Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground.  An example of working towards healthy forests with by-products going to rural businesses

The forest industry has come a long way in producing one of, if not the best building product for the environment.  As I was checking my LinkedIn feed I came across this video about the life cycle of wood.  It’s incredibly well done and I believe it to be accurate.  I think the strides in forestland certification have helped, but what about the other forests that are being all but ignored?

I can tell you the groups that I work with are not ignoring these lands.  Last week I spent two and a half hours with the executive committee of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition working on issues within the Colville National Forest.  Forest Companies are managing private timberlands in ways that are ecologically and financially sustainable.  At the same time forest lands operated by the US Forest Service struggle with budgets and personnel that allow them to manage merely percentage points of forests in need.  How is this possible?

When I try to explain this to my friends in Canada or Europe they look at me like I must be mistaken.  The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is always working, just like many other collaborative groups in the west, to simply clean up our neglected forest lands.


Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States

After years of little to no management, the backlog of need is showing up in the form of big fires.  Wildfires contribute to carbon pollution and accelerate climate change.

If we can complete landscape level treatments to make our forests healthier, and the by-product of this important work is small logs that can produce the types of products described in this video from reThink Wood.

Our management actions are much bigger than just certifying that forests are sustainable.   It’s making sure our forests look and act the way the American public believes they are.

Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area.  A vision of forests that many Americans share: Beauty, recreation, and healthy environments

Congress needs to act to fix these issues that are hindering progress.  When collaboration is working, special interest groups that choose not to be part of the process shouldn’t have the legal right to stop the collaborative agreements.

There are many instances of special interest groups using the courts to stop collaborative projects.  It’s not right.  The US Forest Service needs an organizational shift to move away from being risk averse and more towards doing the right things on each landscape.  The attitude needs to go from finding all the reasons not to go forward, to an approach of setting goals and figuring out how to get things done with purpose and urgency.

I know there may be many members of the Forest Service reading this.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful.  You’re all trying to do a good job.  Even with the best efforts the system that is in place now has several fatal flaws.

First of all, there’s no real accountability to anyone outside the Forest Service.   If your peers think you’re doing good, but the area mills are starved for logs because of internal delays or mistakes, employees still get promoted.  Speaking of promotions, the relocation of Forest Service staff is way out of hand.  The Forest Service believes that moving employees around makes them more well-rounded and builds a strong base.  Both of those are good concepts, but at some point, the employees need to stay in place to implement those well-rounded skills. Currently, it seems that each leadership position cycles between 2 and 5 years.  Fires are also a major impediment to forest health treatments, not just because of the burned acres, but the interruption of needed work by staff training and managing fires.  The same people that are required to get forest restoration projects implemented are the same US Forest Service staff that are training for fire suppression and managing wildfires during fire season.  How much time do these people have to get their work done if they are training and working on wildfires?

When we’re dealing with millions of forested acres that take generations to grow how is this process ever going to work?  If collaboration is ever going to be effective, collaboratives need to work with Forest Service leadership for at least a decade to maintain momentum and build a cohesive vision for landscape level forest health

There’s way too much organizational know-how in this country to just simply complain and not address this issue.  Our rural forested communities can be creating jobs, managing the appropriate forested lands for generations to come while providing all the essential building products for our rural and urban communities.  We can do better and for the sake of the forest and the environment, we need to do much better.  We need to share our collective vision of healthy forests and healthy forested communities with Congress to make the necessary changes to get and keep the forests we love.

A New Future for Our Forests

At the National Collaborative Workshop hosted by The National Forest Foundation, I shared the following to kick off day two. We need to take this seriously so we can create a better future for our forests.

It’s great to see such a large crowd of people here that are passionate about our National Forests. Thank you to both NFF for putting this on and being a partner to the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. And thanks to The Nature Conservancy for being a partner as well. I’m happy to share the stage with the four of you.

In such a large group of people here, I’m wondering how many of you represent an organization or family company that utilizes at least 50 loads of logs per day? (4 hands out of 200 were raised, representing Idaho

One of Idaho Forest Group's mills that handles many loads of logs from USFS Stewardship Contracts
One of Idaho Forest Group’s mills that handles many loads of logs from USFS Stewardship Contracts

Forest Group, Yakama Nation for Yakama Forest Products, Boise Cascade, and myself for Vaagen Bros. Lumber). I think it’s telling that we don’t have enough of the people here that will help us pay for the necessary work that we need to do in our forests. The Forest Industry is the glue that will hold collaboration together.

This mill uses 100 truck loads of small logs (4.5" diameter to 11" diameter) per day which amounts to 50 acres of thinning per day or 12,500 acres per year
This mill uses 100 truckloads of small logs (4.5″ diameter to 11″ diameter) per day which amounts to 50 acres of thinning per day or 12,500 acres per year

Mills not only pay for the logs that are required to run the plants but as is the case in NEWFC (Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition), Vaagen Bros Lumber hosts meetings, helps fund initiatives when needed and provides employees with the latitude to participate gainfully in the process. It is critical to have all

parties at the table, but without some real Industry participation, collaborative groups have a hard time gaining real traction with projects.

We hear a great deal about ‘Pace and Scale’ of forest restoration. Some aren’t as comfortable with large scale projects. If we don’t see a significant change in the Pace and Scale of projects in our forests, we will continue to see the Pace and Scale of fire, insect and disease

Without mechanical treatments as shown in the Vaagen Bros. Youtube video Logs to Lumber we will have difficulty using prescribed fire. Our windows of time to conduct purposeful burns is shrinking, and in many cases doesn’t realistically exist. On the Colville National Forest, we have seen the retained receipts from the last three years of stewardship projects complete over 8,000 acres of a combination of prescribed burns and non-commercial fuels treatments. Those treatments would have been a fraction of the size had it not been for the dollars created by those projects. All of this was done with no cost to anyone. Completed in addition to the stewardship project all because of a small log infrastructure that adds value to the by-products of forest restoration.

It’s imperative that we strive to get the highest and best value for the by-products of our restoration projects. It’s the only way to pay for the work that needs to be done. Currently, the best value is added by sawmills with small diameter technology, pulp mills, and biomass plants. The mills pay for the small logs, the pulp mills that pay for the chips, sawdust, and bark, and the biomass plants take bark, wood waste, and pile grindings.

Does anyone here think that we’re doing an adequate job managing our National Forest Lands? (No one raised their hand which includes all of the USFS leadership)

If we need to improve so badly why aren’t we all acting with more urgency?

We need a Pinchot/Roosevelt moment. The work we are doing today is every bit as important as the creation of the National Forests themselves. We have the right people in this room. We need to reach out to our networks and make these changes happen. We need a new plan of action!

We’re all here. Let’s get on the same page and do this together.

We followed the talks with an open format Q&A with our panel and the audience. One of the focal points that I brought up was our need to fix the dispute resolution system currently in place on National Forest projects. Even if you have a project with collaborative support and approval, groups that refuse to participate can object and then follow that with a lawsuit to either stop or delay much-needed projects. I advocated for an Arbitration clause that would be much like the system that Major League Baseball uses. It’s easy to understand and most importantly takes much less time to complete. It can be done in 60-90 days, rather than the months or even years that can result from a lawsuit.  Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits continue to cost the taxpayers money.  As is the case with many projects, they burn before the project gets completed because it takes so long to complete the environmental analysis. This happened on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest two years ago and again on the Colville National Forest last year. Much needed projects get put together with collaborative support only to burn before we can get to it. Arbitration would also improve the time that it takes to complete NEPA because specialists would be working on getting data to support the project needs and not trying to prepare for a potential lawsuit. As former Region 6 Forester Linda Goodman once said, “It’s difficult for us because even our specialists want to do Cadillac level NEPA work when Chevrolet is more than necessary.”