Committee working to make Teanaway Community Forest a place for all
Where the last farmland gives way to forests and ridges north of Cle Elum, the streams and creeks join to become the Teanaway River, the largest undammed tributary in the Yakima Basin.
The waters flow through 50,000 acres of timberland purchased by the state in 2013 as part of the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, with the goal of protecting those headwater creeks. But the lands are also popular with hikers, horse riders, hunters, and dirt bikers, so a community committee was formed to develop a plan on how best to balance all the issues facing what’s known as the Teanaway Community Forest.
“People love this place, but we need to help them not love it to death,” said Eric Winford, the community forest planner hired last year to work with the advisory committee to develop the draft plan that is to be released this week.
Lawmakers spent $100 million to purchase the land as a critical part of the basin’s integrated plan — a sign that supporters are as serious about investing in habitat conservation as they were about building new water-storage reservoirs.
They laid out five goals for how it should be managed: protect the watershed and water supply; continue forestry and grazing use; maintain a wide variety of recreation; conserve and restore wildlife habitat; and manage in partnership with the community.
An earlier version of the draft to be released this week describes the problems facing the forest, including eroding stream channels, lost wetland habitat and campsites in fragile floodplain habitat. It also offers long-term solutions, including creek restoration, recreation management plans and forest thinning.
“Given all the input and time, I think we have a good blueprint for success,” said Mike Livingston, the regional director for the wildlife agency.
“One challenge was keeping balance,” he said. “Everyone on the committee has a pet interest, from salmon-spawning habitat to snowmobile access, that they really wanted to work on, but the goal of this plan was to stick to the big-picture level and lay a foundation for future, more specific project and management plans.”
The committee included representatives from recreation and conservation groups, Kittitas County, the Yakama Nation and nearby homeowners.
Some of the greatest passion has focused on recreational access: whether roads would be closed or whether off-road vehicles would be allowed on trails.
Those issues will be addressed in a recreation-focus planning effort later this year, said Rick Roeder, the DNR’s lead on the forest project.
“Because of how popular the forest is for recreation, we knew we couldn’t tackle everything in this plan,” said committee member Andrea Imler, advocacy director for the Washington Trails Association. “It’s a unique situation. It’s the first real community forest in the state, and watershed health and protection are the focus. So how to do we protect the watershed health while enjoying and using the lands?”
Managing recreation to protect natural resources will require some changes from the unsupervised use allowed by previous owner, American Forest Holdings, according to both Livingston and Roeder.
To protect habitat, informal creekside campsites will be relocated; rock fire pits will be replaced with fire rings to help prevent wildfires; and eroding roads could be closed or moved.
Wayne Mohler, a Cle Elum resident and committee member representing snowmobilers, said it’s a little sad to see the Teanaway changing to become more managed, but says it is necessary. The state’s purchase is good in that it prevented development and keeps the land open, but it’s also going to bring more people and increase the risks of overuse, he said.
“More and more people who want to recreate, but there’s not more and more land, so we need to figure better ways to share the resource and enjoy the outdoors,” Mohler said.
Thorp resident Jason Ridlon, a committee member representing the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, agreed.
“I wish it could almost stay the way it was, but there is going to be growing need for structure otherwise there will be habitat damage and unsustainable use,” Ridlon said.
Both Mohler and Ridlon hope the final plan encourages user groups to share trails, rather than dividing up hiking trails, horse trails and jeep trails or banning off-road use of motorized vehicles, as some advocates want. Ridlon stressed the need for fair, science-based standards in planning.
“If environmentally, motorcycles don’t belong in a certain place because of erosion of something, that is fine, but if we allow one user group to make decisions based on personal bias, the same criteria could later be used to remove us,” he said. “We want to keep trails open to recreational pack and saddle stock and we want to see a fair balance with other users.”
When talking to members of the advisory committee, the concept of balance comes up a lot: balancing motorized and nonmotorized uses; balancing recreation and landscape restoration; and balancing a lot of big goals on a limited budget.
Roeder said that the agencies need operating funds to hire more staff to manage the lands, both on the ground and for further planning efforts. But lawmakers in Olympia are currently debating how much to support the forest. The proposed operating budget from the House Democrats includes $1.9 million for the forest over the next two years, and the Senate Republican’s proposal includes just $282,000.
The community forest program’s goal is to give communities a way to protect “working forests” from development and keep the economic and environmental benefits they provide. Under the 2011 law that created the program, such forests are supposed to support themselves through timber harvests or grazing leases, but the Legislature waived that requirement for the Teanaway.
Grazing will continue and, likely, timber harvest too. But the forestry focus will be to reduce wildfire risks and restore healthy habitat, not generate revenue, Roeder said. The lands have already been aggressively harvested, he added.
But, Ridlon said he hopes the land can eventually be managed for timber harvests again, in a way that is sustainable with the forest’s other goals.
“The Teanaway is not a wilderness area, so I think we need to use best forest practices and manage it to move timber,” he said. “It’s very important to me that it is managed in a way that’s not totally supported by taxpayers.”
Roeder agrees with that goal, he said, but first they need to help the forest recover from a history of logging that was less than sustainable by today’s standards.
Restoration work is needed in many areas to improve the forest’s health. That includes removing a dense understory of small grand fir trees that creates competition and stress for the larger ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees and makes them more susceptible to insect damage and wildfire.
When those restoration projects take place, it will be beneficial to combine them with restoration of creeks and streams, said Livingston. That’s one reason the lands are being co-managed by the two agencies.
“If you are pulling trees off the hill that lack commercial value, they could be put in the stream to accumulate sediment and encourage the stream to slow down and spread out,” Livingston said.
Large stacks of logs wait to be put to just that use near Indian Creek. They were brought in by the Yakama Nation, which is leading a restoration project on the creek that currently flows through a deep, narrow channel.
The logs will mimic beaver dams, slowing down the stream and forcing it to spill over its banks during floods, rather than eroding a deeper channel. Deep channels are the problem, Livingston said, because now spring runoff rushes downstream instead of moving more slowly and having time to soak into wetlands and groundwater.
“By percolating in the ground, that water refills the rivers later in the summer when the water is needed,” he said. “Less spring runoff means better summer flows.”
The new management plan aims to promote similar stream restoration across the whole landscape.
The benefits of such projects — more groundwater to keep rivers flowing in the summer, and better habitat for salmon and steelhead — are one reason the community forest is such a big part of the Integrated Plan.
The other reason is a requirement from the Legislature, which wanted to ensure that investments in the Integrated Plan would pay off. By 2025, one goal of the plan is to provide at least 214,000 new acre-feet of water. If that is not met, the state could convert the community forest into the school trust or sell it to benefit the school trust.
Livingston said that it’s important for the community and supporters of the Teanaway to understand that connection.
“The future of the Teanaway Community Forest is tied to the success of water-storage aspects of the plan, too,” he said.
That uncertain future is acknowledged in the committee’s plan, but it’s not a focus. Instead, the plan lays out priorities and criteria to measure if management efforts succeeding, from improving wildlife habitat to groundwater recharge. The proposed plan will be open for review and comments from the public for the next two weeks.
Photo Credit: KAITLYN BERNAUER/Yakima Herald-Republic