Working Towards Common Ground in Idaho

x-foes aim for common ground on Idaho forests
Environmentalists, timber executives, scientists and others converge on Boise to begin the hard part of their forest collaboration work.
Copyright: © 2012 Idaho Statesman
Published: 01/31/12

The easy work for former adversaries in the Idaho timber wars was to start talking and develop trust.

Now those environmentalists, foresters and loggers are testing the strong relationships they’ve forged in collaborative efforts state-wide. The Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership is tackling the hard issues about how much timber can be cut and thinned to restore healthy forests, and how that will be paid for.

“So much of it comes down to what we are leaving behind,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior associate for the Idaho Conservation League. “More and more, we’re having these discussions.”

The collaborators are in Boise this week for two days of conferences aimed at finding common ground on thinning or cutting the forests of North Idaho.

There is consensus among environmentalists and industry foresters that thinning the ponderosa pine-dominated forests makes them healthier, more resilient and more resistant to large-scale fires. Ponderosa pines make up most of the forests around Boise.

There is less agreement about the stands of trees that grow in the wetter, higher elevations — “mixed severity forests” — that make up most of North Idaho.

But forest science is beginning to suggest that these large areas of mixed-severity forests can, and perhaps should, be cut.


Collaborators are forging new paths in places like the Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest of Central Idaho. There, 3 million acres of national forest is in wilderness and roadless areas, essentially off-limits to logging. It’s the other 1 million acres for which the two sides are seeking to develop a restoration schedule — with the goal of finding an approach that improves fish and wildlife habitat, allows the right kind of fires and allows a steady, predictable pipeline of forest products.

In most western forests, fire is the main ecologic disturbance. That’s true for North Idaho’s roadless and wilderness areas.

But outside those areas, humans — through logging, thinning and even prescribed burning — are the primary actor on the forest’s ecology.

“Man is the disturbance agent here,” said Bill Higgins, the resource manager of the Idaho Forest Group in Grangeville, one of the larger timber companies in the state. “If you buy that, then you are a long way down the road.”

The idea is that through careful combinations of thinning, prescribed burning and logging — with stream buffers to protect endangered salmon and bull trout — loggers can mimic the effect of fire at keeping the forests healthy and not dangerously overgrown.

As part of this holistic approach, old eroding roads would be obliterated, stands of old-growth trees protected and wildlife habitat enhanced.

Higgins has two goals. One is to make the projects — which the Forest Service calls “stewardship contracts” — big enough to keep workers on the job for a couple of years and provide a dependable supply of logs for mill owners.

The other is a larger goal: Through the kind of landscape management that environmentalists have pushed for two decades, Higgins hopes to persuade the Forest Service to increase the planned harvests in its forest plans to provide a solid foundation for the industry so that he and other companies can market the byproducts of restoration.


It all comes down to financing, said David New, a former vice president for timber land for Boise Cascade, who is now a consultant.

For a company to attract the capital necessary, the supply of timber products has to be assured for at least seven years, which is the pay-back period on the loan.

“Ask a bank to finance just a third of it, and if you’ve only secured fiber for one or two years, they’re going to show you the door,” he said.

This is where it gets tough for environmentalists. Their supporters don’t want to return to the time when pressure to assure a certain amount of timber — “get out the cut” — took precedence over protecting water quality and wildlife.

Oppenheimer and representatives of national environmental groups, like John McCarthy of the Wilderness Society’s Idaho office, have to bring their own constituencies along as they face these questions.

“There is a lot of forested ground where we can find agreement,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s not an all-or-nothing approach.

“But it takes time to build that trust to have more aggressive logging in some of these forests.”


Last week, the Forest Service released a new set of forest planning rules designed to encourage restoration and collaboration, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. The agency hopes to reduce the amount of litigation and the time and cost of planning.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in an interview that the agency wants to support industry growth so it can strengthen communities and carry out its agenda.

“Without that industry,” said Tidwell, “there is no way we are going to be able to do the work we need to restore our forests.”

Note from Sharon: This is put on by the Idaho Environmental Forum, a group with a mission not unlike this blog.

The Idaho Environmental Forum is an informal, nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational association whose sole mission is to promote serious, cordial, and productive discourse on a broad range of environmental policies affecting Idaho. We take no positions, advocate no causes, and endorse no candidates. Our goal is simply to provide a forum for dialog from a range of perspectives.

I wonder if other states have groups like this? It will be interesting to see what comes from this meeting.

13 thoughts on “Working Towards Common Ground in Idaho”

  1. To what end?

    Is “collaboratively developed” goodwill, support or buy-in for cutting or thinning large areas of mixed-severity forests, that science is beginning to suggest can, and perhaps should, be cut supposed to make projects easier to accomplish for the Agency? More defensible or less prone to appeals and litigation?

    It is interesting to see the emphasis the Agency is placing on “collaboration” when the reality is that a collaboratively developed project may take longer to get through NEPA and probably has a bigger bullseye on it from environmental groups who choose not to engage in collaboration.

    So back to my question… what end, this quest for common ground? It is obvious what the timber industry wants, what about these other constituencies that need to be “brought along”? What’s in it for them? Why bother with finding a common level of support?

  2. “But forest science is beginning to suggest that these large areas of mixed-severity forests can, and perhaps should, be cut.”

    This is a very odd statement which can be easily misconstrued. If it is talking about the Lodgepole-Ponderosa Interface, then yes, we should think about thinning the lodgepoles, and some of the ponderosas. Otherwise, a ponderosa overstory with a choking lodgepole understory will burn so completely that only lodgepoles will grow back, eliminating habitat for northern goshawks. This could be a situation where the Endangered Species Act doesn’t protect critical habitat from catastrophic wildfires.

    On the other hand, where pure lodgepoles and other higher elevation forests occur, timber projects don’t work well in “improving forests”, or habitats.

    To me, collaboration can lead to public education, consensus and compromise. Barriers cannot be broken if the public doesn’t believe what the Forest Service is telling them. Sadly, some people will never embrace collaboration, consensus or compromise.

  3. You’re right Foto, I didn’t notice that. but then I realized that I didn’t really understand what mixed severity was so I found this paper. I think they’re saying that stand density also needs to be reduced in this type.
    Perry et al. 2011 here.

    Forests characterized by mixed-severity fires occupy a broad moisture gradient between lower elevation forests typified by low-severity fires and higher elevation forests in which high-severity, stand replacing fires are the norm. Mixed-severity forest types are poorly documented and little understood but likely occupy significant areas in the western United States. By definition, mixed-severity types have high beta diversity at meso-scales, encompassing patches of both high and low severity and gradients in between.
    Studies of mixed-severity types reveal complex landscapes in which patch sizes follow a power law distribution with many small and few large patches. Forest types characterized by mixed severity can beclassified according to the modal proportion of high to low severity patches, which increases from relatively dry to relatively mesic site conditions. Mixed-severity regimes are produced by interactions between top-down forcing by climate and bottom-up shaping by topography and the flammability of vegetation, although specific effects may vary widely across the region, especially the relation between aspect and fire severity. History is important in shaping fire behavior in mixed-severity landscapes, as
    patterns laid down by previous fires can play a significant role in shaping future fires. Like low-severity forests in the western United States, many dry mixed-severity types experienced significant increases in stand density during the 20th century, threatening forest health and biodiversity, however not all understory development in mixed-severity forests increases the threat of severe wild fires. In general, current
    landscapes have been homogenized, reducing beta diversity and increasing the probability of large fires and insect outbreaks. Further loss of old, fire tolerant trees is of particular concern, but understory diversity has been reduced as well. High stand densities on relatively dry sites increase water use and therefore susceptibility to drought and insect outbreaks, exacerbating a trend of increasing regional drying.
    The need to restore beta diversity while protecting habitat for closed-forest specialists such as the northern spotted owl call for landscape-level approaches to ecological restoration.

  4. Photo – There really isn’t a much of a Ponderosa Pine Lodgepole Pine interface in Idaho Forests. In western Idaho we have mixed conifer forests that are composed of Douglas fir, Ponderose pine and Grand Fir, with some Western Larch. Lodgepole pine is found in frost pockets and higher elevations.
    I believe the collaboration process in Idaho is an indirect result of the massive fires in 2007 which burned over 800,000 acres. The results of the massive fires were not always pretty. Most of the fires were in roadless and wilderness. Our local Forest is now looking to the roaded and managed lands for large diameter trees as much of it is gone in the roadless and wilderness. It may seem odd but, we have lost much more old growth timber to stand replacing fires than logging over the past 30 years. Many people see this and don’t want the developed lands to have these large stand replacing fires.

    • My experience on the Boise, salvaging the 1994 Rabbit Creek burn (200,000+ acres), had me working in areas that, indeed, had substantial amounts of lodgepoles in the understory. I’m sure that the more northerly Forests have less ponderosas and more of those other species. However, Douglas-fir makes a fine flammable “replacement” for the lodgepoles. Also of supreme importance is the fact that the mountains of Idaho are extremely erodable, with all that decomposed granite. Wildfires make that situation MUCH worse.

  5. Hey folks – Sharon asked me to respond to the first comment/question – “to what end, this quest for common ground.” At a talk I did for the Idaho Environmental Forum today I framed the conservation goals as repair, resiliency and protection.
    Repair is for the man-made disturbances and to repair/maintain the forest infastructure.
    Resilency looks at fire in our area. Fire is going to happen. Will the things we value in the forest be better if we let nature run its course or should we do work to change fuels, change fire management options and change results from fires? Should we strive for resiliency, diversity and variability on the landscape? And should we seek to alter forest structure, composition and function to do it? Or, is fire under todays conditions of climate change the way to go? I’d say with the likely future fire scenarios, we’d be better to do more advance fire management, with prescribed fire the eventual preferred tool and intensive fire management around homes.
    Protection means differnt things to different people, with conservationiest looking at special places – including wilderness – and special criters. Local folks also look proteciton of their homes and municipal water supplies, as well as special places.
    The wilderness issue is big in Idaho. The only successful wilderness effort in Idaho in 29 years was with the Owyhee Initiative — done in full collaboration with a committed Idaho Senator, in 2009. Now it’s the only one in 31 years, with nothing happening in the last two years even though a very adept and committed Idaho Congressman was not able to do it with negotiation and crafty legislation. Political cohesion through collaboration worked once for wilderness and we want to try again.
    Meanwhile local folks and business are looking for jobs, timber, forest products, all kinds of work in the woods. Through collaboration we can get more good work done for all purposes and get it done faster over time, than not doing it. It’s not a done deal, proven concept but it’s got a lot of promise and looks better than the alternatives.

  6. I’m intrigued by the quote from the former VP at Boise Cascade who said, “For a company to attract the capital necessary, the supply of timber products has to be assured for at least seven years, which is the pay-back period on the loan.” I’ve heard that line from other Mill owners. Specifically, Intermountain Resources in Colorado said “the Banks have required us to have a guaranteed supply of timber for six years before they will loan us any money to start up the mill in Saratoga Wyoming.” I would imaging that’s why the USFS in Colorado and Wyoming have cranked out tens of thousands of acres of NEPA ready, decision noticed, appeals free EA’s and EIS’s.

    This all begs a couple questions:

    #1—Is it even possible for the USFS to “front load” seven years worth of NEPA decisioned, “litigation free” EA’s and EIS’s to guarantee the supply for “new” infrastructure to be built.

    #2—How much of a “guarantee of supply”, really, is a stewardship contract. Can someone tell me, in real English, how much does the USFS pay when they default on the supply. Are they gonna pay off my 50 million dollar loan for a new mill when I go bankrupt because I have to haul logs from 200 miles away because they supplied only 75% of the contract? I’m not aware of any “new” infrastructure that has been built on the “strength” of a stewardship contract. I am aware that the fall 2011 deadline for awarding the Four Forest Initiative ten year stewardship contract has come and gone with no award. The USFS did a request for proposals last June-did they get any RFP’s? Have they postponed it?

    I’m tired of the glowing accounts of collaboration. Wake me when the mills start getting built.

  7. Derek – Question#1 -Yes…through “collaborative efforts” the Agency ostensibly will be able to frontload more acres of decisioned projects…in theory, alas, not litigation free though. There is an increased emphasis on “landscape level” projects that would address multiple issues, a guaranteed supply being one.

    John – Thank you for your candor. It would seem that at least in Idaho the real benefit to “collaboration” and seeking common ground is some sort of quid-pro-quo wilderness vs. timber settlement. The challenge is with the Agency. One solution is aministrative (timber), one solution is legislative (wilderness). Apples and proven in other floundering efforts to mix the two.

    So again, why bother? Is support for timber management from TWS or other environmental groups supposed to help expedite efforts by the Agency to produce more? In producing or suporting more (timber, restoration, resilience or whatever else is politically appetizing) is it the expectation that additional wilderness designations will be achieved or supported?

    The only reason I ask is that, as pointed out above, collaboration seems to equate to compromise. Why compromise your values? After all, the environmental organizations are well funded and are quite adept at imposing their inflence over management activities on National Forest Lands. Is it the expectaion that by supporting “restoration” there will be additional support for wilderness?

    My concern is that “collaboration”, especially in with respect to “restoration or maintenance” of mixed conifer forests that evolved in a mixed severity fire/disturbance regime is nothing more than an elegant display of pageantry. The science is juuuuuuuust inconclusive enough to guarantee that no one from the environmental community will have to take a hard line stance or support a proposed action that may include cutting timber. Rather it seems that, conveniently, the lack of science will ensure that “collaborators” will always have an “out”…and a continued presence on center stage while they search for “common ground”. After all, that’s what folks in the Enviromental community make a living from, right???

    As Foto pointed out in his reply above…. “Barriers cannot be broken if the public doesn’t believe what the Forest Service is telling them”. Neither will the collaborators.

    So again… what end?

  8. Not to get all preachy-like, but can’t we assume that the current situation isn’t working?

    I would say “yes”. Do I hear an “amen”?

    If people want to work toward a vision of something better (let’s just call it a “restoration economy” for now) shouldn’t we say “great!”.

    It is absolutely certain that people don’t trust each other. How do we establish that trust?
    What would the FS have to do (can’t do it perfectly as is large organization will always make some mistakes)?
    What would environmental groups have to do (most of them, the ideologues aren’t coming along, and that’s the path they have chosen)?
    What would timber folks have to do?

    What would a trust building framework look like? It appears that they have done that in the southern U.S… as Jim Fenwood has discussed on this blog, what was different? Was it the leadership in the FS, in the environmental community, or some unique combination of both?

    I am with Derek on one way we could measure success moving toward the vision is a new plant of some kind that provides jobs and uses fuel treatment material. I think we may have two new ones in Colorado (not sawmills).

    Here’s a trust building exercise- what if some foundation, who currently pays people to litigate efforts by westerners to make a living, instead provided a loan guarantee? I think we need to think way outside our current boxes in pursuit of our joint vision.

    I’m not a fan of R. Kelly but I can’t help but think of these lyrics:

    If I can see it, then I can do it
    If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

    I believe I can fly
    I believe I can touch the sky
    I think about it every night and day
    Spread my wings and fly away
    I believe I can soar
    I see me running through that open door
    I believe I can fly
    I believe I can fly
    I believe I can fly

    I believe that if we put our heads together and jointly work at it, we have what it takes to make the restoration economy a reality.

    With apologies in advance for those offended by the homiletic tenor of this post.

  9. One of the problems with restoration is that it is poorly defined, and means different things to different people. Mixed severity fire in the mixed conifer forest in Idaho often results in even aged stands with a few legacy trees mixed in. This speaks to me of shelterwood and seed tree type prescriptions to attempt to mimic HRV or natural type stand conditions. Presently there seems to be a reluctance for regeneration type treatments on FS lands in mixed severity mixed conifer. Thinning good,regeneration bad. Deferring regenerating grand fir choked stands back to seral Doug-fir, P-pine and Larch, I believe adds to the future severity of wild fires,

    • Michael, I think that that’s a good point. “restoration of longleaf pine” sends a mental image and seems achievable.
      “Restoration of fire-adapted ecosystems,” when fire suppression has changed things, climate change will further change things, homes and communities need to be protected, and prescribed burning costs an arm and a leg and has air quality restrictions, is another level of complexity, indeed.

      I wouldn’t use the word “restoration” for the latter, but that’s just me.


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