Forest Collaboration in Northeastern Washington
The Colville National Forest, the little forest that could.
Almost everyone has heard or read articles about wildfires in the Western US and Canada recently. Washington State has recently experienced the worst air quality in the nation. Following is information on a forest collaborative in Washington State that is making a difference on the health of the forest and providing the associated benefits along the way.
In 2002, the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC) was formed amid years of timber wars, forest health decline, economic hardships in small, rural timber dependent communities, and decreased funding for the respective federal agencies responsible for federal forests in this part of Washington State. Federal timber sale volumes had fallen over 70% from previous highs in the 70’s. Wilderness protections, cattle grazing, and recreational opportunities (or lack of) were part of the reasoning behind bringing a diverse group of stakeholders together to try to tackle some of these and other challenges on the Colville National Forest. At 1.1 million acres, the Colville is one of the smaller forests in the National Forest System (USDA) but has an incredible diversity of forest ecosystems, from wet Cedar bogs to dry Ponderosa Pine sites. The Columbia River flows through parts of the forest, as do several other major rivers. The forest borders Canada (British Columbia) to the North and part of the Colville Tribal Reservation to the South. It is a gateway to the 500,000 plus population of the greater Spokane Washington area who enjoy the outdoors. In short, the Colville is like many, if not symbolic, of the USDA National Forests in the western United States.
Although not a founding member, my experience spans 14 plus years with the NEWFC and I am still active with the group. Many of the original members are as well. Those include four environmental organizations, two current FRA member companies, Avista Utilities and Vaagen Bros. Lumber, and other interested individuals who seek common ground on complex forestry-wide issues. There are currently 13 board members. In addition to forest industry stakeholders, without the environmental groups’ support (two local, one regional, and one national) and the expertise, commitment and energy they bring to the table, the collation would not exist. Period.
Increasing the scale and pace of forest restoration projects is ongoing and one of the biggest success stories of the NEWFC. The list of past projects that the NEWFC has engaged in with the US Forest Service is impressive. Whether one uses acres treated or volume of wood fiber harvested and delivered to the mills, the numbers are all up significantly compared to 2002. An average of three to five projects a year are collaborated on, each in the vicinity of 1,000 to 6,000 acres of treatment. Most of the projects are already in the pipeline and budget. What’s different in this process is that the NEWFC collaborates among its members, then provides feedback to the US Forest Service. The NEWFC will provide a letter of support to the US Forest Service based on the group’s guidelines. A high level of support indicates the Forest Service has followed NEWFC guidelines and agrees with the purpose and need of the project as well as treatment locations and types. In exchange, the NEWFC agrees to intervene if the USFS receives an objection or appeal from outside parties. Lower levels of support have corresponding suggested actions to address concerns. A high level of support is the goal for all projects and can usually be achieved after extensive collaboration among all parties. Until recently, all outside objections to projects have been dropped because of changes, and/or negotiations and dialogue with potential objectors. NEWFC members will sometimes act as third party negotiators to help with concerns from outside parties. An appeal on the recent “A to Z” project on the Colville has worked its way through the courts. The 9th circuit court of appeals provided a preliminary ruling in favor of the USFS with the NEWFC acting as a friend of the court. AFRC (American Forest Resource Council) was a big part of this win, and provided much needed legal support. Although the final ruling is not out, it is expected to be positive. The courts are beginning to recognize the value of collaboration and bringing diverse groups together for consensus as opposed to filing an appeal without being part of the process. Maybe the ship is slowly starting to turn.
From starting with one small stewardship project based on finding common areas of forest treatment to where the coalition is today is a 16-year learning curve. Working and partnering with the Forest Service instead of an “us versus them” mindset has and continues to pay large dividends for forest health, production of logs and wood fiber to the various consuming mills, and local economic stability and recreational opportunities. This is an ongoing learning process for the Forest Service as well for the Forest Service leadership team members who may not have experienced successful collaboration as part of previous assignments. Rotations through new district rangers and other key leaders on a seemingly frequent basis as part of promotions and/or changes in the agency is a challenge. Know that this is part of the Forest Service culture and plan on it.
“Communication, communication, communication!” one of my former managers used to say. This is so true in today’s forestry arena. The NEWFC has a communications committee that works with all forms of traditional media. Numerous articles in the local Colville paper as well as the regional Spokane paper have appeared, as well as meetings with the respective editorial boards. The Society of American Foresters “The Forestry Source” May, 2018 had a recent article about the “A to Z” project. Also critically important is communication with elected officials. County Commissioners, State and maybe most important, Congressional staffers are all key to funding and promoting the benefits of forest collaboration. The interim Chief of the US Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen and District 5 Representative Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington were on the Colville recently discussing those benefits.
The “stewardship” projects (different than “timber sales”) on the Colville have been zero cost to the US treasury as far as timber and biomass value removed as well as the cost of restoration work such as PCT, stream restoration, road abatement, wildlife enhancement and recreational improvements. These recreational improvements are in large part thanks to the Vaagen Bros. small log mill that uses the small diameter trees removed from the forest thinning/restoration projects. This is another positive communication piece when the news sometimes discusses the millions of dollars in funding needed for fire prevention work. Five sawmills, a plywood mill, a 50-megawatt biomass consuming facility and papermill all combine to absorb the wood fiber from the projects. The Colville was recently noted as the largest producer of wood volume in the Region 6 area.
Funding for project implementation continues to be a challenge but recent developments are positive. The Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) encourages partnerships between State and Federal Lands. The Washington State DNR is fully onboard, as are many others. Additional forest health work is already in the planning stage on the Colville and adjacent State lands. The NEWFC has secured funding in the past from the National Forest Foundation (NFF) for the collaborations outreach work. Other major funding has and continues to be awarded to the Colville for its innovative work.
The Colville National Forest, the little forest that could!