Embracing Forest Collaboration: Chad Hudson

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Chad Hudson

“I met with the members of the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative for the first time in the summer of 2013. The group is a well balance collaborative with a broad range of perspectives and interests. As with any new collaborative, time was needed to build relationships, trust and a common vision for the project area. We brought in several independent scientific panels during the winter to align our philosophical approach to white pine restoration and improving watershed health. By spring, they’d worked out a shared vision that allowed the Bottom Canyon Project to come together pretty quickly.”

Chad Hudson, District Ranger Coeur d’ Alene Ranger District Idaho Panhandle National Forest Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Editor’s Note: Chad Hudson is the District Ranger on the historic Coeur d’Alene Ranger District, one of five ranger districts on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. The District, created by President Theodore Roosevelt in November of 1906, was heavily burned during the Great 1910 Fire, which consumed more than three million acres of timberland in two terrifying days and nights. Some 80 firefighters died in the conflagration. Although most of the District’s old growth timber was wiped out, some cedar and western larch remains in deep north-south facing canyons that the 1910 fire jumped. The District also lost most of its western white pine to blister rust in the 1930s.

Mr. Hudson, who we interview here, is charged with managing all aspects of the 728,000 acre district including leading the way in efforts to restore white pine and protect the District’s pristine watersheds. The Bottom Canyon Project, which Mr. Hudson discusses, utilizes new Healthy Forests Restoration Act [HFRA} authorities added in the 2014 Farm Bill – and directly addresses several objectives, including forest restoration and employment in neighboring Kootenai and Shoshone Counties.

Evergreen: Mr. Hudson, you look awfully young to be tasked with such a big job here on the Coeur d’Alene Ranger District.

Hudson: Well, thank you. I’ve been with the Forest Service for 15 years. The majority of my career has been on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Jackson, Wyoming as a recreation manager and NEPA Coordinator.

Evergreen: Where’s home for you?

Hudson: I grew up in Illinois and earned my degree in Zoology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Evergreen: It’s a long way from Carbondale to Coeur d’Alene. From hardwood forests to conifers. How’s the transition going?

Hudson: I love the mountains. I landed a job in Aspen, Colorado the day I graduated and never looked back. I consider myself very fortunate to have worked in such beautiful and challenging locations such as the White River National Forest in Colorado, Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming and now on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest right here in Coeur d’Alene, ID.

Evergreen: You have a very good science team on the Idaho Panhandle, and good backup in Missoula, Montana and Ogden, Utah. We suppose that helps.

Hudson: We are able to draw on an immense pool of scientific talent. In addition to our District resource specialists, we have a research branch that supports us. Several of the agency’s researchers based out of Coeur d’Alene are focused on white pine restoration, insects and diseases and relevant issues. They are a great resource for us in restoration planning and related activities.

Evergreen: Word is you have a fine collaborative group in tow as well.

Hudson: We certainly do. The Panhandle Forest Collaborative brings a lot of expertise to the table.

Evergreen: We understand it’s a very diverse group, too.

Hudson: That it is. There are representatives from the Idaho Fish and Game Department focused on wildlife, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality focused on the Clean Water Act and state water quality laws, conservation groups interested in wildlife and old growth retention, motorized recreationists, non-motorized recreationists, Kootenai County commissioners’ representatives, representatives from the timber industry and local community leaders.

Evergreen: What exactly are the conditions?

Hudson: Much of this district is in what I would call a permanent stagnant state and is heavily impacted by root disease and insect infestation. Additionally, the species composition and age class diversity is dramatically different from the historical range of variability.

Evergreen: How far does it differ from historical conditions?

Hudson:  Western white pine was once considered a keystone species, dominating 20 to 40 percent of the forested area on the IPNF, today it is dominant on only about 4 percent of the forested area. Long-living insect and disease-resistant species, including western white pine, ponderosa pine, and western larch are notably lacking within the Bottom Canyon Project Area.

Evergreen: And you want to do what you can to bring back these tree species because they are more resistant to the diseases you are seeing in the Bottom Canyon area today?

Hudson: That’s correct. They provide a level of resilience to the ecosystem because they are resistant to insects, disease, and drought stress. But all of these tree species require disturbance - such as fire or harvesting - to create large openings full of sunlight. We have to clear away the shrubs and trees that block sunlight white pine, ponderosa and larch seedling require.

Evergreen: Sounds like a big job.

Hudson: It is. The project area is currently dominated by Douglas-fir, grand fir and western hemlock. As I’ve said, all three of these species are highly susceptible to insects, diseases, and drought. Much of the Douglas-fir within the project area has already died due to root diseases and Douglas-fir beetle attacks, contributing to the accumulation of dead fuels.

Evergreen: Sounds pretty grim.

Hudson: It gets worse. Many grand fir and western hemlock in the project area are also succumbing to root diseases. Diseased, shade tolerant species are dying before they reach maturity – and the same shade tolerant, disease susceptible species are regenerating themselves beneath the disease infected trees, so the cycle continues. This is the permanent state of stagnation I mentioned earlier. Disturbance, natural or man-made, is needed to re-introduce the historically dominant and more resilient early seral species such as white pine and larch.

Evergreen: What caused this change in species composition?

Hudson: An invasive disease, white pine blister rust, was inadvertently introduced into the area after the 1910 fires. Western white pine saplings are very susceptible to white pine blister rust and, as you can imagine, the majority of the forest was in a sapling-like stage after the 1910 fires.

Evergreen: But there were other factors, too – correct?

Hudson: There were: aggressive fire suppression since 1910 reduced the number of openings in which early seral species, like white pine; also timber harvesting practices, which favored selection cutting, salvage logging and hi-grading high value white pines and larch.

Evergreen: Although social values have changed significantly over the last 10 to 15 years, the problems you describe have been a long time in the making.

Hudson: Yes, social values have changed, and so has our understanding of the ecosystem. I believe better science and improved policy-related processes that encourage public participation – especially our collaborative groups - are yielding more informed decisions and, ultimately, more effective land management actions.

Evergreen: Given the transition from shade intolerant, fire resistant tree species to shade tolerant, fire sensitive species, you probably have a serious stand density problem on our hands.

Hudson: Yes, and that was the focus of most of the independent scientific panels we assembled for the Panhandle Collaborative. It is a tough subject to approach because the natural tendency is to assume that simply thinning overstocked stands will solve the problem.

Evergreen: And it won’t?

Hudson: No, not stands infected with root disease, and not if we want to change the composition of the forest to include more drought and insect resistant species. Research and past timber management on the District underscore that fact that thinning a stand with root disease actually increases the intensity of the root disease and will ultimately turn the forested stand into a brush field. Openings large enough to allow our shade-intolerant species - like larch and pine - are required to create a more resilient forest that is more aligned with both historic conditions, and the environmental conditions we expect to see in the future.

Evergreen: We presume the openings you describe would be patch cuts – clearcuts if you will - 10 or more acres in size.

Hudson: Most openings are less than 20 acres. The proposed silvicultural prescriptions all incorporate long-term retention of some shelter trees, seed trees and other reserved trees as appropriate to provide within-stand structure while creating openings that facilitate the establishment of shade-intolerant early seral species. Retained overstory trees are typically dispersed as individual trees or small groups of trees with irregular arrangement. Such treatments more closely mimic the effects of mixed severity or high-severity fires.

Evergreen: And would we be about right in assuming this is what your collaborative group has in mind with your Bottom Canyon Project?

Hudson: Yes, it is, though it took a little time to craft prescriptions that were sensitive to the values of all of the collaborative members, while still meeting the main objective, which is to re-establish early seral species such as white pine. The collaborative is in full agreement with the selected alternative identified in the Bottom Canyon decision, which includes openings sufficient for early seral species.

Evergreen: This being necessary in order to accommodate the needs of shade-intolerant species, like white pine and western larch that you plan to replant in your patch cuts.

Hudson: That’s correct. In total, about 2,200 acres within the 11,000 acre project area will be treated.

Evergreen: Tell us a bit more about the Bottom Canyon Project. How did it come about?

Hudson: We identified this project area as a good forest restoration candidate several years ago. We started working on a plan with the Panhandle Collaborative in 2013. Then, in 2014, new Healthy Forests Restoration authorities were included in the 2014 Farm Bill. We jumped at the chance to use these after this project made the Farm Bill’s priority list, which was assembled a task force created by Idaho Governor, Butch Otter, and designated by the Chief of the Forest Service.

Evergreen: We understand that as originally proposed, the volume of timber identified for harvesting was quite a bit smaller than what the collaborative ultimately recommended. Is that true?

Hudson: It’s true. However, I would like to note that although volume is important to the local economy, the actual volume is an output not an objective. We focus on the acres that need to be treated and prescribe the most appropriate restoration treatments given the circumstances.

The original estimates recommended treating fewer acres, and would have generated a harvest of about six million board feet. But field verification and additional stand exam data indicated the presence of far more root disease, which led to the decision to treat more acres than originally estimated. The selected project alternative will treat approximately 2,200 acres and will yield a harvest of about 25 million board feet.

Evergreen: And you believe this is the best alternative for the landscape?

Hudson: We do.

Evergreen: How on earth did the Panhandle Collaborative come up with more than four times the proposed harvest?

Hudson: Very solid “on the ground” data would be the short answer. One of the collaborative’s members, the Idaho Forest Group, hired Northwest Management to conduct additional stand exam data per our specifications. That data provided us with a more accurate picture of the existing conditions in the project area.

Evergreen: IFG could end up buying the Bottom Canyon timber sale, couldn’t they?

Hudson: They could, or they could be outbid by a competitor when the project comes up for bid. IFG has been a constructive player on the Panhandle Forest Collaborative. They contributed a significant amount of time and resources associated with this project without a guarantee to get the timber. Like other members in the collaborative, IFG believes all stakeholders are better off working together to find solutions to our every increasing complex land management issues.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed in our collaborative series talks about the importance of building trust.

Hudson: Yes, indeed. In my opinion, the four ingredients in all successful collaboratives are trust, transparency, inclusiveness and persistent engagement.

Evergreen: You have to be willing to let down your guard and roll up your sleeves.

Hudson: Absolutely. Collaboration isn’t easy. A lot of field time, face time, patience and a willingness to be completely open and transparent is necessary. Ultimately, much time is needed to create strong relationships among collaborative members and with the Forest Service. These relationships are critical to create a fully functioning and effective collaborative.   A lot of credit goes to the members of the Panhandle Forest Collaborative. Their dedication and willingness to work together despite differing values resulted in an effective team that I hope to work with on future projects.

Evergreen: There were three alternatives considered at Bottom Canyon. Number. 1 was the ‘No action,” alternative and Numbers 2 and 3 looked about the same except that Number 3 tilted a little more in the direction of watershed restoration. Mary Farnsworth picked Number 3. Why?

Hudson: The purpose and need of the bottom canyon included improving water quality. Activities under alternative three did a better job of that by including a reroute of Forest Road 206 which is located in a flood plain and essentially functions as a dike and is a significant source of sediment into Burnt Cabin Creek. From a hydrologic standpoint, relocating and decommissioning the lower 1.3 miles of Road 206 will substantially improve Burnt Cabin Creek and the associated riparian area, returning the floodplain to conditions not seen since the early 1900s. By rerouting this section of Road 206 and restoring Burnt Cabin Creek back to its original channel, the valley floodplain will be reconnected, channel form and function restored, and aquatic habitat as well as riparian habitat improved.

Evergreen: So what’s next?

Hudson: If the project isn’t litigated, we’ll prepare a contract to sell the timber and complete the watershed restoration work associated with the project.

Evergreen: And if it is litigated?

Hudson: We will have to work our way through that. I would like to think that folks will acknowledge and honor the collective wisdom of the well balanced stakeholders associated with the collaborative process. As I mentioned earlier, the collaborative brings a wealth of expertise including several different land, wildlife and regulatory management agencies to the table.

Evergreen: Litigation would be a shame given all the time collaborative members volunteered.

Hudson: I certainly would prefer that entities or individuals would choose to collaborate as opposed to litigate. Collaborative groups are not an elite group. Anyone who is interested in public land stewardship, is willing to dedicate time, and is willing to consider other perspectives and values is encouraged to participate.

Evergreen: We have yet to interview a collaborative member who does not think that Congress needs to do something to protect their work from serial litigators.

Hudson: Our collaboratives work very hard to develop good, solid, science-based projects. The process isn’t perfect but I believe collaboration is the future for the Forest Service, especially in managing large landscapes. As an agency, we are still fine tuning the collaborative process but the successes we’ve seen so far are encouraging. We’re trying, and so are our collaborative members.

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