"To improve the ecosystem health and natural functions of the landscape through active restoration projects backed by best science, community input and adaptive management."
-Mission statement for the Tapash Sustatinable Forests Collaborative
Smokey the Bear taught us to put out all forest fires. Now we’re paying the price. A century of fire suppression in the east Cascades forests have left millions of acres overgrown with dense underbrush, at risk of catastrophic wildfires and insect infestation.
Now, landowners in these forests are coming together to restore the forests to health. In 2006 The Nature Conservancy led the creation of the Tapash Sustainable Forests Collaborative, a coalition of landowners in eastern Washington committed to conservation and restoration. Together, the coalition is ensuring that people will be able to continue to hike, hunt and fish in east Cascades forests, and the forests will continue to provide clean water for people and wildlife.
The group is working together to conserve and protect some 1.6 million acres across Kittitas and Yakima counties – a diverse landscape that’s home to elk, bighorn sheep and golden eagles among many other plants and animals.
Participating landowners include the Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Yakama Nation, Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Department of Natural Resources.
Coordination between agencies is critical in eastern Washington. Much of the land was owned in a checkerboard pattern, a legacy from the 19th century when Congress gave alternating square miles to railroad companies in turn for bringing railroads out west. Timber companies have succeeded the railroad companies as owners, and their square miles are checkerboarded with federal and state lands. The resulting fragmented landscape has been a bane to both the timber companies and conservationists.
The collaborative is working to stitch the landscape back together.
“In eastern Washington, much of the industrial forest land is being sold out of forestry into other land uses, such as home development,” said Reese Lolley, Director of the Conservancy’s Eastern Washington Forests program. "This means the region is further threatened by fragmentation, resulting in harm to wildlife, less recreational access and lost opportunities to manage for forest health. We are working to address this threat in part by considering which forest lands should stay protected and how.”
The collaborative is thinking big – creating long-term plans for resilient and healthy forests that will support the economy and environment. And they’re acting now. One of their current projects is planning for thinning small trees from forests and controlled fires across ownership boundaries.
Thinning small trees helps make it safe to use controlled fire; it removes “ladders” the fire would otherwise use to climb into the tops of larger trees and kill them. Controlled fire is an important tool for creating healthy forests, and can help to avert catastrophic forest fires by clearing out those dense underbrush "ladders" – which is what natural fires did before Smokey the Bear.
In 2010 the Tapash Collaborative received a substantial financial boost from a new U.S. Forest Service program called the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.
The Tapash was one of 10 projects from across the country that was selected to receive funding from the program, which was designed to enable sustainable solutions to critical forest health problems facing our nation. The Tapash received $1.6 million in the initial year of the proposal and is set to receive additional funds over the next 10 years.
The money is helping the collaborative to be more effective. They’ve hired an executive coordinator and are being assisted by a new Conservancy employee, a forester, who was hired in a cost-sharing agreement with the Okanagan National Forest.
In working to draft a memorandum of agreement years ago, partners in the Tapash Collaborative identified several areas where cooperation makes sense. They include:
This list continues to guide their work today.April 16, 2012