Chelan County Commissioners are concerned about a lack of progress in clearing national forestland of debris and fuels that trigger wildfires. 

A visit by U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week brought a large turnout to mark the 10th anniversary of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative. 

Chelan County Commissioners Shon Smith says a stop by the group in the Lake Wenatchee area exposed the hazardous condition of the forestlands. 

"I just shake my head and say, 'Who is standing in the way of this progress that needs to be done to limit the wildfire that we know is coming," said Smith. "It's not if, it's when." 

All three Chelan County commissioners expressed worry about the ongoing presence of wildfire fuels in the national forest in a Monday meeting.    

The North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative was launched in 2013 through the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board. 

According to the Forest Service, it's a diverse group of local stakeholders represented by timber industry, conservation groups, tribal government, elected officials, and local, state and federal land managers working together. The goal is to obtain resources and community support to speed up landscape-scale forest restoration on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Chelan and Okanogan counties. 

Chelan County Natural Resources Director Mike Kaputa told commissioners Monday that a lot of the holdup in clearing the forest floor of wildfire fuels comes from policies established during President Bill Clinton's administration in the 1990's which established forest reserves to protect the Northern Spotted Owl.  

Kaputa said the policies are outdated and need to be updated, but he has little confidence the updates would allow for the type of work that needs to be done. 

"It is pretty surprising when you're standing there and you're looking at the forest and you know what's coming, and you know what work needs to be done, and yet we're not able to do it." 

Commissioner Smith inquired about how many spotted owls there are in the area during the Monday meeting. Commissioner Tiffany Gering responded saying there was one, while Kaputa said they could be counted on one hand. 

In 2020, it was reported there was one remaining pair of nesting spotted owls in Chelan County. 

Commissioner Kevin Overbay described the condition of the forestland near Lake Wenatchee by referencing the 2018 Camp Fire in California which almost completely destroyed the town of Paradise. 

"Unless we can start putting boots on the ground to do stuff, we're going to have potentially another Paradise, California, but instead it's going to be in Plain, Washington or Leavenworth, Washington," said Overbay. 

Commissioner Gering said she fully agreed with the comments made by commissioners Overbay and Smith. 

The tour of the area with Forest Service Chief Moore was well attended, with Commissioner Overbay saying he met a group from Mt. Baker that was taking part. 

Kaputa wrapped up the conversation while speaking with commissioners by saying he would work on some follow-up in Washington D.C. to try to get progress started on clearing forest lands of wildfire fuels. 

He noted he'd been working with the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative since its inception and said it was frustrating that very little had been done to deal with the issue. 

A web page about the 10th anniversary of the Forest Health Collaborative features two side-by-side photos. In one photo, the caption reads, "Overstocked unhealthy forest with high fire hazards, Peshastin." The caption of the other photo says, "Same forest after thinning, pruning and slash treatment." 

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