Connect and restore forests to break the cycle of megafire


Fragmented ownership and poor management have left our state’s forests primed for catastrophic fire.

Written by Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager
Photograph by Benj Drummond/LightHawk

Weaving the land back together and implementing big restoration actions that cross ownership boundaries will help prevent megafires. 


If you look at a map that shows ownership boundaries in Washington’s eastern forests, you’ll notice a distinctive checkerboard pattern of public and private ownership. That’s a legacy of the land grants of the 1860s, when the federal government gave alternating square miles of land to the railroads to encourage them to reach the West Coast.

Today, that fragmented pattern has led to more development in the midst of the forest where it’s vulnerable to fire and breaks up habitat and recreation areas. It also means forests have been managed piecemeal, without a holistic, science-based plan for largescale restoration.

The Conservancy has been working for more than 10 years to fix this fragmentation, by bringing more of these private lands into public and conservation ownership. Our most recent acquisition of 48,000 acres in the Central Cascades is a big step forward in this work.


A recent study by Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service scientists show that 2.88 million acres of eastern Washington forests are in need of restoration, both by thinning trees and using controlled burning to clear out forest fuels that have accumulated for a century.

We’ve led the way with a pilot restoration project on 20,000 acres in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area west of Yakima where we thinned understory trees and shrubs according to a carefully designed plan: Cutting away small 10- and 20-year-old Douglas firs gives 400-year-old ponderosa pines light, air and water to thrive. Thinning smaller trees also prepares the forest for controlled burning, which further enhances the forest’s resilience to future wildfires.

Today, we’re working through the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative (see below) to plan and implement an 80,000-acre restoration project in the Manastash-Taneum area east of Cle Elum. This collaborative restoration will encompass federal, state, and Conservancy forest lands and is expected to get underway this year.

It’s essential that the Conservancy and committed partners act quickly to restore eastern Washington forests to make them less vulnerable to megafires. Forest collaboratives comprised of private stakeholders, as well as state and federal agencies, are coming together across the West to overcome barriers and find solutions to the issue of improving forests’ resiliene and health. The Nature Conservancy is engaged in and is a leading partner of many of these collaborative groups in Washington:

Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative: The Conservancy took a lead role in forming the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative in 2006 with the aim of bringing together state and federal agencies, the Yakama Nation, and private landowners to increase the pace, quality, and scale of restoration projects across 2.3 million acres of eastern Washington forest.

Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition: The Nature Conservancy is engaged in the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a group of diverse stakeholders working together since 2002 to promote forest restoration that is beneficial to forest health, public safety, and local economies. The coalition’s priorities, such as fuels reduction projects, serve as examples of successful collaborative work for the public and similar organizations.

North Central Washington Forest Collaborative: The Conservancy is a leading partner in initiating The North Central Washington Forest Collaborative.

The Nature Conservancy helped to establish the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, a coalition of agencies and stakeholders working to safely introduce more prescribed fire into the landscape.