads and dense understory of vegetation have primed conditions in the Huckleberry Mountains that could lead to a catastrophic stand-replacing wildfire.
The Huckleberry Stewardship Project was developed to restore tree stands to a condition that could withstand wildland fire. According to Gardner, the goal for the long term is to eventually have an old-growth forest reminiscent of what existed prior to European intervention in the fire cycle. In the short term, an intense regime of stand thinning and biomass removal is giving the forest a second chance.
The Spokane BLM District manages about 4,800 acres within the project area north of Fort Spokane, Washington. Forest stands consist mainly of south-facing slopes with ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir with a Douglas-fir/ninebark association. Stands on north-facing slopes consist of Douglas-fir, western redcedar, and grand fir.
The BLM project area is bordered by Spokane Tribal lands and private homes. For years these neighboring forest landowners have recognized the need for fuels management, and they, according to Gardner, "have been very cooperative. They want this done; they wanted it done yesterday."
The Spokane Tribe, whose lands border four miles of the southern project boundary, has been working closely with the BLM to manage hazardous fuels. During our tour through the project, the Spokane Tribe was busy performing controlled burns on their forestlands a few miles to the south of the project area. This burning is occurring in concert with the Huckleberry Stewardship Project to increase the total area treated for fuels reduction and to create buffers for residential housing areas on reservation lands.
Another advantage of this comprehensive approach to forest management is that the project is creating a great deal of biomass, and the BLM is finding ways to use this renewable energy source. In the 2007 to 2008 operating season, 5,900 tons of biomass was removed in the form of clean chips that were marketed to the paper making industry. Over the length of the project, hog fuel - bark, tops and branches - will be ground and hauled to a cogeneration facility in Kettle Falls, Washington. Cogeneration is the use of a heat engine or a power station to simultaneously generate both electricity and useful heat.
Stewardship contracting was first authorized for federal land management agencies back in 2003 by Congress as part of President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative. This initiative allows the BLM to use revenues from forest products to offset the cost for treatments, like hazardous fuel reduction and restoration of wildlife or fish habitat. It also authorized the formation of contracts and agreements with public or private entities to further management goals.
For the BLM, the Huckleberry Stewardship Project is an example of how timber can be a by-product of forest restoration and hazardous fuel reduction treatments. Combining timber harvest and service work into one stewardship contract is improving the health and vitality of forestlands in a more efficient and collaborative manner.
As a rule, stewardship goals revolve around land health and meeting community needs rather than focusing on the removal of commercial wood products. In the Huckleberry Stewardship Project area, surrounding landowners and the BLM were highly concerned about the risks of fire so a focus on fuels reduction has been the primary interest with restoration and wildlife habitat improvement being secondary but fully integrated management objectives.
The Huckleberry Stewardship operates on a performance-based contract. According to Gardner, "Our role is to describe what we want, and it is up to the contractor to tell us how they are going to do it. We tell them what we want it to look like and they prepare a prescription for BLM approval."
This is a large departure from the traditional process of timber sales where contractors were given specific direction with pre-marked trees and the primary concern was extracting the timber. Any restoration work was accomplished through separate projects. With the focus on fuels reduction and forest health, the contractors have more responsibility and ownership of the end result.
Most BLM and U.S. Forest Service stewardship projects require appropriated funds to complete service work. They are focused on restoration, and many are too small to be economically viable when timber sales are balanced against the cost of restoration. The Huckleberry Stewardship Project is one of the few that is self-sustaining; the money that comes in through timber harvest removal exceeds the cost for restoration.
The BLM is working closely with forest contractors, private landowners, and local communities to manage forestlands in a comprehensive manner through the use of stewardship projects. The partners are already seeing progress in restoring forestlands to a sustainable condition.
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