Embracing Forest Collaboration: Bob Boeh

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Bob Boeh

“Collaboration is a tool – just like a lot of other tools Congress has given the Forest Service to help it do its job better. Right now, it is the sharpest problem solving implement we have. It’s time consuming and inefficient, but we continue to support it because it brings all stakeholder groups to the same table. We work hard to iron out potential disagreements over proposed Forest Service projects, hopefully avoiding costly litigation that hurts our business, our communities and our forests. Congress must continue to incentivize collaboration by providing additional streamlining and legal certainty for projects.”

Bob Boeh, Vice President Government and Community Affairs Idaho Forest Group Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Evergreen: Mr. Boeh, if we have our facts straight, you’ve been collaborating with conservationists since the mid-1980s, long before most people had ever heard of the process.

Boeh: That’s true if we assume that collaboration is nothing more than the expressed willingness of two or more people to sit at a table and try to iron out their differences.

Evergreen: Tell us about your first experience.

Boeh: After I graduated from the School of Forestry at the University of Montana, I went to work for the Burlington Northern Railroad’s forestry department. The railroad owned a lot of timberland that hadn’t been touched for years, and it was our job to remove the stands that had been overrun by insects and diseases, and get the land replanted as quickly as possible. The forest wars were just heating up on the West Coast, so as you might imagine, we soon encountered neighboring landowners who weren’t very happy about our ambitious harvesting and reforestation projects.

Evergreen: You arrived on the scene at about the same time we were starting Evergreen Magazine. It’s our recollection that the war of words quickly escalated and that neither side had the slightest interest in talking with their sworn enemies.

Boeh: That’s true, but by then I was responsible for the management of 200,000 acres of BN land. I had a job to do, and in my mind, that meant that I at least had to try to explain our plans to our neighbors.

Evergreen: That was very unconventional thinking in the ‘80s. How did you get started?

Boeh: I got a letter from a lady named Jane Fritz. She was a very committed conservationist, but she wanted to meet with me to discuss one of our projects on land adjacent to her land.

Evergreen: And you did?

Boeh: I did, and I told her that if her goal was to stop us from moving forward with our project, we probably didn’t have anything to talk about, but if she wanted to help me design the project so that it met her concerns and still let us manage our land, then we had something to talk about.

Evergreen: And she did – and you did?

Boeh: Yes, and Jane and I have been friends ever since. She even went to bat for us when Governor Cecil Andrus made some critical public comments. I still seek her advice on wilderness related issues.

Evergreen: That’s impressive. How did you satisfy her concerns?

Boeh: We selectively logged the property – leaving behind the best quality trees as a natural seed source – and we left wider buffers along some streams to protect fish habitat, made sure our equipment did no damage and feathered the cut lines of the harvest close to Jane’s cabin and property lines.

Evergreen: And that fully satisfied her?

Boeh: It certainly did.

Evergreen: You describe something that seems much simpler than today’s forest collaboratives.

Boeh: It was, but I was working with Jane, not a room filled with stakeholders whose values and points of view vary widely.

That said, I’ve also spent lots of time in the field, hiking and discussing potential management prescriptions with members of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks and the Idaho Conservation League. I know of no other way to gain a well-grounded appreciation for the values and interests of your collaborative partners.

Evergreen: And now you work for the Idaho Forest Group, not the railroad.

Boeh: There was an interim step. In 1989, the railroad sold its timberland assets to Plum Creek Timber Company. I worked for Plum Creek until 1996. Then Marc Brinkmeyer, who owned Riley Creek Lumber at Laclede, hired me in 1996. Riley Creek merged with Bennett Forest Industries in 2008, forming the Idaho Forest Group.

Evergreen: Much has changed in the timber world over the last 30 years.

Boeh: New companies and new leadership are a big part of the forest collaboration story.

Evergreen: How so?

Boeh: In the Inland Northwest, the federal government is, by far, the largest timberland owner. If you are going to be in the lumber manufacturing business in this part of the world, you have to be engaged in all of the discussions and debates about how to best manage national forests that are a key source of timber. We butted heads with conservationists for years. None of us got what we were after – in our case certainty in timber supply, and, in their case, more designated wilderness.

Evergreen: And so a goal of collaboration is certainty for you and wilderness for them?

Boeh: What those of us who sit around collaborative tables have learned by simply engaging one another is that we share many values, including a worry about the health and safety of federal forests that are vital to our shared environmental and economic interests. We also recognize that the national forests that dominate the landscape in Idaho, eastern Washington and northern Idaho are large enough to accommodate the needs of all stakeholders.

Evergreen: And so you see the possibility that these national forests could perhaps be zoned in a way that provides certainty in timber supply for you and more designated wilderness for conservationists?

Boeh: We see the possibility, but if you ask, I think you will find all of us who are at these tables are feeling the need to get on with it. Our company still doesn’t have certainty and conservationists still don’t have more designated wilderness, despite our vocal support for one another’s goals.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed shares your belief that it is time to press forward.

Boeh: We aren’t even keeping up with recovering annual forest mortality – that is to say, picking up the dead stuff - much less getting ahead of insect and disease infestations that have reached the crisis stage on 70 million acres of federal forestland in the western United States.

Evergreen: So are you are saying is that stakeholder collaboration has its limits?

Boeh: Collaboration is a tool – just like a lot of other tools Congress has given the Forest Service to help it do its job better. Right now, it is the sharpest problem solving implement we have. It’s time consuming and inefficient, but we continue to support it because it brings all stakeholder groups to the same table. We work hard to iron out potential disagreements over proposed Forest Service projects, hopefully avoiding costly litigation that hurts our business, our communities and our forests. Congress must continue to incentivize collaboration by providing additional streamlining and legal certainty for projects.”

Evergreen: It doesn’t sound like IFG is ready to throw in the towel.

Boeh: We will be at the table as long as there is a table and we are moving forward, but there are currently 26 high priority forest restoration projects - 500,000 acres in total - on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest that were designated by a gubernatorial task force under the Farm Bill. These projects don’t even scratch the surface, and yet at our current work pace, it will take us at minimum 25 years to complete. Those forests will be dead and gone by then.

Evergreen: Were other high priority projects designated in Idaho or just in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest?

Boeh: Statewide, designated projects cover 1.6 million acres. Let’s do the math. If it takes 25 years to cover 500,000 acres, it takes more than 75 years to complete 1.6 million acres. And that doesn’t account for annual mortality going forward. As I said, these forests will be dead and gone before we get to them.

Evergreen: What’s the solution?

Boeh: If we can photograph Pluto from a thousand-pound satellite that took nine years to get there, and arrived at its destination less than two minutes late, we can figure out how to solve this problem. And let’s not forget that the entire New Horizons mission, which took 15 years from start to finish, cost taxpayers $700 million, less than half the Forest Service’s annual firefighting budget.

Evergreen: Former Forest Service Chief, Jack Ward Thomas, talked and wrote about the “crazy quilt” of environmental laws and regulations handed to federal resource management agencies with conflicting missions. Lots of fodder for lawyerly canons.

Boeh: That’s a big part of it, certainly on the litigation front, but I think there is another underlying reason why we’ve seen so much litigation over the last two decades. Our federal agencies, which are supposed to serve public interests, have not been good listeners. We are blessed to have pretty good listeners in the Forest Service in the Inland Northwest, but the climate in Washington, D.C. is so politically charged that local and regional values and needs are not well served.

Evergreen: The story we hear is that conservationists in Washington, D.C. aren’t much happier about forest collaboration that our friends on the right, who seem to view it as some sort of United Nations plot to take over the country.

Boeh: I don’t know anything about the UN stuff, but there are still a few of national-level conservation groups that seem to fear a loss of political power. It’s surprising to me that they aren’t more supportive of their local affiliates who see our forest health crisis daily in a very personal way.

Evergreen: How do you overcome this problem?

Boeh: Years of good faith work are at risk as long as collaborative agreements can be blown up by serial litigants who refuse to join us at the table. The groups routinely stop federal resource managers from implementing good collaborative projects based on procedural “gotcha” lawsuits. Then our government rewards their behavior under provisions of the Equal Access to Justice Act, which reimburses them for their inflated legal fees. The Act needs to be reformed and new incentives need to be devised that encourage collaboration.

Evergreen: What sort of incentives would help the collaboratives?

Boeh: An expedited NEPA process would really help. The decision-making process takes much too long. Currently in Region 1, which is a focal point for our collaborative groups, forest restoration projects that hold 500 million board feet of timber are in limbo as a direct result of appeals, litigations and objections filed by just one serial litigant who refuses to join us at the collaborative table. He uses federal courts to delay projects until the trees, which are dead or dying, are no longer usable. They become the fuel for the catastrophic wildfires we are witnessing across the west again this summer.

Evergreen: Wow! Any additional government help needed?

Boeh: Congress and the federal resource management agencies have already formally recognized the rights of serial litigants. Now they need to formally acknowledge the fact that our collaborative groups are the on-the-ground eyes and ears of stakeholder groups representing a very broad spectrum of public interests. We are the conduit that leads away from litigation and toward problem solving.

Evergreen: So how can collaboratives be used to overcome serial litigation?

Boeh: I think something that looks like baseball arbitration is the only solution. Rather than proceed to court, those who refuse to collaborate or disagree with the group’s plan would be required to submit an alternate plan to an arbitration judge who would select the plan that best meets community social and environmental objectives.

Evergreen: Of course, the judge’s decision would need to be in full compliance with federal environmental laws.

Boeh: All of our collaborative projects fall well within federal environmental laws. The same is true of projects the Forest Service initiates on its own. The lawsuits are all based on minutia. The Forest Service generally prevails in court, but serial litigators still recover their legal expenses under provisions of the Equal Access to Justice Act. Otherwise, they’d be out of business.

Evergreen: Let’s go back something you said earlier about collaborative stakeholders sharing a sense of urgency concerning the precipitous decline in the health of western national forests. How can Congress address this in a meaningful way?

Boeh: By addressing our forest health crisis on a more meaningful scale. The Forest Service estimates that somewhere between 70 and 80 million acres of national forestland in the West are in crisis or soon will be. That’s more than 109,000 square miles. There are only seven states in the United States that are larger than the size of this problem.

Evergreen: Run us through the math. How long does a typical collaborative project take?

Boeh: We expect the Forest Service will implement our Bottom Canyon project next year. It treats about 2,200 acres within an 11,000 acre area. It took our collaborative group about two years to come up with a plan we all liked. That’s 2,200 acres of 500,000 priority acres in Idaho, alone: 2,200 acres in two years is 1,100 per year. That means it will take collaboratives 455 years to complete all of the current projects in Idaho.

Evergreen: And by all counts, Bottom Canyon is a pretty good project.

Boeh: It is a great project, but as you can see the scale of the environmental problem and the scale at which collaboratives are working are light years apart.

Evergreen: Earlier this week we toured one of your Forest Service stewardship projects near Bonners Ferry, Idaho and learned from your logger that he can only treat 500 acres in a good year. Given that the Forest Service says there are about two million stagnating areas in Region 1, it will take your logger 500 years to finish. And then he’d have to start all over again!

Boeh: I like to measure our success in acres treated, not board feet, though board feet are certainly important if you are in the lumber manufacturing business. But what the acres in need of treatment numbers tell us is that the forest restoration task that we face is perpetual. If you figure that one good logging crew can treat 500 acres per year – do the thinning and slash disposal work needed to get the acres ready for planting crews – then, hypothetically, it would take that crew 1,000 years to complete the currently designated Farm Bill projects in Idaho.

Evergreen: You can quickly get lost in numbers that underscore the reason why those we have interviewed all say they can hear the clock ticking down to a wildfire crisis on the same scale as the Great 1910 Fire, which destroyed three million acres in about 48 hours.

Boeh: The current imbalance in forest growth, mortality and harvest in Idaho is what provides the fuel for the wildfire we all fear. The annual harvest from national forests in Idaho stood at 30 million cubic in 2010 – 100 years after the 1910 fire. By contrast, annual mortality stood at 760 million cubic feet, seven times net annual growth and 25 times harvest.

Evergreen: So every year about 25 times as much timber volume dies where it stands as is harvested from national forests in Idaho.

Boeh: That would be about right, though as I’ve said repeatedly, what really counts is acres treated, restored to a point where those acres to withstand normal levels of insect and disease activity. Don’t forget that the imbalance between growth, harvest and mortality is directly attributable to no-harvest zones designated to protect threatened or endangered plant, animal and fish species. But what have we protected when these reserves are lost in stand-replacing wildfires?

Evergreen: And you believe forest collaboration can get Idaho out of this mess?

Boeh: It can help, not just in terms of at-risk acres treated, but maybe more importantly in terms of expanding the dialogue between stakeholder groups with different values and objectives. We all agree that the scale at which we are working is much too small given the enormity of our environmental and social problem we are facing in rural areas and their surrounding national forests.

Evergreen: There are currently several so-called “fixes” working their way through House and Senate Committees. We don’t see any silver bullets. Do you?

Boeh: We see some good ideas and some ideas that probably won’t fly with our conservation partners. Ultimately, it all comes down to federal budget priorities. We’ve long said that most of restoration work that needs doing in the West will pay for itself if the Forest Service can strike the right balance between projects that can pay their own way, through the sale of sawlogs and pulpwood, and projects that need doing that won’t return a dime to the federal treasury because there isn’t sufficient marketable wood in the project area.

Evergreen: And how is that working in Idaho?

Boeh: Measured in terms of protecting community social and environmental values, we’ve made a commendable start at the local and regional level, especially when you think about the unmet needs of a decade ago. But we have a long way to go and a short time to get there.

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