Collaborative flops

Salmo-Priest Wilderness, Colville National Forest.

The Colville National Forest released a draft Record of Decision for its revised forest plan on September 8. During the planning process, a collaborative group, the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition submitted a proposal to designate more than 200,000 acres of new wilderness, to be offset by increased logging on other parts of the Forest and building new trails for mountain bikers, motorcyclists and ATV riders, who would lose access to some trails if Congress approved new wilderness. The revised plan proposed by the Forest includes only 60,000 acres of wilderness recommendations.

I guess that’s good news if you think that local collaboratives have too much influence on national forest decisions and/or if you are a proponent of logging. But wait!  It turns out that the most influence was wielded by the local governments, and the local timber company isn’t happy about that.

Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. and NEWFC board president, formally objected to the draft plan in a Nov. 6 letter. In the letter, he said the Forest Service’s decision was “skewed” by special interest groups. “The Colville National Forest belongs to all citizens of Washington and the United States,” he wrote. “Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille county commissioners represent just a tiny fraction of these citizens.” Later in the letter he said it’s unavoidable that locals will have “personal, financial interests” in what happens to federal land, but that those interests should “have no bearing on federal land management issues.”

This sort of left my head spinning. Maybe it’s because they didn’t get the increased logging either (I don’t know if that’s true)? Or maybe it’s that the “collaborative” part should win out over merely “local.” Or did the “local” actually use an end-run to obtain a top-down approach from an administration hostile to new wilderness?

I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that since decisions to designate wilderness are inherently and legally political, this may legitimize and enhance the value of a local collaborative approach. Of course all is not lost on the Colville; the collaborative approach could count for something when the collaborative makes an end-run around the Forest Service to obtain wilderness legislation, since it can undercut an agency position that the Forest Service is doing what the public wants.

In another wilderness squabble involving an end-run by local governments to reduce wilderness protection, three counties in Wyoming have chosen to bypass a statewide collaborative process and support federal legislation that would eliminate wilderness study areas without designating any new wilderness.

Titled the “Restoring Public Input and Access to Public Lands Act of 2018,” HR 6939 would remove wilderness study designation and associated protections from approximately 400,000 federal acres in Lincoln, Big Horn and Sweetwater counties (see the bill below). The three counties declined to participate in a years-long consensus-based investigation of the wildlands. Saying the wilderness-study designation “prevents access, locks up land and resources, restricts grazing rights, and hinders good rangeland and resource management,” Cheney introduced her measure Sept. 27. It marked the third time she bypassed the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative sponsored by the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. Across the state, 777,766 acres of BLM and Forest Service property are protected by wilderness study designation. WPLI sought a single statewide wilderness bill to resolve study-area status. A majority of commissioners in the three counties, however, responded to Cheney’s early 2018 call for legislation before the WPLI process played out.

I’m cheering for the collaboratives here, too.

15 thoughts on “Collaborative flops”

  1. Congress is the only entity that can “designate” wilderness – this forest plan revision (and others) identify areas to be recommended for wilderness, and to pretty much manage them as wilderness in the mean time. There is no guarantee that they would be designated as wilderness by congress. I’m guessing that there were also some comments on the DEIS for this plan revision that proposed having an even larger harvest level/ASQ/PSQ than any of the alternatives, and one way to do that is to increase the “timber suitable” acres. I’m guessing that some of those recommended wilderness areas in the DEIS (or that the collaborative proposed) had the potential to be “timber suitable”, so by removing those acres from recommended wilderness, the forest could show a higher ASQ/PSQ.

    So, I don’t know that I would label this as a “collaborative flop” – most collaboratives, including the one on the Colville, work more at the project level – and I think that collaborative has been fairly successful at that level and has proposed and accomplished some innovative things.

  2. That doesn’t surprise me. Outside of the wilderness question, I’ve thought that collaboratives for forest planning are not as appropriate as for project planning. In my opinion, at the project level, the sideboards are more clear, the issues are more concrete and relevant, the timelines more practical for participation, and collaborative membership is easier to identify.

  3. These quotes from me are not a fair representation of my words. These were pulled out of context from an objection letter that I signed on behalf of the NE Washington Forest Coalition. I would not and have not uttered words like they are printed here or in the Spokesman Review article. That author never spoke with me prior to printing that piece.

    We work with all members of the public in NE Washington. We respect our county commissioners and understand the role they play in representing their constituents. Our objection letter as a coalition is the collective objective to maintain standing in the process to get to a completed forest plan.

    As for the “logging” portion. We don’t just go find places to log. Our projects are focused on balancing the needs of our forest with the important ecology of the site. The logs that are generated for the area mills are a byproduct of those efforts.

    Lastly, I have not been the VP of Vaagen Bros Lumber for 2 years. I started a new, separately owned company producing Cross Laminated Timber and other Mass Timber products. We are in startup and are based in Stevens County. We are excited to use the lumber from these FS restoration projects in our panels. Removing material that might otherwise burn saves our forests. Storing that embedded carbon in buildings is going to be an excellent eco-friendly alternative to steel and concrete.

    Collaboration is not a “quid pro quo” process. We build trust and we support one another. As a group we see an opportunity to have wilderness areas protected on the Colville National Forest as well as other conservation measures where forest management isn’t desired, but other activities like motorized recreation, mountain biking, and others make sense.

    The Forest Planning Process is an antiquated process that pits groups against one another. We started a collaborative process years ago, but when the leadership on our forest changed, the process reverted to the Forest Planning Team. What resulted didn’t represent the common ground from the group. This process has resulted in countless hours of people’s time.

    There are members of the community that don’t participate in the collaborative. That doesn’t mean that their input and concerns aren’t valid. The real problem here is that well meaning members of rural communities throughout the west don’t see a benefit to having more wilderness. In many cases they feel as though it’s a further threat to their way of life. If we could get to a point where we get more recreation of all types and continue to manage forests where it makes sense while at the same time, designating appropriate wilderness and other protections then we can stop the process of driving wedges between members of our community.

    I’m thinking you must have pulled most of this from the Spokesman-Review article. In my opinion, their outdoor columnist did his very best to create significant controversy when groups were still going through the process. Articles like that erode collaboration, they don’t help move us closer to favorable resolution.

    • Well said, Russ. We welcome your thoughtful comments to set the story straight.

      Some people (and the media) want to preserve the controversy, above all. It seems that litigation loopholes are closing, reducing eco-groups’ EAJA income. This makes donations all that more important to keep their lights on and paychecks coming. We’ve seen the Sierra Club talking about ‘clearcutting Giant Sequoias, and only through donations can we keep Trump away from cutting and selling those huge and ancient trees’. Their Facebook posting for donations really stirred up their donors, who were totally buying into the fake controversy. The Sierra Club made no effort to address the misconceptions and conspiracy theories proposed by their followers. Of course, Giant Sequoias have no value as wood products, in today’s world.

      • Thanks Larry. The interesting part about this article is that it misrepresented the conservationists as well. When I reached out to others in this article, the report back to me was the discussion was about positivity and collaboration with the continued effort to find common ground.

        We enjoy the trust we have built with the conservation community in the Northwest. Are there still challenges? Sure, but we are all committed to work through them. Having a rogue writer (who happens to be the relatively new Outdoor Editor) for a regional paper try to shape the news rather than report it does nothing but harm all of the good faith efforts from all sides.

    • For whatever it’s worth, today I reached out to the Spokesman-Review reporter, largely based on Russ Vaagen’s disparaging comments directed at him.

      According to the reporter, he did reach out to Rus Vaagen prior to publication of the article, but the reporter never heard back from Russ.

      Given that fact, I’m not sure what else the reporter could’ve done.

      Also, have to say, I find it pretty funny how quoting from an official letter sent and signed by Russ Vaagen is not, according to Russ “a fair representation of my words.”

  4. Russ, thanks for taking the time to give your perspective. It seems to be the only way to deal with oversimplification, imbedded narratives, and focus on controversies (real or made-up) in the media is to simply talk to each “side” and hear their own stories about the issue at hand.

    You are not the only person to wonder if forest planning is worth it, or whether the intent of NFMA (1976) could be updated given today’s conditions, in which many land use decisions are made outside the forest planning process (wilderness, roadless). Or if it just rips apart an equilibrium that people have settled on.. to what end? Satisfying requirements that were drafted 42 years ago, in a very different time with very different concerns?

  5. Those requirements were reinterpreted only (only?) six years ago with the new planning regulations (the Colville revision has been completed on under the 1982 version, though I’m not sure if that is important). It’s probably not worth debating a new planning rule or changes in NFMA since even the Trumpists have not seemed interested in doing that. But I am curious about what you think those “very different concerns” are. My concerns for at-risk species (which led to the diversity requirement in NFMA) are only more so.

    I also thank Russ for responding. It is often my hope that I can prod someone into giving a first-person account of a story I’ve found interesting. So that everyone can draw their own conclusions about the letter, here is the quoted language in context. (The first paragraph is what the Forest said, followed by the objection content. The complete letter can be found here:

    “The county commissioners do not support recommended wilderness. To be responsive to these concerns, modifications were made in the final EIS and final revised land management plan, reducing the final acres of recommended wilderness in the selected alternative from 69,000 acres to 61,700 acres.”

    “This statement mentions no other groups nor individuals, including the large number of participants at the series of Forest Summits and the long participation of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. The Colville National Forest belongs to all citizens of Washington and the United States. Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille county commissioners represent just a tiny fraction of these citizens. By its own admission, this statement indicates the Forest Service’s analysis was skewed away from including more acreage for wilderness designation simply because of a small special interest group. Evaluation criteria regarding Forest Service responsiveness to public comments do not confer county commissioner authority over Forest Service decisions. The fact that wilderness designations are controversial is not part of the required evaluation criteria for whether a PWA qualifies to be designated as Recommended Wilderness yet it appears that that was the primary consideration. While it is true locals tend to know the land in which they live, hike and work on a regular basis, locals are far more likely to have a personal, financial interest in what happens on that land. These sorts of conflicts of interest are an unavoidable part of life in small, rural communities and should have no bearing federal land management issues.”

  6. Jon, oh my. 1976. Clearcutting. Converting hardwoods to pine species. The idea that if you did one big EIS in a plan you wouldn’t have to do NEPA for projects. Sustained yield. Linear programming.
    Tiering off the RPA Program (don’t think that the FS is still doing an RPA program).
    But to go to diversity…

    “provide for diversity of plant and animal communities based on the suitability and capability of the
    specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives, and within the multiple-use objectives of a land management plan adopted pursuant to this section, provide, where appropriate, to the degree practicable, for steps to be taken to preserve the diversity of tree species similar to that existing in the region controlled by the plan;

    Based on the definitions of the day, plant or animal communities weren’t species. When NFMA called out diversity of tree species (around the pine/hardwood issue) they used “where appropriate, to the degree applicable”. Their thoughts were way different than requiring “ecological integrity”.

    I also think there’d be a way simpler way to get through “do we need changes to land allocation and/or species protection and/or WFU based on current knowledge?” than the current forest planning process. I agree that no one with any authority to change things would want to spend the political capital to do so.

    In 2116 if there is still a Forest Service still doing NFMA plans, I hope there is a 50 year anniversary review of their utility with ideas for updating and possibly changing the legislation. That’s only eight years, so we’ll have some with the 2012 Rule and at least a little of the case law worked out.

  7. I agree that clearcutting and type conversion have been reined in. The “big EIS” idea is back as a way of doing big, long-term projects (but may have similar legal issues as those for forest plans). Sustained yield was already embedded in the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act (though the Forest Service seems to be ignoring that for timber in plan revisions). Linear programming wasn’t in NFMA (and I’m fairly sure didn’t come along until the Reagan Administration “economic efficiency” push after 1980, now long gone). RPA programs were legislated away by the Government Performance and Results Act (at least that’s the Forest Service position). None of this seems to call urgently for change in the law.

    But to go to diversity … this provision in NFMA was in fact driven by the loss of species of both trees and wildlife – and included specifically to address this concern included in earlier proposed language in bills and amendments such as to “take affirmative action to preserve habitats and populations of the native species of plants and animals found in the National Forests,” and to “devote special attention to the preservation of the habitats and populations of native plants and animals whose habitats and populations are diminishing.” Ecological communities were to be protected to protect species. The specifics were left to the Committee of Scientists, and the Forest Service in its soon-to-follow 1979 and 1982 planning regulations. At-risk species were clearly on everyone’s radars, and I think “ecological integrity” would probably describe what Congress wanted.

    (2116 would be the 140th anniversary, and even I think that might be too long to wait for another look… 😉

    • Clarification on linear programming. Forests are still using a similar model for forest plan timber scheduling, but it’s a much reduced role, with little emphasis on economic efficiency.

  8. The final Colville revised plan has been released. It doesn’t sound like much has changed in the year-long objection process.

    Sharon, I see I never answered your last question. Here’s footnote 1576 from Wilkinson and Anderson’s 1985 treatise: “During the final day of the Senate mark-up, the committees considered several amendments offered by Senator Randolph. One amendment would have required the Forest Service to “take affirmative action to preserve habitats and populations of the native species of plants and animals found in the National Forests,” and to “devote special attention to the preservation of the habitats and populations of native plants and animals whose habitats and populations are diminishing.” May 4, 1976, Transcript of Senate Mark-up, supra note 374, at 98- 99. The language was identical to a section of Randolph’s bill. See S. 2926, 94th Cong., 2d Sess. § 12(d)(1976), reprinted in SENATE NFMA HEARINGS, supra note 194, at 7. Staff advisor Robert Wolf explained to the committees that “the plant and animal community language in the existing bill . . . is intended to cover this area.” May 4, 1976, Transcript of Senate Mark-up, supra note 374, at 99. Randolph did not request a vote on this amendment.”

    • Thanks for sharing the Spokesman Review article, Jon.

      Of course, the headline and the first paragraph are entirely incorrect in regards to Wilderness. As we know, the Forest Plan doesn’t “create” Wilderness and it doesn’t “add 61,000 acres of Wilderness to the National Forest. Only Congress has the authority to do that, if they can also get the signature of the president.

      Since this is posted under “Collaborative Flops” it’s a good idea to point out some of the clear flops here:

      “The Forest Service said the plan is….allowing for increased timber production.”

      The announcement of the plan…. came as a blow to groups that called for more recommended wilderness area. The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which represented environmental, industrial and recreation interests, originally asked for more than 200,000 acres.

      The coalition included Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. and the Spokane-based Lands Council. About a year ago, those groups said they had been blindsided when the Forest Service unveiled the forest management plan, effectively ignoring years of deliberations and compromises….The Colville National Forest has one federally designated wilderness area – the 41,335-acre Salmo-Priest Wilderness – which represents about 3% of the 1.1 million-acre forest.”

      Sounds like yet another “collaborative” example of where the logging industry gets pretty much everything they want (after decades and generations of pushing for and demanding totally unsustainable logging levels on our public lands). Meanwhile, the protection of Wilderness and wild places gets the massive short shrift, again.


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