You are a backpacker. On Saturday, August 13, 2011 – a sunny day throughout Washington – you were probably backpacking. While you were out on the trail, roughly 70 outdoorsy people, including representatives from Washington Trails Association, were not hiking, but instead seated firmly in office chairs, hands clasped around coffee mugs, at a meeting. Why had they gathered in Seattle Mountaineers building on that sunny weekend? To learn about the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville National Forests’ efforts to rewrite their forest plans.

A forest plan lays the groundwork for how recreation, road access, wildlife, vegetation and wilderness will be managed for 20 years. Writing a forest plan is a federally mandated process and the public is invited to comment on the plan while it is being written. Hence, the meeting–one of several held throughout Washington, but the only one held east of the Cascade crest.

Upper Snowy Lakes in the Liberty Bell roadless area ©Wade Trenbeath

Since you (probably) didn’t attend this meeting, please consider this your recap from WTA’s point of view.

The crowd was a mixed group – pleasingly dense with ordinary people from all walks of life who were interested in the forest plan. Over the course of more than two hours, participants conversed with forest staff at topic tables; listened to a formal presentation; asked questions during a Q&A session; and had an opportunity for additional follow-up.

In her introduction, Forest Supervisor Becki Heath stressed the importance of public comment, saying “I can’t emphasize enough how important what you tell us will be in shaping the alternatives,” referring to the management alternatives that the forests will present to the public in the form of a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS).

The North face of Golden Horn © Wade Trenbeath

WTA has ongoing concerns about the lack of proposed wilderness designation for some highly deserving roadless areas and we want to know how the agency will prioritize addressing the maintenance backlog on their trail system. At this meeting, we were able to get answers. Here are some of the things we learned:

  • The Liberty Bell roadless area is one of the more interesting potential wilderness designations on the forest. Of the 114,700 acres that the forest could have recommended for wilderness designation, only 5,200 had been recommended. Why? Turns out there are a number of unpatented mining claims in the area, many of which area used by hobby miners as opposed to hard rock, large scale operations. There is also one hazardous materials cleanup site in the northeastern corner of the roadless area that will require at least a temporary road. Still, Liberty Bell is both incredibly scenic (see photos) and important from a habitat connectivity standpoint. We think hikers should ask to see more of this area protected as wilderness.
  • Thus far, public feedback has included many calls for close-in, low-elevation family hikes. These are generally at a premium on the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville, so we think the forest will focus on reducing the maintenance backlog on these sorts of opportunities.
  • Finally, we learned that growing insect infestations caused by warmer winters are causing vegetation management staff to worry about recreation access. If we begin to see fires flourish on the Okanogan-Wenatchee, there could be a significant impact on the front-country trail system.

All in all, it was a fascinating and energizing meeting. By all accounts, it was also one of the largest held by the forests on this issue so far. WTA has attended dozens of forest service meetings in the past several years, and this was certainly one of the best organized and conducted.

There won’t be any more Saturday afternoon weekends – bummer! – but you can still get involved in shaping the future of these forests. You can:
>> Learn more about the Okanogan-Wenatchee-Colville forest planning process
>> Learn how to comment on the plans
>> Attend a lunchtime webinar. Originally scheduled for August 18, this webinar was cancelled due to technical difficulties and will be rescheduled.

Take a few moments – before Sepetmeber 28 – to comment on the Proposed Action. Twenty years from now, when you’re still hiking through pristine wilderness, you’ll be glad you did!

View of Liberty Bell Roadless Area from Cutthroat Pass ©Wade Trenbeath

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