Manage forests before fire hits

— Record-setting temperatures have kicked off an early fire season here in North-Central Washington. And with a majority of the residents of Okanogan and Ferry counties living in wildland interfaces, the fires already burning near Entiat, Mansfield, Carlton, Chelan and Bridgeport are prompting us to take note.

But the heat isn’t the only factor that causes catastrophic fires. In fact, it’s not even the major factor – forest health is.

Years and years of failed management policies have given us forests that are ripe for burning.

Forest-thinning projects have left slash piles throughout rural areas. Roads have been closed off that previously allowed residents to gather downed trees for firewood. And in our absence, pine beetles and other bugs that damage trees have moved in.

But not all agencies manage forestlands the same. And you don’t have to look any further than the Crawfish Lake area above Tunk Valley to see stark differences in policy.

Those who venture to the lake notice a sharp contrast between U.S. Forest Service management practices and those of the Colville Confederated Tribes. The Forest Service manages public lands on one side of the lake and the tribe manages reservation land on the other.

On the Forest Service side, many trees are crowded, bug infested and withering. On the tribal side, the forest is open, trees are strong and healthy. Yet, it is the tribe that declared a forest health hazard warning Monday for federal lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, including both Colville National Forest and Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest. And it is the tribe that is prepared to act on the forest management.

According to tribal officials, the declining forest health has resulted in increasing “pest” activity. The tribe also correctly points out that the declining forest conditions dramatically increase the risk of a catastrophic wildfire.

A catastrophic fire like the one burning near Entiat could have dire effects here on rural residents, business, tourism and wildlife. We’re glad to see the tribe stepping up to try to resolve forest health issues before the forest burns.

The tribe submitting a plan to reduce excessive “ladder fuels” and pests in Colville National Forest late last week. It plans to submit a similar plan for Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest in the coming weeks.

Let’s hope the plans are approved for increased timber harvest and thinning, reduction of slash piles and more public access before a catastrophic fire hits in our neck of the woods.

Editor's Note: This editorial appeared one day before the Carlton Complex wildfire blew out of control and burned several homes in the Pateros, Alta Lake, Methow Valley and Chiliwist areas.


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