(U.S. Forest Service)

(U.S. Forest Service)

Forest Service formulating big plan for Stillaguamish watershed

Three trails could be decommissioned. New ones could be built. And over 22,000 acres of trees could be thinned.

DARRINGTON — Channels have been transformed. Sediment has swarmed tributaries. Floodplains have become disconnected.

“A legacy of past management actions,” on both public and private lands, has left ecosystems in the North Fork Stillaguamish River watershed “in a state of non-function or impairment,” according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The victim of these unnatural changes? Fish and the wildlife that rely on them.

Almost a third of the watershed is Forest Service-managed land.

Now the forests and waterways around the North Fork Stillaguamish could be getting a makeover.

On over 61,000 acres of land in the Darrington and Mount Baker ranger districts, the Forest Service plans to thin trees, make habitat improvements, decommission trails or study the possibility of new trails, including at mountain biker-friendly North Mountain.

According to the Forest Service, the goal is to improve ecosystem health, enhance habitat for fish and wildlife, and improve water quality. The project also aims to boost the local economy. It calls for thinning over 22,000 acres of trees. Over half of that would be for commercial purposes. Up to 25 miles of temporary roads could be built to meet the objective, then decommissioned.

Some prescribed burning may also be in store for the project area, if an amendment to the forest plan goes through.

“I’m a firm believer in doing what’s right for the landscape,” Darrington District Ranger Greta Smith told The Daily Herald.

The newly thinned forests could open foraging space for elk and deer, make room for birds, minimize wildfire risk and create prime sunny real estate for huckleberries, a traditional Native American food.

Nothing is set in stone yet. The Forest Service wants the public to weigh in during an “open scoping period.”

“We have some initial ideas about how to best implement these projects, but we are looking for our public’s feedback in order to achieve the best outcomes,” Smith said in a statement. “We’re asking everyone to share their thoughts on how we can best enhance aquatic and terrestrial species habitat and promote a healthier forest within the North Fork Stillaguamish watershed; all which in turn supports the local economy.”

Comments will be accepted for 30 days, starting with the publication of a legal notice in this newspaper on April 22.

Most of the project will take place in Skagit County, northwest of Darrington, with a smidgen of work happening in Snohomish County.

As part of the project, the Forest Service will analyze roads and alter or decommission any that might have a negative impact on habitat. Fish barriers will be modified or removed.

Three trails are marked for removal:

Mount Higgins Trail #640.

• An adjoining spur trail, Myrtle Lake Trail #640.1.

• And Round Mountain Trail #664.

The trails have access issues and haven’t been maintained in years. Smith said she considers a number of questions when proposing the removal of a trail.

“Is this a trail that makes sense? Is it sustainable? … Why is it not being used?”

How they would be removed from service is not yet clear.

“There are a wide range of treatment techniques available to decommission trails,” notes a letter from the Forest Service. “Decommissioning can be as simple as physically blocking an entrance or as extensive as removing infrastructure, installing drainage/check dams, scarifying compacted tread, rock placement, transplanting, and the import of fill/debris.”

The goal, Smith said, is to focus recreation in spaces where the Forest Service can keep an eye on things. She said she’s recently seen an increase in trash and “uncurtailed resource damage” in the area.

The plan calls for studying dispersed camping and a new trail around Texas Pond on Forest Service Road 29, as well as at Twin Bridges on Forest Service Road 2820.

Lastly, the Forest Service may consider new trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders at North Mountain. The mountain already has a network of trails primarily used for mountain biking.

“The amount of use that is happening out by the Texas Pond area and the North Mountain area has definitely exploded over the last few years,” Smith said.

When the scoping period wraps up, the Forest Service will review comments that have been submitted and consider any concerns. Smith stressed that the project is still very early in the process.

“This summer is going to be a busy summer for us,” she said. “We’re going to be out there, taking a look.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

Comment

Comments are accepted electronically through the project’s website at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=61659.

You can also mail written comments to: Greta Smith, District Ranger , Darrington Ranger District , 1405 Emens Ave. N, Darrington, WA 98241.

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