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News / Clark County News

Little White Salmon watershed project aims to prepare area for effects of climate change

Watershed in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 1, 2023, 6:01am
2 Photos
The Gifford Pinchot National Forest manages 68,660 acres, or 79 percent of the Little White Salmon watershed. Out of that, roughly 15,600 acres are being considered for fire mitigation projects, including commercial and noncommerical thinning, as well as controlled burns.
The Gifford Pinchot National Forest manages 68,660 acres, or 79 percent of the Little White Salmon watershed. Out of that, roughly 15,600 acres are being considered for fire mitigation projects, including commercial and noncommerical thinning, as well as controlled burns. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

The Little White Salmon watershed, resting toward the eastern edge of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, will likely be among the first areas within the forest to face stressors caused by climate change.

Drought, insects, disease and fire pose a risk the forest’s overall health, leading officials to map out potential solutions and safeguards.

Jessica Hudec, a regional Forest Service ecologist, said a range of actions are crucial for the agency to keep pace with an onslaught of shifting climate influences.

“This is really one of the first project areas locally … that has really called out vulnerabilities related to climate change as a main project driver,” she said.

Get Involved

Comments related to the Little White Salmon watershed project can be submitted at any time, though Forest Service officials suggest providing input by May 8, which can be made via email, jessica.hudec@usda.gov, or mailed to Mt. Adams Ranger Station, 2455 Hwy. 141, Trout Lake, WA.

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest manages 68,660 acres, or 79 percent of the Little White Salmon watershed. Out of that, roughly 15,600 acres are being considered for fire mitigation projects. Small communities, such as Willard and Mill A, are immediately adjacent to the Forest Service’s proposed project area.

Proposed forest treatments include thinning conifers and reducing flammable materials with controlled burns, according to the project scope. Roughly 6,900 acres of young forest and 7,100 acres of mature and transitional forest would be commercially thinned, and up to 1,600 acres would be noncommercially thinned.

The project scope also recommends restoring riparian and forest habitats.

Though climate adaptation isn’t highlighted as a main reason for the project, it plays a significant role, Hudec said.

The state Department of Natural Resources listed the Little White Salmon watershed as a priority landscape in its 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which outlines treating between 21 percent to 32 percent of forested acres. These will mostly be applied to eastern portions of the watershed.

Officials will perform environmental analyses in 2024, which will be subject to public comment, and expect to make a decision later that year. Altogether, treatments amount to about 18 percent of the Little White Salmon watershed.

South Gifford Pinchot Collaborative, a group that works to find a consensus on forest management, is currently assessing details included in the project scope, said Joshua Petit, the group’s coordinator. Environmental and timber organizations, state and federal agencies, local governments and the public comprise the collective.

When considering Gifford Pinchot’s general health, stakeholders’ concerns touch on preserving old growth forests, large project coverage areas and impacts on wildlife. Petit said the group will provide formal comments once the Forest Service’s environmental analysis is released.

“This is a complex watershed,” he said. “There’s a lot of things to talk about.”

A special focus area

The project area is farther west than where the Forest Service has historically done forest treatments.

Gifford Pinchot at large is described as a west-side forest: full of dense collections of Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines, Western hemlock and red cedars standing among carpets of thick, green vegetation. Biodiversity is colossal here, something reflected in the wide assortment of wildlife who dwell in tree limbs, meadows and streams.

Considering all its intricacies, Hudec said the Little White Salmon watershed is not an easy project to describe.

It’s in a unique position, splitting through two different landscapes of the Cascade Range, the west side existing as a relatively wet expanse and the east side remaining dry. The watershed hovers around an inflection point along a precipitation gradient, she said, and its threshold for change makes it distinctive though highly vulnerable.

The early onset of lingering hot, dry summers are exacerbating these weak points.

Every forest has natural fuel. It’s found in living or dead pine needles, twigs, grass, shrubs, fallen branches and trees. Think of it simply as a combustible material — similarly to how fuel powers a vehicle. As moisture diminishes, fuel is more susceptible to catch fire.

Though fires happen naturally — typically in concentrated areas and every couple of years — multiyear droughts are transforming the norm.

“We’ve always had the fuel — that hasn’t necessarily been a problem in the past,” Hudec said. “With the changing climate, we’re seeing that change.”

This year, climatologists have identified the Pacific Northwest’s problem drought areas that include Eastern Oregon, northern Idaho and northwestern Montana. But the baseline for the number and severity of droughts considered ordinary is transforming.

Samantha Stevenson, who teaches climate modeling and drought at University of California Santa Barbara, said climate-driven trends in soil moisture indicate “exceptional” droughts are becoming normal, she said during a recent National Integrated Drought Information System webinar.

Though these findings are not currently observed in the Pacific Northwest, it will become likelier as climate change impacts evolve, she said. At the same time, extreme rainfall will increase in the future despite frequent droughts, something reflected in California’s significant flooding and snowfall earlier this year.

In some places, such as the southwestern United States, megadroughts are already emerging and unlikely to be reversed, Stevenson said.

Easing fires

A slew of national directives has prompted the creation of official climate action strategies.

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Under President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14072, signed in April 2022, agencies are required to inventory mature forests and assess reforestation plans while noting climate change threats. It served as a precursor for developments this spring, notably directing the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to lead forest conservation efforts.

The Little White Salmon project can be thought of as having two components: fire risk mitigation and building resiliency for future wildfires.

Mitigation focuses on fuel reduction treatments that modify fire behavior. Think: reducing localized and small fires and decreasing the probability of fire reaching high-value resources, such as towns or water supply.

Resiliency develops upon a forest’s ability to adapt to change with the assumption fire will occur. This includes pursuing treatments and maintaining old-growth and legacy forests, the latter being stands that naturally regenerated from logging in the late 1800s.

Overall, officials intend for forest management projects, such as Little White Salmon’s, to create an environment that will steer fire behavior — or having the right type of fire at the right place and right time.

“We’re not trying to keep fire from happening,” Hudec said. “We know we can’t stop it from happening. We have to learn to live with fire.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer