Possible 21st Century Solution to the Timber War Aftershocks- A “Certification Agreement”

FSC on display in Final Four  (© Connor Sport via YouTube)

FSC on display in Final Four
(© Connor Sport via YouTube)

So I’ve been thinking (some might say procrastinating from reading the Planning Directives) about ideas to get from there to here with regards to sustaining rural economies. Based on the comments on conflict resolution about BATNA’s and negotiation tactics, it would seem that we would want to make some large decisions and negotiate those.. perhaps writing something in to law that if projects follows those rules, they would not be open to litigation or some further nuanced variant of that idea.

So the next things that came to mind is “if environmentalists are for FSC certification, then logically “logging can take place in an environmentally sound manner.” Now, I am not a fan of FSC requirements for reasons I could go in to, but let’s just do the thought experiment for now. Check out their website here if you are curious about their claims. They say they are “protecting and maintaining high conservation value forests” and they have rules about how to do it. My point is that it is possible to generate a set of rules and monitor them at a level broader than a project or forest.

Biologically and physically, land is land, regardless of owner. So, say, if it’s environmentally fine to produce timber from private ground with FSC, then it should be equally environmentally OK to produce it from federal ground. If that’s not OK, then groups need to come up with some reason other than the environment, as to why that’s the case. Folks on the blog can help me clarify my logic here.

So what if we coupled a certification requirement of some kind with requirements to be negotiated, with reduced capacity for litigation? Basically like a labor agreement instead of renegotiating the agreement every workday with every project.

I remember I used to work on certification a bit when I worked in the FS. What I heard was that some environmental organizations were against it due to a philosophical dislike for commercial use of forests (now I never spoke to them, but conceivably that would include outfitter-guides, ski areas, etc. if it were philosophical). It’s OK to be philosophical but let’s be clear about what’s philosophical and what’s environmental. Let’s also be clear about the social justice aspects of employment in different sectors.

A reader sent me this piece, from Jim Petersen which raises some of the same ideas. It’s worth reading, called “Collaboration, been there, done that.”

Having watched federal judges and environmentalist lawyers twist federal forest regulations into pretzels with no beginning or ending point, I’ve concluded that collaboration’s only chance for success rests in first restoring its public credibility, and second in the Forest Service putting on its big boy pants and telling the public that federal timber is a valuable and vitally important strategic asset that needs to be actively managed using the best tools science provides.

Consensus forestry – collaboration – will not serve this nation’s long term economic and environmental interests any better than stewardship contracting. Both are tools the Forest Service can and should use appropriately, but someone needs to make the hard decisions about timber management, and that someone is Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell. At the very least, he ought to vigorously pursue third-party forest certification of all federal forests. Let’s see if our national forests are being sustainably managed. I frankly doubt it. In some national forests, mortality from insects and diseases now exceeds annual growth – a condition that is not sustainable by any measure.

There is a very good reason why most people who live in rural timber towns no longer waste their time in “scoping” meetings or “collaborative efforts.” It is because the process is rigged. If environmentalists participating in “collaboration” don’t like the result, they sue with impunity because the law allows them to do it. Win or lose, they can even collect their legal fees from taxpayers. This is ridiculous, insulting and wrong.

Collaboration will only work if Congress first declares that the results of collaboration – the actual plans developed by disparate interest groups working together toward a commonly shared goal – are not subject to judicial review by any court in the land. Thus, the end result of the patience and hard work that collaboration demands is an on-the-ground management prescription the Forest Service can implement without fear of appeal or litigation.

Until Congress bulletproofs collaboration, it risks the same miserable fate as the brilliantly conceived forest planning process that now rests atop history’s trash heap.

27 Comments

  1. Biologically and physically, land is land, regardless of owner. So, say, if it’s environmentally fine to produce timber from private ground with FSC, then it should be equally environmentally OK to produce it from federal ground.

    Sharon, I support organic agriculture for a variety of reasons. Less toxins, pesticides, GMO’s, etc and over all better use of water and other sustainable practices. However, that doesn’t mean that I want our federal public lands turned into organic farms.

    I also support solar energy. It would be nice if solar panels were placed on every rooftop in places like AZ, NV, So Cal, etc. Another option is for cities to place solar panels in vacant lots or on top of city-owned building. However, that doesn’t mean that I want our federal public lands turned into solar energy farms.

    Also, the portion of Jim Petersen’s piece you highlighted here just seems like the “same old, same old” that we’ve heard from many in the timber industry.

    Collaboration will only work if Congress first declares that the results of collaboration – the actual plans developed by disparate interest groups working together toward a commonly shared goal – are not subject to judicial review by any court in the land.

    Isn’t that the oft-stated timber industry goal? Access to federal public lands for more logging without any “interference” from citizens in the form of appeals and litigation?

    And when you have some “collaborative” groups compromised almost exclusively of Forest Service employees, industry employees, local government employees and employees for well-funded special interests groups who mainly sit around a table and largely agree to what the Forest Service wants to do in terms of management how is that exactly some preferred system of management for the American people, who are equal owners of these public lands?

    For example, here is some information about the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative (SWCC), which is part of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP).

    • SWCC Charter allows Forest Service employees to vote, allows FS employees to serve on executive committee and until recently even allowed the Forest Service Supervisor of the Lolo NF to co-chair the entire collaborative (only CFLRP example like this in country, to our knowledge).
    • Originally, Forest Service and The Wilderness Society employees made up over 50% of the voting members of the SWCC “collaborative”
    • Currently of the 24 members of the SWCC, 8 are Forest Service employees with full voting rights, meaning the Forest Service employees make up 33% of the entire voting block for the collaborative. 7 members could be labeled environmentalists or conservationists but none of the 7 have ever filed an appeal or lawsuit of timber sale, to my knowledge.
    • If you want to participate fully in the SWCC you must first sign a “Duty of loyalty oath,” which is required for participation. It reads “Each member of the collaborative has a duty of loyalty to the collaborative.”
    • Meetings for this SWCC originally were from 8 to 4 pm on Tuesdays. Still the SWCC meets mid-day on Tues in Msla and mid-day, mid week for committee meetings in Seeley Lake or Missoula. Those are tough meeting times for anyone to make, unless they are paid to attend these meetings.

    Yep, “been there, done that” as Mr. Petersen put it.

  2. Matthew, I don’t think that the American people have ever been asked this question

    “if we can provide wood that we use every day in an equally or more environmentally friendly way than other sources of wood, and put rural Americans to work producing it, giving them jobs at a living wage, would you agree with doing that?”

    • “equally or more environmentally friendly way than other sources of wood”

      isn’t the standard I’d seek.

      In a world where the global threat of loss of biodiversity is even more urgent than the absolutely critical threat of climate change, we cannot afford continuing degradation of our remaining biodiverse and carbon-sequestering native forest areas.

      There’s also a lot of wasteful “every day use” of wood, some of which I see in my role as editor of an architecture magazine.

      So I’d state the interesting question something like, “if we can provide wood that we use appropriately in a way that maintains the ecological and carbon storage integrity of forest areas, and put rural Americans to work producing it, giving them jobs at a living wage, would you agree with doing that?”

      I think it is interesting to contemplate what interests would _not_ want to agree to a question along those lines.

      • Kevin: I think phrases such as “if we can provide wood that we use appropriately in a way that maintains the ecological and carbon storage integrity of forest areas . . .” are what got us into this mess in the first place.

        So far as I know, there is no such thing as “carbon storage integrity.” And though I have seen the phrase “ecological integrity” used many times in pseudo-scientific literature and in editorials, no one has come up with a useful definition, to my knowledge, of what this even means.

        These are committee industry and courtroom legality types of terms. The have no scientific meaning (other than political science, maybe), and are equally meaningless to the vast majority of the US public as well. Strategic obfuscation, at best.

        I much prefer Andy Stahl’s definition: “grown and logged from your public lands in compliance with all environmental laws.” I would worry about any “environmental laws,” however, that included terms such as ecological integrity or carbon storage integrity as management objectives. How do you even start to measure any kind of “integrity” when speaking of forests?

        • Hi Bob! I totally agree that any such terms would need substantive definitions to have strict meaning. My suggestion there was merely attempting to carry on in the spirit of Sharon’s question, aimed hypothetically at a general public audience.

          As far “in compliance with all environmental laws”… As I noted in another comment on this posting, I see the existing environmental laws as an essential minimum safety net.

          Times have changed since major environmental laws were enacted, and however new or difficult, carbon sequestration is an important new factor, among the many.

          In terms of defining what “should” be done… I think, to get to a timber industry that we can all be proud of, we need to go farther outside the box than the mix of stuff we happen to have on the books.

  3. I think that collaboratives should be more about education and earning trust for the Forest Service. Excluding people’s points of view isn’t the way to resolve these problems. Yes, it is OK to accept for discussion, address, and reject ideas, if need be. Any form of collusion or corruption should not be tolerated, and full transparency must be enforced. We must accept that some people will litigate, if they don’t get their way. Being ready for that is important.

    Regarding certification, we have a crude version of that, here in the Sierra Nevada. Banning clearcutting and old growth harvest goes a long way towards reducing litigation. I support more consensus and compromise.

    • “Banning clearcutting and old growth harvest goes a long way towards reducing litigation.”

      Truly! And here in Oregon, large clearcuts are still the normal operating procedure on industrial timberlands. Large clearcuts, with a big fraction of the logs going straight overseas – that’s our reality.

  4. Seems there are two big forks in this thread already, one about FSC & public forest in Oregon, and one about collaboration versus litigation.

    I think FSC certification on those public lands that are appropriate for timber production has important potential in creating a timber sector we can all be proud of. The “good enough for private, good enough for public” argument has a couple of weak spots, though. Is there actually much FSC certified private forest in Oregon? A state report I read recently said only 7% of FSC wood in _Oregon_ LEED-certififed buildings was sourced from Oregon.

    Other weak spots are practical flaws in the FSC system, and the fact that at least a million acres or more of the BLM checkerboard should not be subjected to harvest, for strong ecological reasons.

    However, if one had to face a choice between harvest of suitable public forest lands under FSC rules, or under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, I think the ecologically preferable choice would be resoundingly obvious. The current form of the Oregon Forest Practices Act is a huge obstacle to any intelligent, forward-looking forest regimen.

    With regard to collaboration, at least half the battle is being clear what kind of collaboration one is talking about. The word is used to apply to things that are fundamentally divergent.

    That said, I believe that really well done (“properly done” 🙂 ) collaborative conflict resolution and community planning can provide an effective approach to the problem of “outcome elimination by litigation”. The trick is obvious in theory: Include a full spectrum of interests in the consensus circle. Once a creative solution is reached that a full spectrum sincerely believes is their best possible outcome, then there’s no litigation.

    The existing environmental laws provide an essential, ecologically-minimal safety net within which it is entirely possible to craft forest planning solutions that are both economically robust and ecologically responsible. The idea of NEPA exemptions as an entry requirement for collaboration seems to fundamentally miss the actual concept of building win-win outcomes.

    • Kevin…
      You said…

      ” The “good enough for private, good enough for public” argument has a couple of weak spots, though. Is there actually much FSC certified private forest in Oregon? A state report I read recently said only 7% of FSC wood in _Oregon_ LEED-certififed buildings was sourced from Oregon. ”

      I don’t understand how that is relevant to my point, which was that “environmental groups seem to believe that FSC has adequate environmental protections for private land” therefore, why would those protections not be adequate for public land?. Not sure I see how the proportion of FSC wood currently in Oregon is related…??

      You also said:

      That said, I believe that really well done (“properly done” 🙂 ) collaborative conflict resolution and community planning can provide an effective approach to the problem of “outcome elimination by litigation”. The trick is obvious in theory: Include a full spectrum of interests in the consensus circle. Once a creative solution is reached that a full spectrum sincerely believes is their best possible outcome, then there’s no litigation.

      But this hasn’t been our lived experience. Because lots of people can agree, but it only takes one litigant to hold up the process. See the Colt Summit project.

      Another one of your comments was:

      Other weak spots are practical flaws in the FSC system, and the fact that at least a million acres or more of the BLM checkerboard should not be subjected to harvest, for strong ecological reasons.

      Could you elaborate on the “strong ecological reasons?”

      • Sharon, Can you let us know which “environmental groups seem to believe that FSC has adequate environmental protections for private land.”

        A list of the names of these environmental groups, some info about their budgets and a review of their mission statements and what issues they actually work on would be helpful in this discussion. For example, are these mainly environmental groups with budgets in the tens of millions that don’t really work on national forest issues? Or are these environmental groups more local/regional based grassroots groups that work on national forest policy issues everyday?

        Also, I again will repeat that I don’t believe one can simply say that if some enviro groups support FSC certification for private timberlands then these same enviro groups should support FSC certification for public, national forests, which have many, many different uses and purposes than just timber production. Thanks.

        • Well, if you look at the ones supporting FSC in the LEED controversy, you see here:

          Now the major green NGOs have weighed in, with a letter to Rick Fedrizzi of the US Green Building Council. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others …

          some of the same groups that litigate the Forest Service. So can I assume that they know about FS issues?

          I notice that you give greater credence to local/regional grassroots groups, which is fine with me (and I agree) but previously I thought some on the blog felt that it doesn’t matter where you live and all should equally have their opinions valued about federal land.

          Yes, public forests have many different uses and purposes.. as per MUSYA and the Energy Policy Act.

          The point is that this provides an opportunity to clarify thinking. If it’s about “obeying environmental laws” then that is one thing. Certification is one approach to clarify exactly how people follow them, and to check on that they do in the real world.

          If it’s about “federal lands should be left alone”; then I think we need to have a public discussion about that in Congress, because the law right now says you should produce products subject to environmental laws.

          • As a matter of fact, of the four groups listed, all have budgets considerably north of $10 million annually and two of the four groups (Greenpeace and RAN) don’t even work on national forest policy issues or comment on specific logging plans etc.

            Sure NRDC and the Sierra Club work on federal forest policy, but those groups also engage in little day-to-day, project-by-project “watch-dogging” of the Forest Service.

            But instead of speculating all the time on this blog, why don’t you just directly contact Greenpeace, RAN, Sierra Club and NRDC and pose your question directly to them?

      • My comment about the proportion of FSC wood in Oregon is really as side point, but I do see it as relevant in a couple of ways.

        First, if there isn’t a lot of FSC certified forest in Oregon, proportionally, then the knowledge of what FSC means in practice may not be very deep. So even if “environmental groups” (not a monolithic cohort) in Oregon do approve of FSC certification as providing an adequate and appropriate level of ecological protection on private land (curious about the evidence for that proposition) now, they may not continue to approve when they have more hands-on experience with it.

        Or they might love FSC more, the more they see it, I don’t know – it’s just a weak point in the proposition.

        Second, the timber culture in Oregon seems to be more polarized even than some other parts in the U.S. West. My impression is that the apparent low proportion of FSC-certified forest in Oregon may reflect timber industry resistance in this area to substantive green forestry certification – potentially another obstacle to the basic proposition.

        More fundamentally, the idea that ‘what’s good for private land is therefore good for public land’ is not one that will hold up with many environment groups.

        In Oregon, for instance, the state Forest Practices Act allows large clearcuts, and in practice, results in clearcuts right across headwaters streams. FSC practices may look very good compared to such a low regulatory standard.

        In Federal forests in Oregon, in contrast, protections stand for some endangered species, and in practice the Forest Service and BLM lands are generally sanctuaries compared to the industrial timber areas. The state of the O&C checkerboard shows this poignantly.

        Compared to the actual of practice over the last decade-plus on Federal forest lands, FSC practices may look rather weak.

      • “Could you elaborate on the ‘strong ecological reasons?'”

        In brief…

        a) A million or more acres of the roughly 2.4 million acres in the BLM checkerboard are designated or proposed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for endangered species. I see the species in such stress as indicators, not merely outliers, and I see the agency findings as the tip an iceberg of frankly obvious ecological disruption.

        b) According to some quick order-of-magnitude calculations, for each million acres of native forest converted to management under the Oregon Forest Practices Act, a result is net greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades comparable to one or more full-sized coal power generating stations. i.e., a lot.

        c) According to top scientists, published in Nature, the planet as a whole is approaching an ecological state shift:

        Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere
        http://arch.designcommunity.com/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=37300

        This is very sound, very serious stuff. To me, taken systematically, it means that the vector of our industrial practices needs to change in very basic ways.

        I know that a full spectrum of interests have to pool our needs, knowledge, skills, and desires, to achieve the shift that is needed.

      • It’s not that simple, and that’s why I didn’t want to go there for the purposes of this discussion for now..

        If we decided to explore it further we could discuss more. I think there are states that used to certify and don’t; we know many people who certify for a living we could ask. But I don’t want to go there until someone says “let’s really consider coupling it with some legal tweaks to help resolve the problem”.

        • I bet you have a posting in this really wonderfully high-level blog, somewhere, that spells out just what “the problem” is that we’re seeking to resolve in these discussions.

          As a newcomer to the room, I’d appreciate being pointed to such a cornerstone!

          • Kevin, I’m certainly glad you are offering your perspective and insights on this blog. I think you will see that we often swing wildly from one issue to the next. The “problem” to some people on this blog is too little logging of America’s public lands.

            • Thanks much, Matthew. Myriad important parts to the forest issues, for sure! And thus I wonder…

              Too little logging because rural residents are suffering economically?

              Too little logging because rural governments have difficulty balancing their budgets?

              Too little logging because traditional ways of life seem threatened?

              Too little logging because timber companies want more logs?

              Logging is not an end in itself. Sometimes I think half the trouble with “the problem” is getting clear enough to know what to solve.

              • Hi Kevin: Good to be in a discussion with you again! As one of the members of this blog who feels that far too little logging is taking place on federal lands (especially in the western US), I’d like to offer my perspective:

                Yes, because rural residents are suffering economically;

                Yes, because rural communities are needlessly going bankrupt;

                Yes, because traditional lifestyles are being threatened (including lifestyles that are thousands of years old);

                No, because the few remaining timber companies are satisfied with the logs they have — and seem very happy about the loss of small mills and logging companies and other federal timber buyers they have had to compete with in the past.

                Other considerations:

                Preservation of remaining old-growth;

                Mitigation of wildfire risks and damages;

                Local energy production;

                Greatly improved aesthetics;

                Increased recreational opportunities (including spiritual).

                There are other points, but these are the biggies.

              • You have missed a few things…

                As I did my lunch walk around the wood housed neighborhood, or working at my wood desk, there is something to think about..

                If an area that has traditionally produced something people use (wood, beer, apricots, education) and producing too much of it (say 50K kids hitting town each September) can have negative impacts, is it right for people outside the community (who use the products) to stop these folks from producing the products at all?

                And then people who use the products will instead, import them from, say, Canada, where they may have about the same impacts, but cost more environmentally to move here, and we don’t have the jobs or income in the US? So maybe people in the community are poorer and need more services from the State and the Feds? Or get poor education or health care?

                In my community, buying local is thought to be a good thing.. not so in Oregon?

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  5. Interestingly, people who certify forests look at compliance also.. that’s why I think there is hope for this approach.

    You have to get a group (including lawyers) to agree that “if you do this.. you are following the law”. It gets the discussion out of the courtroom (at least for awhile) and into a forum where a wide variety of disciplines and expertise can weigh in.

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