A to Z

US Court of Appeals Seattle

What is the A to Z project?  This is a US Forest Service project that is very unique.  It’s located on the Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington State.

What makes A to Z Unique?

This project is a forest restoration project that is approximately 54,000 acres of forest land in NE Washington.  Most projects on federal land are sold after the Forest Service has conducted the necessary environmental analysis as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  This process can take many years to complete for a variety of reasons.  In this case the Forest Service sold the project prior to completing the NEPA process.  Hence the name, A to Z.

A to Z boundary
A to Z Project shows managed forests near, overstocked forests in the distance

Vaagen Bros Lumber, Inc. based in Colville, WA has been a long time participant and supporter of collaboration.  The company was a founding member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC).  Many employees and company leadership have participated in this collaborative effort since 2002 when NEWFC began.

It wasn’t long before the collaborative group was ready to take on more projects than the Forest Service could complete.  The bureaucracy was so cumbersome that the agency couldn’t complete the NEPA work fast enough to meet the needs of the forest or the desires of NEWFC.  There had to be a better way.

A better way

Hearing over and over again from the Forest Service that they didn’t have enough money or personnel, the collaborative group was looking for new ways to get more done.  An idea was hatched to see if the projects could be sold earlier in the process and include the NEPA work essentially as service work.  Once the legal precedent was confirmed that if could be done, the pressure was on.  A team from Region 6 based in Portland, Oregon was put together to develop a Request for Proposal (RFP).

Log Deck from Forest Restoration
Restoring forests by thinning, logs are the by-product of restoration work

Once the RFP was created and released, Vaagen Bros Lumber went to work figuring out how they could conduct the NEPA process by hiring a qualified third party contractor and then estimate the cost.  They needed to do all this with the risk of legal challenges.  The collaborative support provided the confidence to move forward.

The Forest Service released a public RFP that was available for anyone to submit proposals.  Vaagen Bros was the only entity to submit a proposal and after review the Forest Service awarded the project to Vaagen Bros.

Now the work begins

Once the contract was awarded Vaagen quickly mobilized a team to start work on the NEPA.  Once that started, Vaagen had to relinquish oversight to the Forest Service.  Vaagen was permitted to communicate with the NEPA contractor, but only with the Forest Service included in discussions.  This was important to show that there were no improprieties.  It was a bit clunky at times, but it worked.

A to Z Collaboration
Collaboration on A to Z helping create prescriptions

At this same time the forestry coalition was working directly with the NEPA contractor to ensure that the project met social and ecological acceptance.  This took months of negotiations, discussions, collaboration, and on the ground tours.

In the end the project was completed faster than the Forest Service process, but even more importantly it reflected the desires of the community.  NEWFC did it’s very best to provide concerns clearly so any problem areas were either avoided or planned for accordingly.

Lawsuit

Near the end of the public comment period, the contractor and the Forest Service received comments from a Montana group called the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR).  The group shared concerns for both they way the contract was awarded and unfounded concerns of damage to old growth portions of the forest.

Once the comment and objection process was complete, AWR filed a lawsuit against the project.  AWR had not expressed any desire to participate in collaborative discussions or even engage the group with questions or concerns.  In fact, they turned down an invitation to meet with the group and the Forest Service to discuss their grievances.

This lawsuit came in just as the project was getting underway.  AWR tried to get the project stopped, but the judge said no.  The judge weighed the evidence and saw that AWR made no attempt to reach out to the group or the Forest Service, because of this there was no need to halt the project before the court could review the entire legal request.

In the mean time, the project kept going.  Forests were thinned in accordance with the prescriptions developed by NEWFC.  Since then AWR has appealed twice.  The most recent was June 13, 2017.  The video above talks about the importance of this case and the implications for collaboratives.  This could change the way we manage federal lands in a big way.

Groups that choose not to engage in the collaborative process or ignore the work that has gone into collaborative projects will not be allowed to stop them without significant cause.  This isn’t to prevent public involvement, but to encourage involvement at a more appropriate time in the process.  In this case, AWR did not engage while the project collaboration work was taking place.  If they had real concerns for habitat or other issues the group would have been more than receptive to gainfully looking into those concerns.

This is an example of how things were done in the past.  We need new solutions for a new future and that starts with honoring the collaborative process that has been so effective in Northeast Washington’s National Forests.

3 thoughts on “A to Z”

  1. A-to-Z Timber Sale a bad idea, and a bad model

    http://forestpolicypub.com/2016/01/11/a-to-z-timber-sale-a-bad-idea-and-a-bad-model/

    The following piece was written by Jeff Juel, National Forest Chair of the Upper Columbia River Group of the Sierra Club, which successfully objected to the Mill Creek A-to-Z timber sale, and appeared this weekend in the Spokesman Review.

    What do folks on this blog think about the fact that the Forest Service contracted a private timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to run the NEPA process from start to finish on this public lands timber sale? Or that “an agency contract expert expressed concern about the objectivity of this new process, asking how the Forest Service rationalizes the ability of the contractor to invest upfront without any guarantee of compensation and ‘without artificially deflating the stumpage value or artificially inflating the costs of other service work.’”

    If this is the path that ‘collaboration’ is taking on public lands what other significant red flags does this situation raise? – mk

    ——–

    Privatizing our national forests doesn’t mean ownership necessarily changes hands. It does, however, mean control is handed over to a private entity.

    The concern about keeping public forests in public hands was one reason why, in August, conservationists objected to a major timber sale in the Mill Creek watershed northeast of Colville: the A-to-Z Timber Sale on the Colville National Forest. In October, the U.S. Forest Service did right by withdrawing the timber sale.

    The Mill Creek watershed was heavily and unsustainably logged years ago. Only about 154 acres of ancient forest remain out of 12,802 acres of national forest in the project area. That’s about 1 percent.

    Given prior damage to wildlife habitats and watershed values, should further logging occur? If so, how much? Answering these questions requires careful, thorough, and unbiased analysis. Indeed, that’s what the laws protecting our National Forests require; laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and laws informed by nearly two centuries of deforestation on the American continent.

    NEPA requires an objective process be completed for every proposed project and decision affecting federally managed lands and resources. Various alternatives are to be explored, environmental impacts thoroughly analyzed and disclosed, and scientific controversies and public concerns fully aired. And it’s the federal agency’s job, in this case the U.S. Forest Service, to prepare the environmental analysis on our behalf.

    But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Forest Service contracted a private timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to run the NEPA process from start to finish, or from “A to Z” as this pilot project is revealingly titled. According to Vaagen Brothers, they’ve already spent about a million dollars.

    In an internal document found on the A-to-Z project website, an agency contract expert expressed concern about the objectivity of this new process, asking how the Forest Service rationalizes the ability of the contractor to invest upfront without any guarantee of compensation and “without artificially deflating the stumpage value or artificially inflating the costs of other service work.” The Forest Service replied that it was presented that way by Vaagen Brothers “and supported by the collaborative group… Contractor would recoup its costs by not having to competitively bid on the timber.”

    Can the public really expect a logging company’s analysis of environmental risks and benefits to be objective and thorough? Or provide a balanced exploration of the scientific controversies say, over whether logging truly restores fire-dependent ecosystems when the logging company puts up $1 million to kick-start the project?

    Having private, local collaborators cheer on the privatizing of our national forests should not be comforting, even if collaborators include environmental groups. This A-to-Z sale of the NEPA process to the highest bidder represents an ominous step towards privatizing our national forests.

    To make ethical decisions about our national forests and the environment generally, actual or potential conflicts of interest must be disclosed and understood. For example, it’s not widely known that The Lands Council, one of the collaborating groups, takes annual contributions from Vaagen Brothers Lumber, one of its so-called “business partners.”

    Decisions must be made by professionals, subject to strict codes of conduct, after the analysis is completed, not as a vaguely implied condition of the contract granting rights to prepare the NEPA documents. We must restore ethical integrity in our government’s decision-making process in order to restore ecological integrity in our forests.

    The A-to-Z also teaches important lessons nationally because Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has touted it as a pilot process in moving legislation (HR 2647), impacting the entire national forest system, through the U.S. House of Representatives. This deceptively named “Resilient Federal Forests Act” is, as noted by the Seattle Times, “an opportunistic remedy that doesn’t pass the smell test, and the Senate needs to douse it quickly.”

    This bill would exempt national forest logging up to 15,000 acres from normal NEPA analysis. Citizens challenging illegal and damaging timber sales in court would be required to post a bond upfront, making the constitutional right of judicial redress unaffordable in most cases. The bill would prohibit important watershed improvement by requiring local county commissioners to agree to the decommissioning of unneeded roads on national forests. It would also severely weaken protections for ancient forests in eastern Oregon and Washington, such as on the Colville.

    Our national forests help define the Inland Northwest. The A-to-Z Timber Sale and the shenanigans in Congress are a reminder that constant public vigilance is a price we pay to keep our forests standing.

    1. Matthew,
      Thanks for reading. I know Jeff Juel well. We were both part of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition for 3 or 4 years together. He actually contributed a great deal to the collaboration for quite some time. I honestly don’t know why he felt like he needed to walk away from the group and start objecting when we could all talk about the issues, but in doing so he lost his credibility with the group. He lost the credibility because members of NEWFC feel like he violated the trust that was built.

      To say that a company isn’t capable of completing a contract with the federal government by following the rules and laws is absurd. It happens all the time. Why would Vaagen Bros. Lumber, a company that depends on contracts with the Forest Service for its survival, jeopardize it’s good standing with the government to engage in improprieties? The answer is that they would not. Vaagen Bros. Lumber will honor and abide by this contract in much the same way that it has with the hundreds of successful projects that have been completed in the past. The A to Z project is a service contract that is multifaceted. Each step of the way has USFS oversight.

      I went up on the project today and it looks amazing. Tree spacing that is in line with the historic range of variability. It now looks healthy and vibrant with a mosaic of stands that are thinned and forests that are left dense to provide habitat diversity while reducing fuel loads. When a fire comes through there now, there’s a great chance the remaining trees will survive and thrive, just like nature intended.

      It’s unfortunate that you don’t see the many benefits of science based, collaborative forest restoration.

      Thanks for reading,
      Russ

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