Columbia Highlands Wilderness

Connecting the Cascades to the Rockies

October 2019 update: read our latest statement on the lack of recommended Wilderness in the final Colville Forest Plan

Between the North Cascades and the Rocky Mountains in northeast Washington is an area called the Columbia Highlands. Subalpine peaks and roadless forests of pine and larch dot the crest of the Kettle River Mountain Range in Ferry County and the Selkirk Mountains in Pend Oreille County. Below these high points, rolling conifer forests, ranch lands and gentle river valleys transition into the steppe of the Columbia Basin and Okanogan Highlands. Much of this land is managed as the Colville National Forest, while areas of state, private and tribal land also abound.

Increased wildlands protections, such as designated wilderness, are badly need on the Colville. The Forest contains more than 220,000 acres of wilderness-quality lands but less than three percent is currently officially designated Wilderness, the smallest amount of any National Forest in the Pacific Northwest! Most notable is the absence of wilderness protections for the vast tracts of wild country in the Kettle River Mountain Range.

The Columbia Highlands also includes diverse habitat for wildlife, from wolves, lynx and grizzly bears to mountain caribou, elk, moose, 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.

Northeast Washington’s Columbia Highlands region connects the Cascades to the Rockies. As climate changes and additional habitat is lost to development, protecting northeast Washington’s wildlands and maintaining connected paths between habitats in the Columbia Highlands becomes even more essential.

Map of northeast Washington’s Columbia Highlands

A map of wild Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) and wilderness-quality lands on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington’s Columbia Highlands. Map: Amelia Tiedemann.

News on the Columbia Highlands and Colville National Forest

Follow us at Columbia Highlands Wilderness on Facebook for updates!

Visit 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.

A scenic trail in the Abercrombie Mountain Roadless Area, near Ione in northeast Washington. Photo: Eric Zamora
Excellent hikes abound in the Columbia Highlands! The Kettle Crest Trail, THIRTEENMILE CANYON and ABERCROMBIE MOUNTAIN are some of our favorites.

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 wolves, lynx, grizzly bears and other wildlife.

Waiting for Wilderness

With a Congress that seems unable to act on many of the nation’s top priorities, including common ground conservation and natural resource policy for northeast Washington, moving forward with a community-based plan for protecting these wild places and improving forestry on public lands to benefit local communities and wildlife has been challenging.

Since the mid-2000’s, our Columbia Highlands Initiative has made great strides toward greater collaboration, improving forestry practices on the Colville National Forest and safeguarding working ranchlands that provide important habitat for wildlife. Recently, through the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and other avenues, we’ve moved forward on informing the Colville Forest Plan in support of more wilderness protections on the Colville National Forest.

The Forest’s analysis of the Kettle Range’s undeveloped roadless areas gave the Profanity Peak, Bald Snow, Hoodoo, and Thirteenmile roadless areas high ratings in several key criteria. All provide outstanding opportunities for wilderness recreation, including day hiking, backpacking, hunting, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing, horseback riding, and wildlife viewing; all are within an easy day’s drive from the greater Spokane area.

Bunchgrass Meadows on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. Photo: Eric Zamora

These areas provide the wild, scenic backdrop for the region’s many scenic driving routes and communities that promote the rustic, remote backcountry as part of a growing recreation and tourism economy in northeast Washington.

We will continue to rally public support for forest plan wilderness recommendations for the Kettle Crest, Salmo-Priest Additions, Abercrombie Mountain 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.

Learn more about the history of wilderness work in northeast Washington in our 2009 web video series Columbia Highlands Wilderness

Colville Forest Plan

In September 2018, the Colville National Forest released its Revised Forest Plan after 15 years of work to update the guidelines by which our public lands are managed for wilderness, wildlife, recreation, forestry, and other values. Despite strong local support for more wilderness and vast areas of qualifying pristine wild country, the Revised Plan recommends wilderness protections for only three areas, leaving most quality lands without permanent protection. This is disappointing.

The Revised Forest Plan recommends wilderness for fewer than 62,000 acres across northeast Washington, mostly in the Selkirk Mountains adjacent to the existing Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area and for Abercrombie-Hooknose. In the Kettle Range, only portions of Bald Snow were recommended for wilderness. That’s far less than needed to meet demand and a substantial decline from the Forest’s 2011 recommendation for more than 100,000 acres. The Forest has left out a substantial amount of quality and qualifying land for wildlife and recreation.

Sunset from Bald Snow Roadless Area in the Kettle River Mountain Range. Photo: Eric Zamora

But it’s not just wilderness that’s at stake, the plan revision is the opportunity to implement forest wide guidance for many of the other issues that are core to our mission: old growth and roadless protections, road density guidelines, aquatic conservation and restoration, habitat connectivity and wildlife viability, among many other things.

For example, during our review of the Draft Revision in 2016, we determined that it included no explicit protections for large and old trees and only aspirations for restoring large tree habitat across the landscape. In addition, the Forest’s proposed aquatic standards failed to prevent additional degradation, at a time when habitat conditions and fish populations, including bull trout, are doing poorly in most watersheds. It does appear the Revised Forest Plan has retained explicit road density guidelines and now allows wildland fire to be used as a tool across the entire forest—that’s welcome news.

You can find out more information about the plan by visiting the Colville National Forest’s website. Stay tuned as we investigate how the Revised Plan addresses wildlife and habitat conservation issues that are vital to keeping the Northwest Wild.

Forest Collaboration

Since 2002, we’ve worked in the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, a unique collaboration 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.

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, political traction is 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

Collaborating with local forestry businesses and other stakeholders is an important aspect of our work in the Columbia Highlands. Learn more on our webpage or watch the 2010 documentary series From Controversy to Common Ground.
The incredible view of the Colville National Forest and beyond from Abercrombie-Hooknose Roadless Area. Photo: Eric Zamora.