Cascades to Rockies

The Columbia Highlands Initiative

Bald Snow by Eric Zamora
Bald Snow by Eric Zamora

Connecting the Cascades to the Rockies

Between the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains in northeast Washington is an area called the Columbia Highlands. Subalpine peaks and pine forests along the Kettle Crest, Abercrombie Mountain, and the Salmo-Priest drop down to adjacent low-elevation forest and ranch lands, gentle river valleys, and the Columbia River benchlands, encompassing the 1.1 million acre Colville National Forest.

The Columbia Highlands includes diverse habitat for rich wildlife, from wolverine, wolves, lynx, and grizzly bears to mountain caribou, elk, moose, whitetail and mule deer, bighorn sheep, and dozens of species of migratory birds and other native species, much the same mix of wildlife as 200 years ago.

The Columbia Highlands as a region connects the Cascades to the Rockies. As climate changes and additional habitat is lost to development, maintaining connected paths between habitats in the Columbia Highlands becomes even more essential.

Selkirks mountain caribou
Selkirks mountain caribou

Northeast Washington

Here the mystique of the American West lives on. Historic valley-bottom ranches maintain habitat and open space. Wildlands teem with abundant and diverse wildlife and locally owned timber mills provide family-wage jobs and wood products.

The region’s mix of wildlands, ranches, and working forests represents a network of wildlife habitat that keeps the Cascades and the Rockies connected for wide-ranging wildlife like wolverine, wolves, lynx, and other wildlife.

A unique collaboration

Since 2002 we’ve worked in a unique partnership with timber industry leaders, private landowners, small business owners, public agencies, conservation and recreation groups, and community leaders to conserve thousands of acres of wildlife habitat in the Columbia Highlands on both public and private lands. Conservation Northwest’s Columbia Highlands Initiative is putting that balanced plan to action, to protect wilderness and working forests in the region.

In 2010, Conservation Northwest put forward our Columbia Highlands Initiative legislative proposal intended to engage local stakeholders and elected officials to work together and come up with a balanced plan that included restoring forests and creating jobs; protecting working ranches and wildlife habitat; and designating new wilderness, recreation and conservation areas.

Now, in the morass that is today’s United States’ Congress, the political traction needed to bring all sides together to come up with a plan that works for wildlife and local communities, protecting wilderness, restoring forests, and connecting habitats for the future

The right time for wilderness

With a divided Congress that seems unable to act on many of the nation’s top priorities, including common ground conservation and natural resource policy, moving forward with a community-based plan for protecting wilderness and special places and improving forestry on public lands that would benefit local communities and wildlife seems unlikely in the near future. Our Columbia Highlands Initiative has already made great strides towards improving forestry practices on the Colville National Forest and safeguarding working ranchlands that provide important habitat for wildlife.

And we will continue to look for opportunities to work with the U.S. Forest Service, local community leaders and members of Congress to advance a balanced plan for the Columbia Highlands that includes protecting wilderness and supporting sound forestry that benefits local communities and wildlife. While we wait for the right opportunity to protect wilderness in the Kettle Range, we have shifted our much of our focus in the Columbia Highlands towards other wildlife conservation and forest restoration challenges.

Conservation Northwest will continue to rally public support for forest plan wilderness recommendations for the Kettle Crest and other wild areas and look for opportunities to engage local elected officials and stakeholders to find common ground around wilderness and other forest management issues.

A look toward the future

While things have shifted focus for the moment, there are plenty of things that are going on in regards to the Columbia Highlands. The Colville National Forest is going through a revision to their forest management plan, and two draft environmental impact statements should be out in the fall of 2014. While the public comment period has ended, a summary of the comments can be found here.

The Columbia Highlands Initiative also seeks to continue working with timber industry, Forest Service, and other collaborative partners to advance cutting-edge, science-based forest restoration on the Colville National Forest that benefits forest health, wildlife, and local communities. The campaign also includes a major capital fundraising effort to secure conservation easements for several working ranchlands that provide habitat and safe passage for wildlife.

You make wilderness happen!

Today, the Colville National Forest sustains local timber jobs and mills, recreation opportunities, and a diversity of wildlife found nowhere else in the state. Yet the rural, primitive character and wildness of the Columbia Highlands won’t stay that way forever without planning for the future. Ecological and economic changes threaten to disrupt the wildlife habitat and way of life. Our Columbia Highlands Campaign is an innovative effort that seeks to work with local communities to move forward cooperative conservation solutions, balancing the needs of people, the economy and wildlife.