Hunters, Anglers Support NE WA Wilderness, Logging Plan

Earlier this week I got a press release about how “overwhelming majorities of hunters, anglers” and others polled in Northeast Washington support a proposal for more wilderness, logging and recreation areas in the Colville National Forest.

True, as an editor, I’m in favor of it, but as a reporter I noticed that the release didn’t provide any actual figures to support the statement, so I asked around for hard numbers.

What I received came from a poll of 400 likely voters in Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens Counties and 112 in Spokane County. It was performed in late February for the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition and the Pew Environment Group by Moore Information and the Mellman Group, generally Republican- and Democratic-oriented pollsters, and has a margin of error of +/- 4.9 percent.

The stats broke us into three categories, and we could either say we were strongly in favor, favored it but not so strongly, were undecided or didn’t know, opposed it but not strongly, or strongly opposed it.

It showed that 59.7 percent of self-identified anglers and hunters who head out “several times per year” favor the plan while 23.4 oppose it. Another 12.7 percent were undecided, 4.1 percent didn’t know.

Sixty-three-point-two percent of occasional sportsmen favored it while 20.4 percent opposed; 11.2 percent were undecided and 5.2 percent didn’t know.

And 53.2 percent of fishermen and hunters who “seldom or never” get afield supported it while 26.4 opposed; 16.8 percent were undecided and 3.7 percent didn’t know.

Their responses came in answer to this question:

Now let me tell you a little more about this proposal. The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is made up of five timber companies, two Washington state conservation groups, recreation interests and businesses. For eight years, this partnership has worked to end the gridlock over managing the Colville National Forest and has successfully completed over two dozen forestry projects.

The coalition’s overall proposal identifies some acres in the Colville National Forest to be used for forestry work, some areas for forest restoration, some areas for recreation, and protects some roadless lands as wilderness. Within the places proposed for wilderness protection, hiking, hunting, livestock grazing, fishing, horse-packing, and camping would all continue without change.

However other uses would be prohibited in the lands designated for wilderness protection—namely mining, commercial logging, oil and gas drilling, new roads and mechanized recreation such as with Jeeps, snowmobiles, quads and mountain bikes.

Overall, this proposal would provide for increased logging, expanded recreation and more protected areas. Would you favor or oppose this entire proposal?

Poll results showed that backers of the proposal have a ways to go in getting word out to the public.

I blogged about it last fall, and we had a huge story on it in our November issue (see below). Basically it would set aside 215,000 acres in the Kettle Crest and Selkirk Mountains as new wilderness, keep logging going on another 400,000 acres while another 400,000 acres would be managed for restorative timber harvest, with the balance of the forest, some 200,000 acres, falling under recreation and conservation area statuses.

An act of Congress would be required for the wilderness, recreation and conservation areas.

PROPOSED PLAN FOR THE COLVILLE NATIONAL FOREST.

While the Cascades, Olympics and Blues are chock-full of wilderness — over 4 million acres worth — the only one in the northeastern quadrant of the state is the 41,335-acre Salmo-Priest, tucked up where the WA-ID-BC borders converge.

The Colville also had approximately 180,000 acres of roadless areas during an early-2000s inventory.

Among all respondents, after the forestry plan was explained, 57 percent favored it while 24 percent opposed it. Results also show that support crosses party lines and the urban-rural divide.

“The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is taking the right approach,” Russ Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber, and coalition vice president, said in a press release. “People want a balanced approach and wise use of our forest that creates jobs, provides access and takes care of wildlife and our special places.”

LOG YARD AT THE VAAGEN BROTHERS MILL, COLVILLE, WASH. (JAMES JOHNSTON)

After pro and con arguments were presented, pollsters did record a shift against the proposal by moderate independents, less-educated men, frequent ORV users and 15 percent of frequent hunters and anglers.

Below is the article we ran in the November 2010 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine:

By Leroy Ledeboer

COLVILLE, Wash.—Propose significant changes on any of Washington’s big game lands, and hunters want to know why. More precisely, they want to know what these changes will do to improve or perhaps degrade the habitat of their favorite species and what will become of their traditional access points. In a nutshell, hunters want to know, will the hunts of tomorrow be as good, better or worse than they were yesterday?

Recently, the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a broad spectrum of conservationists, loggers, ranchers and local business leaders have come together to try to hammer out the details on a sweeping new land-use plan, the Columbia Highlands Initiative. It takes in all of the Colville National Forest, from the Kettle Crest to nearly the Idaho, border and from Canada south to the Colville and Spokane Indian Reservations.

If this initiative were to be adopted in its present form, it would create 214,000 acres of new wilderness. Another 145,000 acres would be set aside in a “national conservation area,” where tree thinning for fuel reduction and wildlife habitat improvement would be allowed, while an even large block, a “forest restoration area” covering 417,000 acres, would be open to controlled commercial logging, cattle grazing and existing recreational opportunities. Sound environmental practices, such as streamside buffer zones and tight regs on logging roads and no major clearcuts would be paramount.

Essentially, the coalition has been trying to work with a broad array of diverse interests, ranging from conservationists who, among other things, want to see g reater protection for endangered species such as the Canadian lynx and the grizzly bear, to timber companies who want assurances that their log supply will be sufficient to keep their mills running, and cattle ranchers, some of whom are running spreads that go back to the turn of the last century and are trying hard to carry on family traditions.

It’s a new approach, a sharp turn away from the old antagonism of the past. Now it’s a matter of sitting down at a bargaining table, then trying to come up with solutions that are more or less equitable for everyone and still leave us with a healthy national forest.

BUT THE QUESTION for this magazine has to be, where will all this leave hunters, the hundreds of avid locals and the hordes of outsiders who annually make these hills part of their fall migration?
The Colville National Forest is a major stomping ground for muleys and whitetail deer, a healthy and expanding elk herd, furnishes pretty good black bear hunts and represents a golden opportunity for anyone lucky enough to draw a moose permit, so major land management changes have to be scrutinized.

Let’s start with that 214,000 acres of wilderness, by far the most sweeping management change on the docket and the one that could have the biggest impact. The major chunk of this would run along the Kettle Crest, with another big block around Abercrombie and Hooknose Mountains, west of the Pend Oreille not far from the Canadian border. Hunters and wildlife managers I spoke to came out on both sides of this issue.

“Ultimately, it doesn’t make for that healthy a big game habitat,” says longtime outdoorsman Tim Nizech at Clark’s All Sports in Colville, “because you don’t have any logging, even any tree thinning, nothing to revive the underbrush our deer depend on.”

“Plus, it’s going to be so inaccessible.  Now, I’m all for some roadless areas and locked gates because I hate being out there and having four-runners running over me when I’m trying to hunt.

“Yes, we need lots of hike-in-only country, but when you designate a big section of real estate as wilderness, you pretty much make it inaccessible for most hunters, except those few who can hire packers or are able to keep their own stock year-round.”

On the other side, avid hunter Tommie Petrie of Newport, who has worked with the coalition, says at first he was opposed, but now supports this initiative.

“As a sportsman I’m really excited about it, but I can also see other hunter’s concerns,” he says. “I grew up in the Le Clerc Creek area of Pend Oreille County, and in the ’80s, when they closed off so many roads for grizzly bear protection, I felt violated, really hurting for the people around there who’d always hunted those backcountry areas and now couldn’t reach them. I knew what they’d lost.

“But that’s one reason why I like this proposal’s three-pronged approach, one part wilderness, then a middle ground, sort of a transitional phase, and a third for more timber harvest, grazing and recreational opportunities like ATV riding.

“And that wilderness area will be major.  We already have plenty of areas where we can hunt on four-wheelers, but this will be for guys willing to pack in, and there’s no greater experience than the real backcountry experience.  With today’s population, our wilderness areas are essential to that. Once they’re destroyed, we’ll never get them back.”

The proposal has also drawn support from the Spokane-based Washington Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, among others.

A STRONG VOICE that definitely takes exception to the wilderness designation is Chuck McCombs, a former Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife forester who for 39 years managed the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge, but also worked on the Sherman Creek Wildlife Area and other public lands across the state.

“After a clear-cut or fire, when the grasses and shrubs start coming back, you have your big animals – deer, elk, moose – thriving, and you also the most variety, everything from rodents to song birds,” McCombs explains. “But finally the trees take over again, often lodgepole pine first, later deer and elk habitat is gone.

“That’s what happens in any wilderness.  Eventually it all goes to large trees, and the only thing that will help is a large fire. If they’re going to have true wilderness areas, then they should go all the way, and let fires burn the way they once did.

“The way it is, a wilderness designation simply hamstrings an area, creating poor habitat, especially for deer and elk. What animals love is an edge, an area where they can easily move between grass and shrub zones for feed, timber stands for cover.

“Whenever we did clear-cuts, we did it with a purpose, knowing we weren’t managing timber, we were managing wildlife, so we kept them small, did them in irregular shapes, not squares, giving the animals more edge.

“The same thing with our controlled burns. We did simple two-man burns, using flame throwers, and always did relatively small plots, our biggest around 30 acres, again in irregular patterns.

“In a wilderness you get none of this, but you do get bug infestations, dead timber and a heavy cover of pine needles under the canopy. Then when fire breaks out, it’s often a crown fire, burning way too hot and way too many acres in one swath, leaving large blackened areas for years to come.

“Why not manage every acre? Your timber sales will pay for a lot of it, and you’ll end up with far more big game.  When you designate an area wilderness, you’re not managing it at all.”

ALTHOUGH HE ACKNOWLEDGES that a well thought out hands-on approach, including having those creature-friendly timber harvests and controlled burns, will produce more suitable habitat and consequently more big game per square mile, state wildlife biologist Dana Base in Colville says a wilderness designation is a legitimate management strategy.

“Nonmanagement – letting nature run its course – is actually a legitimate management scheme, and it works quite well in certain terrains,” he says. “Now, if we look at the proposed wilderness areas in this plan strictly from a hunter’s standpoint, well, it’s kind of a mixed bag.

“On the one hand, it will make it harder for the average hunter, simply because gaining access to so much of that land is going to be very demanding. Anyone who isn’t in excellent physical condition or doesn’t have access to pack animals, maybe the finances to hire an outfitter, will simply be left out.

“On the other, big game animals that inhabit this wilderness will no doubt be higher quality, primarily because they’ll get less hunting pressure and have better escapement than animals in the lower regions.  Anyone who can get in there and do it right could have the hunt of a lifetime.

“But basically this means hunting mule deer. Whitetails tend to stay at lower elevations and definitely respond best to managed habitats.

“And no matter what we do, we won’t have the kind of wilderness terrains you see in the Montana Rockies, where lots of elk have their summer range in super-high mountain meadows, at 10,000 feet or more. That gives the bulls a tremendous advantage for survival, compared to some of their lower elevations where 4-wheelers crisscross everything.

“Before every hunting season I get calls from elk hunters asking me about prospects in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness.  I have to tell them, they’re slim to none.  Our elk stay lower, maybe as many as 90 percent within 3 miles on either side of the Pend Oreille River, particularly where you find clear-cuts.”

So for muley hunters with enough fortitude or horse flesh, these wilderness areas could be real go-to spots for trophy bucks, as well as that outdoor ideal, a solitary hunt in a vast mountainous landscape.

Throw in those other critters that could have a safer home, a better chance of survival in a wilderness – lynx, grizzlies, maybe additional plants of bighorns – and do we have a good enough reason to take this much land away from the Jeep-and-quad crowd, who in many cases don’t have the finances for that horse or mule pack-it-in option, nor the youth or stamina to do a boot leather and pack-frame high-country foray?

“I’m all for choices and in any plan I really like seeing something for everyone,” Base adds, “places where four-wheelers can go and hunt, locked gate areas where hike-in hunters can hunt undisturbed, and wilderness that creates even greater solitude. The problem is, the pie is only so big, we have a lot of outdoors types to accommodate, so we have to make compromises.”

Yes, and if the Columbia Highlands Initiative is to move from the drawing board to reality, compromise will have to be a real cornerstone, giving something to everyone from loggers to passionate preservationists.  Again, though, our question is, what piece of this pie do hunters get? How will the big game animals and the men and women who pursue them fare?

“Maybe the best thing about this will be the landscape mosaic that should emerge,” Base states. “Start with that core wilderness area, your nonmanaged control zone, surrounded by various management intensities, which will give us a variety of carrying capacities, but also more varied recreational opportunities. Each component should be complimentary to the rest and we’ll have something for everyone, from loggers to real wilderness types, high-country hunters to weekend ATV users. And we’ll still have added protection for endangered species, such as wolverines.”

“Of course, logging won’t mean largescale clearcuts on any of this land. But a lot of that forest is in desperate need of thinning, with big stands of dog-hair trees, mainly lodgepole pine growing so thick it can’t mature decently. And unlike what we’re seeing on too many big timber company holdings now, you won’t have any wholesale spraying of herbicides to wipe out the grasses and brush, which may be good for tree growth but are absolutely deadly for deer and elk.”

So, just maybe, if the national conservation and forest restoration areas get logged with wildlife in mind, maybe even have some controlled burns where appropriate, those streamside brush and tree buffers are kept intact, and cattle grazing is regulated, at least some of tomorrow’s hunts will be even better than today’s.

That wilderness area? Maybe we accept that as a necessary part of this mosaic, a place most of us will never hunt but might  feel good just knowing it’s there, home to wild critters that need lots of isolation. NS

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