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Cascade Checkerboard Project

 

Railroad land grants over 100 years ago have left us the "checkerboard" pattern of ownership in the central Cascades. The Checkerboard Project seeks to improve the management of these lands by returning key blocks of habitat to public ownership and to insure protection and restoration of the ecosystem in the management of both public and private lands. The Checkerboard Project is part of the Resilient Habitats Campaign. Learn more about Resilient Habitats.

Past issues included land exchanges between national forests and Plum Creek Timber Company and Weyerhaueser. The Project has also supported purchases of lands, primarily from timber companies, for addition to the national forests and state conservation areas. The Sierra Club was a member of The Cascades Conservation Partnership, which raised over $16 million in private funds to acquire key habitat lands and donate them to those conservation units. Another accomplishment of the project is the habitat conservation plan for Seattle's Cedar River Watershed, that eliminated commercial logging, and established a goal of ecological restoration.

A key goal of the Project is to maintain habitat connections near Snoqualmie Pass - including adding wildlife bridges on I-90 and retaining wildlife corridors in the expansion of the ski areas. The Project is also working on acquisition of inholdings in the national forests, retaining private forestland in the foothills in forest, and the pending revision of the land management plan for the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forests.

Building the I-90 Wildlife Bridges

I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East

A 15-mile stretch of Interstate 90 just east of Snoqualmie Pass is being rebuilt- and a part of that is providing safe passages for wildlife. Besides fixing deteriorated pavement, congestion, substandard curves, and exposure to avalanches, it will substantially reduce the risk of collisions with animals.

The Sierra Club supports this project because it provides wildlife passage of the highest standard in this critical habitat bottleneck, making the roadway safer for both motorists and wildlife. Ecological connectivity is a highlighted goal of the project, and it will be much better for wildlife after the project than it is today.

Needs Funding

The legislature appropriates funds for this project every two years. In 2013, the Sierra Club and our allies at the I-90 Wildlife Bridges Coalition (www.i90wildlifebridges.org) are asking legislators to approve the governor’s budget that includes funds for Phase 2A, which includes construction of the first wildlife overpass in the state- near Keechelus Dam. This unique structure will provide a landscaped corridor over six lanes of freeway for dozens of species – from deer and elk to cougar and wolverines. Even small animals like salamanders and snakes will make use of this passageway.

Intersecting Wildlife and Human Corridors

This stretch of freeway bisects an area that US Forest Service biologists have long recognized as “a critical connective link in the north-south movement of [wildlife] in the Cascade Range.” Over $70 million in federal, state and private funds have been invested in acquiring and protecting wildlife corridors connecting core habitats in the Alpine Lakes and the Greater Mount Rainier region.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has adopted a plan to expand I-90 between Hyak and Easton called the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project. The first 5-miles (Phase 1) of the project is currently under construction (on schedule and under budget). That phase includes a wildlife underpass at Gold Creek that not only benefits terrestrial wildlife in the area, but the species living in the creek itself, including resident populations of bull trout and kokanee salmon. On average, 27,000 vehicles a day transit Snoqualmie Pass, many of them semi-trucks. The project will widen the highway from four lanes to six, extend truck climbing lanes and add chain up areas. It will also eliminate road closures for avalanche control, by bridging the high risk areas, so avalanches go under the roadway rather than over. Wildlife passage structures will reduce collisions between vehicles and animals.

 

Wildlife Connections

Improving wildlife connectivity is one of WSDOT’s stated goals for this project, which will complement past and ongoing efforts to protect wildlife corridors in Washington’s Central Cascades. Fifteen major wildlife passage structures will reduce collisions between vehicles and animals crossing the freeway. Most will be underpasses where streams or wetlands cross the highway right of way. In two locations, bridges exclusively for wildlife will be constructed. This project will allow large and small wildlife to safely move from one side of I-90 to the other by strategically elevating the freeway, installing larger culverts, and building bridges. This will help keep Cascades wildlife populations genetically viable by allowing genetic exchange among a greater number of animals across a larger expanse of habitat. These larger populations of species are more resilient and allow wildlife and land managers greater flexibility. In a world where the climate is changing, it is more important than ever that species be able to migrate freely in order to adapt and to find areas suitable for their continued survival.

View a flyover video showing the design of Phase 1 and a sneak peak at Phase 2 including a visualization of what will be the first wildlife overpass, just east of Keechelus Dam.

Wolverines Back in Checkerboard Country

Wolverines had been extirpated from Washington State and other areas of the country by the 1930s through trapping, shooting and loss of habitat. A few years ago, as trapping subsided, wolverines were detected in the North Cascades. At first, they were roaming and foraging, and then started denning. By 2009, radio collars tracked them south almost to Lake Wenatchee. In April of 2012, remote cameras recorded a wolverine in the Chiwaukum Mtns. In June, some backcountry skiers photographed one near Ingalls Pass on the southern edge of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Wolverines are dependent on areas in high elevations, where conditions are cold year-round and snow cover persists well into the month of May- to maintain the under-snow dens dug by females, where the young kits stay protected until they come out in May. USFWS said, “Extensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine’s snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction.”

Wolverines Proposed as Threatened Species

The US Fish & Wildlife Service has finally proposed listing the wolverine as threatened (Federal Register February 4, 2013). After public comment and scientific review, this proposal could be adopted in late 2013.

Thrive, Not Just Survive: Denning Refugia and Connectivity Corridors

However, the agency currently does not consider most activities occurring within this high elevation habitat of the wolverine to constitute significant threats to the wolverine. The agency is ignoring the impact of snowmobiling, roads, major highways, and development. For a threatened species, we should be designing recovery plans to provide the best habitat possible, not the least capable; to provide the least human disturbance as possible, not the most they can tolerate. (Remember, they started with weak proposals for spotted owls, which took a decade of litigation to resolve with greatly enlarged habitat protection.) Wolverines avoid people and certainly females with kits in a den are disturbed by snowmobiles- machines with a nearly unlimited reach that can go fast and far into critical denning habitats. We need full protection for winter denning habitat and limits on use in key foraging areas and connectivity corridors.

While the agency is not ready to determine critical habitat at this stage, we are suggesting areas in the Washington Cascades that should be designated. A good place to start would be to consider all public lands in the Cascades above 2,500’. Much of this is in national forest unroaded areas and Wilderness, and in National Parks. However, there are key areas outside of Wilderness that should be designated as critical habitat. The USFWS should designate within core areas such habitat as denning refugia, plus corridors connecting from Alpine Lakes to Mt. Rainier.

Places like Esmerelda Basin, Jolly Mtn and Miller Peak in the upper Teanaway, and Scatter Creek and Davis Peak in the Cle Elum provide key denning habitat. They have deep snows that last into May, and are part of a large area that could support several wolverines. Silver Peak and Blowout Mtn. are unroaded areas that would be key refugia within a connectivity corridor along the Cascade Crest connecting Alpine Lakes to Norse Peak Wilderness and Mt. Rainier National Park. Just northwest of Stevens Pass, acquiring timber company lands on Windy Ridge would assure a large area of high quality habitat connected to the HM Jackson Wilderness.

Comment on Proposed Listing

The Fish & Wildlife Service opened a 90-day comment period on February 4, 2013, to allow the public and stakeholders an opportunity to provide information or comments regarding the proposed listing. Comments will be accepted until May 6, 2013.

Submit comments electronically:

Go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov

In the Keyword box, enter Docket No. FWS–R6–ES–2012–0107. Then, in the Search panel on the left side of the screen, under the Document Type heading, click on the Proposed Rules link to locate this document. Submit a comment by clicking on “Comment Now!’’

Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Revising Management Plan

The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is a key priority for the Sierra Club and its Checkerboard Project. The railroad land grants covered the south half of the forest from Stevens Pass and Lake Wenatchee to White Pass and the Goat Rocks.

Protecting Our Wild Lands & Rivers

The Forest Service is updating their 20+ year old management plan for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest- more than 4 million acres of public land. This will determine the fate of a million acres of unroaded land, and is the first time in two decades that the agency is considering wilderness as an option. While the Forest Service suggested only 120,000 acres for wilderness in their “proposed action” last year, we have proposed 800,000 acres. This includes areas like Esmerelda Basin as additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness- prime denning habitat for wolverines; wild high country around Tiffany Mtn near Winthrop; and the North Fork Entiat and adjacent shore of Lake Chelan. Wilderness provides the best protection for wildlife habitat and quiet recreation, free of off-road vehicles, logging, roads, and mining. In late 2013, the FS will issue a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the plan revision. One of the alternatives in the DEIS will be based on our proposal for protecting wilderness, wild rivers, old-growth forests and non-motorized trails. We will need the help of all our members and partners to convince the FS to fashion their plan on that alternative. We are reaching out to citizens and businesses on the east side to explain the value of wild lands to their communities.

 

The plan will also determine which rivers the FS will recommend for protection under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Among the rivers we are proposing for designation are the Tieton, Little Naches, Cle Elum, Chiwawa, Entiat, Twisp and Methow.

Protecting Old-Growth Forests

The Forest Service’s “proposed action”, if adopted, would eliminate the Late Successional Reserves (LSRs. These areas were set aside under President Clinton’s NW Forest Plan to protect old-growth forest ecosystems. Since 1994, the LSR network has provided the foundation for protecting the northern spotted owl and hundreds of other late successional forest-dependent species. The FS has proposed some vague restoration goals for the forest that could easily result in increases in unnecessary logging and road building. The Sierra Club, along with other conservation groups, met with the regional forester to advocate for retaining the LSRs. The Sierra Club prepared a letter in support of the LSR system, which was signed by more than 200 scientists.

For more information on the Plan Revision, checkout the Forest Service website.

Ask to be added to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Forest Plan Revision mailing list.

http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/okawen/landmanagement/planning/

 

 

Motor Vehicles on Trails

In a separate process, the Forest Service is developing a Motorized Travel Management Plan which will determine which trails are open to dirt bikes and jeeps. In May of 2013, the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF will issue a draft Plan. This process could open up more trails to dirt bikes, or reclaim backcountry trails for muscle powered travel – by foot, bicycle or horse. The Club has documented the damage to trails, streams and meadows by dirt bikes. This is another opportunity for Club members to generate support for non-motorized trails. We are developing trail-by-trail recommendations.

 

Ask to be added to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Motorized Travel Management Plan Revision mailing list. For more information see the Forest Service website: www.fs.usda.gov/goto/okawen/mtm

 

 

Land Acquisition – Successes and Unfinished Business

Reacquiring the lands given to the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 19th Century has been a key element of the Cascade Checkerboard Project. Critical acquisitions are designed to reconnect the Alpine Lakes with the Glacier Peak country to the north and Mt. Rainier country to the south. Lands with old-growth forests, unroaded areas, trails and key salmon habitat are the top priorities. These include Plum Creek lands in the Little Naches valley and along Manastash Ridge, and lands owned by Longview Timberlands in the Skykomish Valley.

 

Our ongoing efforts to get land acquired paid off with the Forest Service acquiring over 1,500 acres along the Pacific Crest Trail and in the Manastash Roadless Area in 2012. We are working to get the FS to manage these to restore key habitats and trail quality. Trust for Public Land has been instrumental in these land conservation efforts.

 

Old Growth Forest Protected in Tacoma’s Watershed

As part of the I-90 Wildlife Corridor, 344-acres of forest land along Sawmill Creek was protected in late December 2012. The Sawmill Creek property was the largest privately-owned swath of old growth forest left in the Green River Valley and contains habitat for spotted owl and other wildlife species. The land was acquired from Plum Creek by Forterra with a grant from the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Forterra transferred it to Tacoma Water, which will manage it as part of their drinking water supply, with a conservation easement insuring that the forest will be preserved. It is adjacent to the congressionally designated Kelly Butte Special Management Area on national forest land.

This project helps connect habitat with other conserved forests of the Central Cascades in the Cedar River Watershed, Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Mt. Rainier National Park. It has been a priority for a dozen years, and extends the protection achieved by The Cascades Conservation Partnership in 2004. Over the past four years, Forterra has acquired over 2,000 acres of critical habitat near the I-90 wildlife bridges. For more information see Forterra’s webstie: www.forterra.org

Activity at Mt. St. Helens

National Monument Expansion & Land Acquisition

The Sierra Club was a leader in establishing the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in 1982. Our proposal was for 216,000 acres, including the full suite of ecological complexes that make up the mosaic of Mt. St. Helens. Not just the crater and Spirit Lake, but also the untouched forest, wild rivers, previous lava, mud and ash deposits. This included dramatic vistas, research and educational sites and opportunities for low impact recreation. About half of that was included by Congress in the Monument. Since then, we have continued to push for adding key parts that were left out- including High Lakes/Mineral Creek; the upper Green River (see mining proposal) and Strawberry Mtn roadless area; additional parts of the mudflows in the Toutle valley and Muddy River; Old growth forests that survived the blast on the SE and SW slopes. Recent efforts to redesignate the Monument as a national park did not gain support of the local member of congress. The Sierra Club believes we can achieve a high level of ecological protection, scientific research and appropriate recreational uses with an expanded national monument.

There is renewed interest in acquiring the lands around the High Lakes on Coldwater Ridge. Despite being in the 1980 blast zone, they have been subdivided and sold for cabin development. This would impact recovering ecosystem and put those areas off limits to traditional hunting, fishing and picnicking.

The land around Mt. St. Helens was part of the checkerboard railroad land, based on the NPRR track from Tacoma to Portland.

Forest Service OKs Exploratory Drilling for Open Pit Mine

In December of 2012, the Forest Service officials allowed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to issue permits to Ascot USA, Inc. (a Canadian mining company) for mineral prospecting on Goat Mountain, in the upper Green River watershed. While the permit areas are on national forest lands, Ascot USA, Inc. holds title to the subsurface mineral rights within the permit areas.

The prospecting permits would allow exploratory drilling of small-diameter boreholes at 23 sites along existing roads and previous drill sites. Borehole samples would be analyzed to assess mineral content and value.

Conservation and recreation groups, including the Sierra Club, have objected to the mining proposal and its impact on the Green River, the adjacent National Monument, roadless areas, hiking and horseback trails and campgrounds. Gifford Pinchot Task Force has filed an appeal of the permit. www.gptaskforce.org

The Forest Service is trying to segment this project, in order to minimize the impacts of this first phase. Cowlitz Valley District Ranger Gar Abbas acknowledged public interest and concern about the proposal. “I recognize there are concerns related to potential for future mining,” Abbas said. But then he excused the agency by saying, “The current actions before the federal agencies are related only to prospecting [exploration] activities within the permit areas. This is not a mining development project.” Abbas indicated both the BLM and Forest Service were satisfied with measures developed to ensure resource protection and site reclamation. Exploratory drilling could begin the summer of 2013.

 

Proposed Open Pit Copper Mine

If Ascot finds a viable deposit of copper, they would push for permission to dig an open pit mine. The Forest Service does not appear ready to say no. Not only would that have a tremendous impact on the upper Green River valley, including crushing and processing facilities, it would require huge amounts of water and a major ore truck hauling road to Hwy 12.

Copies of the documents are available on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest website at www.fs.usda.gov/giffordpinchot.

Cedar River Watershed on Track with Preservation & Restoration

A major objective of the Checkerboard Project has been preserving and restoring the Cedar River Watershed, the 90,000 acre Cascades valley owned by the City of Seattle as its primary water supply. Our current emphasis is on implementation of the Habitat Conservation Plan, particularly road decommissioning and forest thinning. In 2012, we organized a field trip with Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) staff to review a completed thinning project, as well as two new proposals. Our group toured the sites and found the project had provided more structural diversity without new roads or heavy handed logging seen on some national forest thinning projects. We provided input on one of the proposed new projects, which resulted in modifications to better address ecological conditions. We continue to watch the thinning program very closely, and our support for it will only continue if SPU staff receive continued funding for ecological study and outreach in preparation of the project, close supervision of contractors during the thinning, and monitoring when projects are complete. We also insist that the road decommissioning program continues. Road decommissioning is essential for maintaining high water quality and restoration of habitat, as well as reducing maintenance costs. SPU has made significant progress, and will ultimately leave a core road system of 239 miles. This is a needed goal and work should progress as quickly as possible.

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