Westerman Bill

Over the last 20 years, we have heard of many attempts to create legislation that will improve the management of our National Forests and public lands.  There was the Healthy Forest Restoration Act under the Bush administration.  It says a lot of good things, but it still fails to address the scale of the problem.  There have been other attempts at legislation, but none have made it to law.  In my opinion, the reason for this is simple.  The language has failed to capture the essence of what the public wants.  It either goes too far, and few Democrats support it, or doesn’t go far enough and loses momentum.

Westerman

Currently, there is one bill that is getting attention from all sides.  H.R. 2936 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, also referred to as the Westerman bill.  It was introduced by Congressman Bruce Westerman from the 4th Congressional District of Arkansas.  Bruce sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources which is where this bill was worked up. He graduated from the University of Arkansas with an engineering degree before getting a master’s degree in forestry from Yale University.  This makes him the only forester in the House of Representatives.  He also worked for Mid-South Engineering, a company that does work in the forest industry.  He has unique, credible experience.

H.R. 2936 has several parts to it.  Some are great, where others seem to miss the mark.  We need to understand that legislation is not intended to say everything and spell out everything that should be done in the forest, but it lays the foundation for future action.  I like that collaboration remains a key component.  I’m not a big fan of Resource Advisory Councils (RAC).  Basically, they are appointed individuals that are supposed to advise land managers on what should and should not be done.  My concern with this is that it doesn’t go as far as collaborative groups in getting community acceptance.  In the absence of a collaborative group, a RAC could be the best tool available.  RACs could be seen as special interest or too narrow in scope making them subject to justified criticism.

Categorical Exclusions

The other concern is the size of Categorical Exclusions (CE) in this language.  Sure, I’d like to see the size and scope of projects move quickly through the planning stage to implementation, but I see a bigger potential downside.  That downside would be a backlash on projects that don’t have full support from collaborative groups.  If we find ourselves back in the position of groups igniting smear campaigns against the forest industry for management that goes too far, we could all lose, again.

We need collaboratively minded conservation groups to support these efforts.  Our forests and our communities need lasting solutions that we can build upon.  Getting into a situation where this legislation passes because of a Republican administration only to be replaced by something else driven by environmental interests when the pendulum swings to the left will create boom and bust cycles we can’t afford.

Post Fire Restoration

Here are some ideas that might help get this to a place that gives us lasting solutions.  Many of the CE’s are designed to help after a catastrophic event like a wildfire, wind damage, insect and disease outbreak, or other natural disasters.  I fully believe that these are intended to be solutions for land managers in the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, but I think we can do better.

We should create the language that encourages forests to develop a “Post Fire Restoration Strategy.”  These would be collaboratively developed plans that would spell out how we would restore areas following a major wildfire event.  For other regions of the country where events like Hurricanes and Tornados are prevalent, strategies could be created for those as well.  It’s important to determine where and how we would restore these forests.  We have done some of this on the Colville National Forest and hope to have a strategy in place soon.

Renner Lake Fire
Burned trees along the road

We should create the language that encourages forests to develop a “Post Fire Restoration Strategy.”  These would be collaboratively developed plans that would spell out how we would restore areas following a major wildfire event.  For other regions of the country where events like Hurricanes and Tornados are prevalent, strategies could be created for those as well.  It’s important to determine where and how we would restore these forests before those efforts are needed.  The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition has done some of this on the Colville National Forest and hopes to have a strategy in place soon.

In the absence of this strategy, we should use existing guidelines for green forests.  If the fires happen where active management would typically take place, the Forest Service and the collaborative group could respond with a plan to harvest the burnt timber in much the same way that it would have looked if it were standing green.  This would give assurances to groups concerned that aggressive fire salvage efforts would lead to large clear cuts and more damage on the ground.

Restoration helps
Forest restoration along roads

We should also include a road-side restoration effort immediately.  If we have open roads through an area that has been burned, we should harvest both sides of the road as soon as possible.  We have seen numerous occasions where burnt trees start falling onto roads after a fire.  This is a safety issue.  We can easily harvest 150 feet on either side of a road, leaving any live trees.  This creates revenue that can be used for soil stabilization, replanting, and other restoration efforts.  It should be authorized and incorporated in the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team’s work.

I suggest we focus on the areas that we plan to manage and restore.  Unless we have strong collaborative support, do not focus on Port Fire Restoration work within Inventoried Roadless Areas or other sensitive areas.  If we push to harvest areas that groups find as sensitive or currently protected, we will get significant push back.  It may be possible to get collaborative support for adjusting boundaries, but until that is accomplished, I think we are asking for trouble.  We can all get more with strong collaboration.

Arbitration

Arbitration is something that could be a game changer.  If a collaborative group comes up with a plan with the Forest Service that has the full support, it should have different legal protection.  If an outside group objects to a project, it should go through as Arbitration process rather than the lengthy legal process.  The time horizon for an arbitrator’s decision should be 60 to 90 days.  This will encourage two things.  First, it will encourage everyone to work out collaborative support for projects. Secondly, it will speed up the NEPA process because the Forest Service will focus on collaborative support rather than preparing for a legal challenge.

The Forest Service needs this kind of direction.  Currently, the agencies are doing their best to collaboratively develop a land management plan. While doing so, they still need to consider all options that could derail the project in court.  If they could focus on meeting the needs of the collaborative while still adhering to the law, they could move much faster. There’s a big difference between doing the right thing and doing the right thing and preparing for a lawsuit.  We need to remove that constraint and things will happen much more fluidly.  If something is missed, someone can bring that up and if no immediate compromise can be made, a qualified arbitrator can make the call.

Thinned and burned
Healthy forests don’t just happen, they require active management.

Congress needs to continue to work on this important issue.  I would like to see them do a bit more outreach so that we can create the kind of buy-in that we need for transformative legislation that most groups can support.  Forest management shouldn’t be a political football, but it has been.  If legislation can be drafted and passed that meets the criteria of most groups we have a chance at creating a new future.

A to Z Update

A to Z Hearing Video

Since publishing the A to Z blog post, readers have been asking how the court appearance actually went.  Many of you may know how to find these videos, but in case you didn’t here it is.  This is the 34-minute video of the appeal hearing.  It was quite interesting to be there in person.

 

The courtroom wasn’t full, maybe less than a quarter capacity.  Of those in attendance, most were there to show support for the A to Z  project.   It was great to have the support of Sustainable NorthwestThe Nature ConservancyThe Northeast Washington Forestry CoalitionPend Oreille County Commissioner, Karen Skoog, and special thanks, to The American Forest Resource Council.  Lawson Fite, AFRC attorney, represented the collaborative interveners.  His testimony is near the end of the hearing. These people were in attendance to ensure the court knew that this project was truly collaborative.

Healthy Forest
Recently thinned stand in the A to Z project

As of the time this blog is published, we don’t know the decision of the judges.  We remain hopeful that the good work in the forest will continue. The group that worked on this did their very best to influence a project that was balancing the needs of forest thinning with wildlife habitat and clean water.  The early indications from the project are all overwhelmingly positive.  The forest looks amazing as it gets back to a natural spacing. The forest can now withstand fire when it comes, which is a far cry from the condition it was in.

Sustainable Northwest Summer Board meeting in Colville

SNW on A to Z
SNW Board talks about the A to Z project

Two weeks following the appeal hearing, the SNW Board had the opportunity to go into the woods and tour the project.  Seeing first hand what the forest looked like before and what it looks like immediately after restoration work.  It was a great time to provide a Q & A to better understand the goals of the project.

Forest Industry Infrastructure Creates Value

SNW VBL Tour
SNW Board Tours Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville

The following day the group had the opportunity to visit the Vaagen Bros. Lumber mill in Colville.  Seeing both the work in the woods and then the way the small logs were turned into lumber, chips, biomass, sawdust, and shavings created a clear picture of the value created from and for the forest. Having healthy forest industry infrastructure helps offset the cost of forest management.

Crane Log Yard
Picture of the Vaagen log yard from the crane

In the case of Northeast Washington, the infrastructure is so well developed that the Forest Service actually gets retained receipts from the products (logs).  These retained receipts are able to fund other forest restoration work and we hope even more.  If we build more right-sized infrastructure we might be able to solve funding issues for other parts of the Forest Service like recreation, road maintenance, and possibly even money back to the counties.

VBL in Colville
Vaagen Sawmill in the Colville Valley

With fires burning again and homes being threatened and destroyed at an increasing rate, changes will be made.  We need to engage and make sure that we create a positive future for our forests.  There are some legislative bills in Washington DC that have many people talking.  We need comprehensive engagement so we can make changes that benefit everyone and the forest.

 

A to Z

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. Continue reading “A to Z”

The Backcountry

Beautiful Places

Some of the most impressive places on our public lands are the vast and wild backcountry.  These snow-capped peaks, high mountain lakes, and untamed landscapes are special to most Americans.  Some of these areas deserve the protection of legislated wilderness or national monuments, while others should merely be recognized and managed for their wild characteristics.

Beautiful Kettle Crest Vista in Washington State

Regardless of the type, we should use collaboration to identify these areas that haven’t already been designated. You may wonder why we are going from Active Management in a previous blog post, directly to Backcountry.  During collaborative work within the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition we have found that by focusing efforts on the two bookends, the middle section (Conservation Management) shows itself. Continue reading “The Backcountry”

Active Management

What does active management mean for National Forests?  When people hear this or read this for the very first time, there are many different thoughts.  For those that are in the Forest Industry, it sounds like a good plan that we should have been following for some time.  For those who care mainly about recreation, it can create concerns about how the landscape might change and affect areas they hold dear.  Anyone who’s primary concern is for the environment might fear that active management might mean developing or damaging some of the last great places on public lands.

All are valid thoughts and concerns.  Experience gained from the Continue reading “Active Management”

The Need For Active Forest Management

I have been meaning to use more video to tell our story.  Here’s my first shot at doing that.  This is the active management portion of the Era of Megafires presentation that Paul Hessburg with the Pacific Northwest Research Station put together with North40 Productions, both from Wenatchee, Washington.  Vaagen Bros contributed much of the raw video.

I was interviewed along with Mike Petersen, Executive Director of The Lands Council.  As you will see in the video, Mike and his organization were not supporters of active management during the time known as the “Timber Wars”.  However, due to consistent collaboration with other community members in Northeast Washington, there is a new way of managing the Colville National Forest.  Mike and I believe that we are getting closer to fixing many of the problems of the past to create a new future for our forests and rural communities that depend on them.

Continue reading “The Need For Active Forest Management”

Forest Collaboration

The word “collaboration” is used a great deal these days. If you find yourself in the world of forest management or the US Forest Service, it’s everywhere. So what does it mean how does it work?

The Oxford Dictionary says that collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. It also says that collaboration can mean traitorous cooperation with an enemy, but for our purposes we’re attempting to operate under the first definition. Simply put, community members, organizations, and other interested parties come together to discuss what is taking place within the forest, specifically the local National Forest. Once a collaborative group is formed, the basic foundation of meetings revolves around land management decisions, which often pertain to local Forest Service lands. This is a good way to coordinate comments from a large segment of the interested and informed public.

So why is collaboration so important? It’s important because the Forest Service needs a way to effectively and systematically communicate with the public and relevant organizations. In the past, the Forest Service would ask the public to comment on a proposed action they wanted to perform. When feedback was collected, conflicting opinions from various groups resulted in ambiguity on what the Forest Service should do. Ultimately, the Forest Service team was tasked with interpreting mixed feedback and making adjustments to proposed projects. In many cases, adjustments were not satisfactory to the groups and individuals commenting on proposals. Unfortunately, this resulted in objections to projects, and in some cases, lawsuits were filed against the Forest Service in attempt to bring projects to a halt. This process was unproductive and frustrating. With collaboration, groups and people from the public with conflicting views are able to meet prior to commenting on Forest Service proposals. This is where they can discuss and settle on what actions they would like to see performed. This allows progress and appeases all parties involved.

A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.
A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.

In 2003, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act formally paved the way for the use of collaboration. Some groups were already formed, but most groups were still in their infancies. It may have been most important to gain the support of the Forest Service. As a federal organization that had been highly scrutinized, their level of trust with the forest industry, the environmental groups, and every group in between was at an all-time low. These groups needed legitimacy and the Forest Service needed direction. Collaboration became the light at the end of a long tunnel.

Collaborative discussions about an upcoming project
Collaborative discussions about an upcoming project

Collaboration is a long-term commitment that requires trust, dedication and an understanding that there are no quick fixes. After all, these are forests and they require generational thinking and planning. The first step in collaboration is forming the collaborative group, or coalition. Usually in a given National Forest there exists a core group that already works on forest issues. In the case of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, the founding group members were Duane Vaagen, second generation owner and president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber and Tim Coleman, founding member and Executive Director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group. The two individuals were on opposing ends of the Timber Wards in the 80’s and 90’s, but chose to convene to determine if there was a willingness to communicate. In 2002 they formed what has become the strong coalition that exists today. Fast forward to 2016 and this group, which has a functioning board and the support of many local businesses, community leaders and elected officials, has successfully collaborated on nearly 40 projects on the Colville National Forest. This coalition is not alone, and there are groups with similar stories and varying levels of success throughout the inter-mountain west.

Another shot of the group looking at trees and discussion future action
Another shot of the group looking at trees and discussing future action

These groups meet, develop trusting relationships, and establish ground rules and guidelines in order to help the Forest Service identify and manage landscapes. There are still naysayers. Some even believe that collaboration only means traitorous cooperation with an enemy, but the groups still move forward. These groups and their members are hopeful that collaboration starts to work as a funnel for comments and concerns for the collective interest of the forest. Resolving issues ahead of time and working with the Forest Service professionals helps ensure projects have a high degree of success. Each successful project leads to better outcomes and a smoother decision-making process. History will decide whether collaboration is a great success or not, but after having been involved with Forest Service collaboration for 14 years it is my opinion that we’re on the verge of making lasting changes that future generations will be proud of and grateful for.