Jim Petersen: What do environmentalists want? Also, the trouble with the Eastside Screens

Jim Petersen’s Op-ed – today in the Spokesman Review (pay-walled)

What do environmentalists want?

The litigation driven collapse of the Colville National Forest’s historically robust forest restoration and fuels management programs raises a seemingly unanswerable question.

What do litigious environmentalists want, not just in the Colville National Forest but in every national forest in the West?

More to the point, what do Tim Coleman and his Kettle Range Conservation Group want? Coleman’s group successfully sued the Forest Service to stop the Sanpoil forest restoration project, which was developed under the aegis of the 2004 Tribal Forest Protection Act in consultation with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The court order signed June 23 by Judge Stanley Bastian, Chief District Judge of Washington’s Eastern District, sends Colville National Forest planners back to square one on a project that took years to plan.

Sanpoil proposed thinning and prescribed burning on about 18,000 acres over several years. Boise Cascade’s Kettle Falls mill bought the project – about 15 million board feet of timber including some harvestable trees larger than 21 inches in diameter.
This seems to be the crux of Coleman’s lawsuit. Never mind that the larger trees include shade tolerant grand firs that threaten younger ponderosas that are native to the Colville National Forest.

Grand fir is a thin-barked tree that is easily killed by insects and wildfire. It secured its foothold on the Colville during wetter than normal years in the 1950s and has continued to spread faster than it has been removed from forests in central and eastern Washington.

Grand fir – think Christmas trees – have very bushy low hanging branches that act as ladder fuels, allowing wildfires to climb into forest  canopies. Canopy fires kill almost everything in sight. Witness the Stickpin Fire, which destroyed 54,000 acres in the Colville National Forest in 2015.

Grand fir enjoys the protection of the 21-inch rule, a failed set of standards known as the Eastside Screens that the federal government imposed in 1994 to conserve old growth forests east of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington.  

The 21 inch screen requirement is failing because tree size and age do not correlate. Some tree species – in this case grand fir – grow much faster than other tree species – in this case native ponderosa pine.

Coleman and his Kettle Range Conservation litigants aren’t conserving anything. They pose a far greater danger to the Colville National Forest and its communities than forest restoration work ever has or will.

Among their harms: the water citizens drink, the oxygen that heathy forests release into the air we all breathe, critical fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation opportunity and jobs in Northeast Washington, not just at Boise Cascade but also Vaagen Brothers, Columbia Cedar and several small logging companies whose payrolls support every other business in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille county.

These counties have enjoyed a congressionally blessed working relationship with the Colville National Forest staff for many years. They have been strategic players in the success of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and its stakeholder partners – all contributors to several widely praised forest restoration projects.

Coleman is destroying the good work stakeholders are doing in Northeast Washington forests. Fortunately, Farm Bill conferees in Washington DC are considering 2024 revisions in the National Environmental Policy Act that would limit Coleman’s ability to destroy what the Forest Service and its citizen partners are trying to do.

Coleman’s wants and needs should not negate those of diverse publics that value green trees and healthy forests and communities.

Jim Petersen is the founder and president of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation, based in Dalton Gardens, Idaho.

23 thoughts on “Jim Petersen: What do environmentalists want? Also, the trouble with the Eastside Screens”

  1. “What do litigious environmentalists want, not just in the Colville National Forest but in every national forest in the West?”

    Ironically, Peterson doesn’t spell out what the answer to this question is. He mentions larger grand fir, but that tree has a limited range. Personally, I think that diameter limit management has flaws, especially regarding unhealthy individual trees.

    Maybe the REAL answer to that question is that some people merely want to limit (or eliminate) Agency discretion. They also seem to focus on a perceived ‘worst-case scenario’, where they fear that every possible tree over 21″ dbh is going to be cut.

  2. When it comes to building up the top soil and large woody debris grand fir do this better and quicker than most trees because they grow fast, die young and get turned into life giving rotten wood nurse logs faster than the other conifers. Their cavity and habitat and topsoil building ability is worthy of protection and the judge agreed.

    What’s more, we’re talking about the tiniest of percentage of remaining forest that’s over the size allowed to be cut. Talking about making a mountain out a molehill.

    What’s more, not understanding what environmentalists want, speaks to the denial and unwillingness to accept the role us enviros have played in protecting forests from folks who destroy forests in the name of saving them.

    To be clear there’s plenty of logging the industry and enviros can agree on, yet folks who pretend they don’t know what enviros want constantly try to shoe horn in trees that enviros don’t want logged into plans that enviros are ok with, which leads to litigation and false claims that enviros are obstructing when for the most part it’s only small areas in most plans they’re opposed to.

    This radical agenda in the USFS and BLM of sneaking in egregious logging into agreeable logging plans is unlawful as the judge yet again agreed. It’s abundantly clear in their arguments why they lose in a court of law and why the refuse to accept ecological science and the enviros that want to see it responsibly applied.

    • Of course, the usual rhetoric, as I pointed out elsewhere.

      “What’s more, not understanding what environmentalists want, speaks to the denial and unwillingness to accept the role us enviros have played in protecting forests from folks who destroy forests in the name of saving them.”

      Cutting a few moderate-sized grand firs on north-facing slopes is nowhere near forest ‘destruction’. Again, not every grand fir will be cut. There are plenty of north-facing areas where ponderosa pines do not even exist.

      Using semantics as a weapon is pretty useless, in court. Sure, it does seem to work where the public lives in a megalopolis, where people don’t see the facts for themselves.

      • The dishonesty of your statement is absurd! “…A few moderate-sized grand firs on north-facing slopes is nowhere near forest destruction.” You aren’t just talking about cutting down three trees, which is usually what “a few” means.

        Your objective is to nullify the cut diameter restriction on the entire forest so loggers can cherry pick as many of the biggest trees as possible in areas that have not been thoroughly enough analysed for ecological concerns so your greed and personal gain thrives rather than what little remains of existing laws that has mostly failed to stop your agenda that wiped out more than 90% percent of the primary forest in the state.

        Why can’t you realize how lawless your promise that “not every grand fir will be cut” really is?

        We’re talking about such a miniscule percentage of remaining trees above the diameter that’s allowed to be cut, yet you act like it’s some kind of huge injustice rather than the last of the last rare large diameter trees that the courts and the science say need protection as a last refuge from your insanity?

        Claiming its just semantics and not a deliberate intention to override environmental laws at scale to make lawless logging great again speaks to your dishonesty more clearly than I could ever explain on my own.

        • And you are making stuff up, focusing on a conspiracy theory. That is what happens when you ignore the actual text of the proposal. Now, show where, in a marking prescription, where it says, “…to nullify the cut diameter restriction on the entire forest so loggers can cherry pick as many of the biggest trees as possible…”. Of course, the loggers won’t be selecting the trees to cut on such projects. The silviculture seeks to thin forests and reduce wildfire intensities. The proposal targets overstocked firs, and not other species. It does not target the biggest trees in the forest, or even the biggest firs in the forest. Besides, such firs can become huge dominant trees, which are not mentioned in any of the proposals. A 27″ dbh grand fir is NOT a big tree, in those forests. A 45″ dbh tree is big, and you cannot say with any certainty that those trees will be cut. It’s all site specific, but yet, you still make baseless accusations and spew insults.

          Your assumptions have no basis in facts.

          • Larry, the fact is that the Forest Service has to evaluate the difference between prohibiting something and not prohibiting something. I don’t think there is any basis in facts for the Forest Service assuming that it will NOT take full advantage of the exceptions it has provided itself in the Colville plan (or the “flexibility” built into the Eastside Screens Amendment).

            And actually, the Colville Sanpoil project was one where it appears the loggers WOULD be selecting the trees to cut (through designation by prescription). https://forestpolicypub.com/2023/04/06/dxp/
            That’s why your suggestion below would help: “the Forest Service could map and measure the diameter of each over 21″ diameter tree marked. Maps of those trees on each project could be provided to anyone interested.” Except that this would happen after the NEPA process is supposedly completed, and could trigger reevaluation of effects and additional formal disclosure and public comment.

            • I do think that allowing loggers to take any grand fir they want should not be allowed. Taking out dominant firs is not part of thinning. Without reading the actual prescriptions, I can’t say that there are other ‘guardrails’ on thinning. Is there a target basal area? Is there a target canopy coverage? We do need to ensure that there are no loopholes in the language of such thinning plans. Yes, there ARE people out there who want to do “overstory removal” as their version of thinning.

  3. These quixotic crusaders would have little effect were it not for the federal district judges in front of whom they appear.

    For all of President Trump’s shortcomings, he appointed a raft of federal judges who are likely to treat unscientific temperance-movement environmentalism with the skepticism it deserves but seems to seldom get in the federal courts.

    • Little effect? Then how come the eastside screens weren’t nullified and we win in court again?

      And by the way, thanks for showing you’d rather have Trump, who tried to overthrow our government (crime for which he will spend the rest of his life in jail) is more important to you than actual law and order and basic logic that sees value in protecting and defending the constitution of the United States.

      But it makes sense given your pen name of Lourenço Marques who was a Portuguese mass murderer and enslaver who’s bloodbaths brutally colonized South East Africa and Mozambique to capture their people and ship them off as slaves to Europe and the new world. Anyone who celebrates that level of corruption and hate with his name clearly would end up being a soon to be indicted modern-day Proud Boy of MAGA hate.

      • OLY/Deane, you need to stop being mean to other people on TSW. And please stick to the topic without accusing people of MAGA tendencies.
        As I’ve said before, you are not helping your arguments.

      • OLYecology, thank you for your comments. It sounds like you are having a bad day. I hope things go better for you soon.

        It’s always disappointing when people jump to conclusions, but it’s also the norm. I did not, in my post above, endorse Donald Trump over any other candidate or as a general matter. I did not vote for him in 2016 or 2020 and would not do so in 2024, because yes, he tried to foment a coup d’état, among other reasons not to vote for him. Nevertheless, some of his administration’s policy decisions were good and some of his judicial appointments also were good.

        Perhaps my real name is Lourenço Marques. You do not know any different and again, you are jumping to a conclusion.

  4. What’s interesting to me is that Tribes can agree with projects (e.g. also Black Ram) but it’s in the hands of federal judges at the end of the day. So at the end of the day, what Tribes want only matters if they say “no”.. and sometimes not even then as per Thacker Pass Lithium. Reviewing the proposed NEPA regs there’s all kinds of stuff about Tribes and EJ.. but at the end of the day will all that analysis and consultation matter?

    Anyway, I’m curious about the proposed ideas in the Farm Bill, so will ask Jim what they are.

  5. Type conversion, coming to a national forest near you! Once it burns and becomes brush these groups will move onto fighting the next fuels thinning project, or arguing against salvage because it damages “crucial” early serial snag habitat. Ask any forester working in California what the outcome of this process is-National Brushfields.

    • Some peoples’ blind reliance on “Natural Succession” is flawed. With 85% of all US fires being human-caused, there aren’t many forests that are actually ‘natural’. “Natural Succession” doesn’t factor in very important human impacts (like fire suppression and human-caused ignitions).

      Thinning projects in the Sierra Nevada are rarely litigated, since protections for the California spotted owl went into effect. Luckily, Chad Hanson hasn’t seen a lot of litigation success, in the last dozen years. The public needs to know that replanting without salvage logging is useless. When the next inevitable fire comes along, all those planted trees get vaporized. While it is fine for National Parks to burn, it is bad for our unnatural National Forests.

  6. Cut some large trees. Make space between their crowns. Save the “best” trees of all sizes according to whatever might be considered best for the site. A crown fire in the old growth, which we see a lot of, will kill every large tree if their crowns share the same space. Log it smart, leave a beautiful forest, under-burn if people who know what they’re doing deem a burn to be manageable and effective.

  7. I’m not a scientist, but I am a law professor who pays close attention to which parts of this debate wind up in federal court. (And I thank the editors for building and tending this terrific forum.) I’d just like to add that what most federal judges want desperately when they see cases like this come their way is for the agency’s science to be at least defensible and for the agency to have amassed an administrative record that demonstrates as much. In the Ninth Circuit particularly, if that isn’t clear when the FS gets to court, it’s going back to them in a remand at least. When you have as many variables in play as this project does, with listed ESA species, critical habitat designations in the vicinity, large trees, and unknowable futures for a forest transitioning to a perhaps radically changed climate in another decade or so, it’s unlikely the FS will have what that federal judge so desperately wanted.

    • A 24″ diameter grand fir is not a “large tree” in those forests. I remind you that these will be thinning projects, and not “overstory removal” or “sanitation”. I do think that the courts know the differences, and are wary of right-wingers using word games to cut more trees. For the record, grand fir logs are not particularly valuable, compared to pines and Douglas-firs.

    • JC.. thanks for the kind words! Since you are a law professor, maybe you could help out by having your students review the case law and give the FS some helpful hints? Because what you said sounds pretty grim for NEPA folks …

        • Hi Steve: That is the 64-dollar question. The best clue is that the literature often refers to the “best available science” as BAS. My best guess, based on this clue, is that BAS often means “peer reviewed” government modeling. Certainly some of the “science” coming out of our courtrooms would seem to be threatened by reasonable challenges from scientists not directly funded by taxpayers, whether as direct government employees, grant recipients, or through ESA lawsuits. Opinion.

  8. As a compromise, it might be better to have a separate diameter limit for those firs. Otherwise, a timber marker could find some sort of flaw, on a fir over 40″ dbh (or larger). That kind of thinking could end up cutting most of those large firs, loaded with mistletoe, and rotting from basal scars. A diameter limit would allow those trees to become snags, and then into LWD.

    I’m all for ‘thinning-from-below’, and that can certainly be applied in those eastern R6 Forests, where true firs are a silviculture and fuels problem.

    In the interest of full transparency, the Forest Service could map and measure the diameter of each over 21″ diameter tree marked. Maps of those trees on each project could be provided to anyone interested.

    I think it is important for the Forest Service to take every opportunity to build trust.

  9. This op-ed, published Sunday in the Spokesman Review, does not say it’s a rebuttal of Petersen’s but it is. Of particular note – THERE IS NO GRAND FIR.

    By Timothy Coleman

    How are forests best restored to not only
    reduce wildfire risk to communities, but to also
    prepare for our changing climate? The first
    principle is to keep all the old fire-resistant
    trees, such as Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.
    Yet those are the trees that the Colville Na-
    tional Forest is targeting in the Sanpoil project,
    which a District Court Judge has found illegal.

    Under the former forest supervisor, and his
    head forester, large and old Ponderosa pine
    and Douglas fir have been targeted in sale after
    sale. Clearcuts have decimated healthy forests
    and logging has taken place illegally next to
    streams. No wonder two judges this year have
    found the Colville National Forest in violation
    of several federal laws – as well as the agree-
    ments they had with a local collaborative group.

    Other trees, such as large grand fir, are not
    found in this project.

    Detractors claim grand fir is a threat to
    healthy forests in the Sanpoil project area. I
    disagree. In 40 years of hiking, hunting and
    reviewing Forest Service projects in the Sanpoil
    area I have never seen grand fir trees there and
    if there are they are few and young.”

    The National Environmental Policy Act is a
    bedrock law that gives citizens the right to re-
    view and challenge federal government actions
    and act as a counter to money and politics. The
    Sanpoil Timber Sale in the Colville National
    Forest is a case in point.

    Kettle Rangers challenged the Sanpoil timber
    sale because it sanctioned logging big trees. Our
    pleas to the Forest Service to follow collabo-
    ratively agreed guidelines and mimic its work
    completed in the adjacent Walker Project were
    outright rejected.

    Incidentally, in addition to revised forest plan
    exceptions for cutting down large trees it also
    sanctions clearcutting up to 1,000 acres – or
    larger – in the Colville National Forest. Five
    years of projects demonstrably shows that “res-
    toration” is based in timber production of every
    tree species.

    Sanpoil Project litigation was Kettle Rangers’
    first in over 20 years. I am a founding mem-
    ber of Northeast Washington Forest Coalition
    – Kettle Rangers dedicated two decades to
    finding collaborative agreement with the Forest
    Service and timber industry – including during
    the entire Forest Planning revision process.

    Unfortunately, decades of hard work were dis-
    regarded in the revised forest plan.

    A key sticking point has been the Forest
    Service’s unwillingness to retain large and old
    trees despite its and the bulwark of historic
    photos, scientific research acknowledging that
    large and old trees are at historic low levels
    and their importance to birds, amphibian and
    mammals at risk of extinction.

    For now, the Colville National Forest has
    agreed to apply the District Court’s ruling to
    all present and future timber sales – mandat-
    ing the retention of trees 21 inches and larger.

    That’s a win for wildlife and the public who
    value beautiful forests.

    Timothy Coleman is director of Kettle Range
    Conservation Group, based in Republic,


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