Is the Colville “Ground Zero for Privatizing Land Planning in Federal Forests” as in HCN Story?

The Vaagen Brothers Lumber yard is seen during a tour on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, at Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc in Colville, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Here’s an article from the High Country News, quoting our very own Andy Stahl. This is a great example of a news story in which you can imagine many other ways to deal with the same information and give historical or context from other parts of the country, or government.


Even though Forest Service employees who work on those projects were left out of work, timber sales continued on the Colville National Forest. One reason they were still being processed during the shutdown is that the Forest Service was able to tap into trust funds from past timber sales that are held by individual agency offices, explained Andy Stahl, the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

It seems that other government entities continued during the shutdown based on where their dollars were coming from, according to this news story .

“The NPS currently has funds derived from entrance, camping, parking and other fees collected from park visitors that would typically be used for future projects at parks,” Smith explained in a statement posted to the National Park Services website. “After consultation with the Office of the Solicitor at the Department of the Interior, it has been determined that these funds can and should be used to provide immediate assistance and services to highly visited parks during the lapse in appropriations.”

And of course, as we’ve discussed here previously, there are the many ski areas that were not shut down.


And the shutdown isn’t the only reason trained biologists, engineers and habitat planners have to worry about their future working for the Forest Service in Colville. A program pioneered in the Colville National Forest that started in 2013, dubbed the “A to Z” project, allowed the local timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to hire outside contractors to develop timber harvest plans, making the Colville ground zero for privatizing land planning in federal forests. Last summer, on a tour of the project, which has boosted timber production in the forest, then-interim and now permanent Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen touted it as an example of how the agency can embrace public-private partnerships in comments to Capital Press.

When timber-sale planning is outsourced, biologists, engineers and land planners who work for the Forest Service are cut out of much of the process. What’s left is a contracting officer, agency decision-maker and private contractors, Stahl explained. This doesn’t bode well for the federal workers who are typically tasked with writing timber sales and forest plans because agency employees are replaced by consultants, who can do most of the work remotely. Outsourcing the planning of timber management represents a continued trend within the Forest Service of “disinvestment in rural America,” said Stahl.

I’m not an expert on the A to Z project, but I’ve heard the Idaho State folks talk about their use of partnership authority (which they seem pretty happy with) and so I don’t know if it’s correct to say that the Colville is “ground zero.” I am curious as to exactly the role of the FS employees- in my experience with “third party NEPA”, it is all reviewed by FS employees. This is not a particularly new trend for developing NEPA documents nor content analysis, anyway. But the general trend in the Forest Service runs back even further. Andy remembers when reforestation contractors were putting government employees out of work (70’s). And then we had no more in-house vehicles and shops. And many remember the inception of the Albuquerque Service Center and how that worked for many women in rural communities. If you were going to look at it from a social justice perspective, the blue and pink collar jobs went away from most FS operations a while ago.

I’m glad Andy raised the issue of disinvestment, though. What do you all think is the best way to keep employees in the most important places doing the most important things with stable or declining budgets?

3 thoughts on “Is the Colville “Ground Zero for Privatizing Land Planning in Federal Forests” as in HCN Story?”

  1. Here is where we talked about the A to Z Project lawsuit.
    The NEPA contracting was an issue that apparently didn’t amount to much, but the quality of the NEPA work would always be relevant.

    “the ranks of land managers who do the science and planning for national forests are dwindling”
    I think we’ve always assumed that the government would provide professional oversight of contracts. But if we could assume that science work done for a business that has a vested interest in the outcome should be valid, then does a decision-maker need a professional staff? One possible tradeoff: the deference that courts usually give to federal agency “expertise” might not apply to non-agency contractors (potentially resulting in more litigation losses for the agency).

    • Jon, government oversight of government contracts is always required, as far as I know. Of course the nature of this would vary if you’re talking about fighter aircraft or NEPA docs, or reforestation, or timber sale contracts, or research grants.


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