Embracing Forest Collaboration: Liz Johnson-Gebhardt

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Liz Johnson-Gebhardt

"There are great invisible leveling forces in society. When society decides that this or that group is being too grabby, without regard for the consequences, it slaps them back into the corner. What our society decides is good in environmentalism it will keep, and what it deplores it will eventually toss aside. There is no smoking gun, no legal end-run to make and no miracle scientific discovery to make. What we have here is a societal problem caused by changing values."

Leonard Netzorg, Western Forest Industries Association legal counsel for more than 30 years, Interior Department Solicitor during the last Roosevelt Administration; from an Evergreen Magazine interview, July 1991.

Liz Johnson-Gebhardt is the Executive Director of the Priest Community Forest Connection, a land restoration and education group in Priest River, Idaho, a once robust logging and sawmilling town in the northern reaches of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. In this fascinating interview, she discusses her hopes and frustrations with forest collaboration and her own remarkable transformation from “typical granola” to her leadership role in Idaho’s oldest forest collaborative.

Evergreen: Ms. Gebhardt, tell us a bit about yourself.

Johnson-Gebhardt: I graduated from Eastern Washington University in 1982 with a degree in English and an emphasis on creative writing. So, to your next question, I didn’t know the first thing about forestry or logging until I got myself involved in our Priest River group.

Evergreen: What brought you to Priest River?

Johnson-Gebhardt: My husband and I wanted to live off the grid so we moved here and bought some land north of town. Owning land with trees on it was my first brush with reality.

Evergreen: How so?

Johnson-Gebhardt: I was your typical granola, flipping off logging trucks in the 1970s. My friends think it’s funny, and I guess it was, but I was clueless about forestry and logging until we bought land and I began to see changes occurring in our trees. That was the beginning of discovery for me. Then I met a forester from Merritt Brothers Lumber Company, and he introduced me to a logger who did some thinning work for us. Needless to say, it changed my life.

Evergreen: What was it you saw that prompted you to rethink your views about forestry and logging?

Johnson-Gebhardt: I saw visually pleasing changes in our own little forest. Our logger turned out to be a very nice man, and he wasn’t “greedy” and he didn’t “chop down all the trees.” He was very knowledgeable and he went to great lengths to explain to us what he was doing and why.

Evergreen: Let me guess what happened next. Your creative writing juices got the best of you.

Johnson-Gebhardt: They certainly did. I soon volunteered to do the public relations work for the Lake-Face Lamb restoration project near Luby Bay on Priest Lake. Our community group was heavily involved in the project. It was my introduction to the collaborative process.

Evergreen: I remember touring the project maybe 10 years ago.

Johnson-Gebhardt: Then you know that many people who live in that area were fearful that the restoration work that was proposed would ruin their forest.

Evergreen: I remember that cabin owners on leased state land next to the lake were very concerned about losing the privacy and seclusion their trees provided. But the entire area was a firetrap filled with vacation homes.

Johnson-Gebhardt: True – and also true was that that old mantra that I had so often repeated was alive and well at Priest Lake. Many feared that the result would be a huge clearcut. It wasn’t even close to being true, but that was my starting point as our project’s public relations person. It took a lot of educating and handholding to allay those old fears, but we got through it.

Evergreen: I recall walking through the project behind a Valmet cut-to-length logging system. The operator was doing a very nice job.

Johnson-Gebhardt: That was Mike Reynolds and he is an excellent logger. One of his employees is a member of our Priest Community Forest Connection.

Evergreen: I read somewhere recently that your group actually bid the Lakeface-Lamb Face project and got it.

Johnson-Gebhardt: We did. The whole community was behind us. It was a goods for services Stewardship Contract, and the idea was so new then that only one timber company submitted a bid.

Evergreen: How were you able to garner so much community support?

Johnson-Gebhardt: A lot of people were worried about losing our town’s logging and sawmilling infrastructure. We did not want to go down the same road so many other rural timber communities have gone, so we took a chance on a different and better outcome, and we found one.

Evergreen: Did you make any money?

Johnson-Gebhardt: My recollection is that we netted about $340,000 after we paid the logger and did all of the goods for services work the contract required. Our collaborative is still using this money to fund our various programs. Our school forest education programs do receive some outside grant funding. We take lots of teachers and their students to the woods to show them what forestry restoration work looks like and where it is needed. The Forest Service’s Priest River Experimental Forest is a Rocky Mountain research station and has been a fabulous resource for us.

Evergreen: Seeing is believing.

Johnson-Gebhardt: It is a lot easier than dealing with the letters we get from junior high kids in Kentucky pleading with us to not cut any more trees.

Evergreen: The level of misinformation and disinformation in our society is astonishing, isn’t it.

Johnson-Gebhardt: Forestry education is a never ending job.

Evergreen: How’d you get along with the Forest Service at Lake-Face Lamb?

Johnson-Gebhardt: They were terrific. Dale Bosworth, who was then the Chief of the Forest Service, liked the project so much that he sent several of us on a speaking tour to promote stewardship contracting and collaboration.

Evergreen: What was the reception?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Mixed, as you might expect. There is still suspicion about motives on all sides. But I think the work speaks for itself. Our group is continually asked to implement new projects. This area needs them. Forests in our area are dangerously overstocked. The risk of insects and disease infestations and subsequent wildfire is high. We have to keep pushing.

Evergreen: The Forest Service just released its Record of Decision for the Jasper Mountain project minutes from Priest River. Is your group involved?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Not in a formal sense. The Forest Service chose to use the collaborative process to gather public input, but not to engage our community collaborative group. If they had, we’d be a lot further along with the actual on the ground work, but we’re pleased to see the ROD and hope that thinning and fuels treatment work begins this summer.

Evergreen: Why didn’t the Forest Service ask for your help?

Johnson-Gebhardt: They did but not in the context of a formal collaborative effort.

Evergreen: Wasn’t your group also part of the Panhandle Forest Collaborative that did the Bottom Canyon work?

Johnson-Gebhardt: We were. I chair the Panhandle Forest Collaborative, Mike Petersen of the Land’s Council is the vice-chair. Bottom Canyon is a terrific project. We’re expecting a Record of Decision in a couple of weeks.

Evergreen: We had a chance to tour Bottom Canyon a couple of weeks ago. The project maps reflect some very solid thinking in terms of thinning, fuels treatments and riparian restoration. It will be interesting to read the final Record of Decision

Johnson-Gebhardt: A lot of the credit for Bottom Canyon turning out as it did goes to the Forest Service. They allowed us to come up with an alternative to their original plan. It took us a year longer, but we were able to triple the proposed harvest volume on the same acres.

Evergreen: A lot of veterans of the old timber wars will be very surprised to hear this.

Johnson-Gebhardt: It’s amazing what you can do when you sit around a table and really listen carefully to one another’s hopes and concerns. It’s all about building trust, and that takes time and effort. All of us who are involved in the Panhandle Forest Collaborative have a substantial investment in one another and it’s paying dividends in the form of work done on the ground.

Evergreen: Do you find that the public is oblivious to the seriousness of Idaho’s forest health problems and, likewise, the urgent need for thinning and fuels treatment?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Not as much as you might think. Our newcomers don’t understand it, but people who have lived around here for a long while understand the problem and its solution. I sometimes think the Forest Service sells local knowledge short, but scientists and technicians aren’t always the best listeners.

Evergreen: We’ve had people in the Forest Service tell us the same thing, yet the Panhandle Forest Collaborative seems to be on a roll. Would you agree?

Johnson-Gebhardt: I definitely agree. We have five nice projects in various stages of completion. Our next big project is Potter’s Wheel on the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. The mapping and data collection processes are underway now and we hope to get to work on planning this summer. Meantime, we have the Jasper Mountain ROD and expect the ROD on Bottom Canyon in a couple of weeks. Buckskin Saddle is rolling along and we expect to start restoration work on Hughes Creek this coming year.

Evergreen: What’s the take away message here?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Collaboration works if you are willing to work at it.

Evergreen: But it’s messy and not very efficient?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Democracy is by nature messy and inefficient, and a pretty good case can be made for the fact that collaboration is where democracy meets the road. At the very least, we’re bringing decision making processes that are impacting our community back down to local and regional levels.

Evergreen: And yet many continue to denigrate collaboration.

Johnson-Gebhardt: The word “collaborate” has lots of negative connotations. I wish the process in which we are engaged had been given a different word. This isn’t about drinking Kool-Aid or sleeping with enemies. It’s about finding solutions to very thorny problems that for years landed the Forest Service in court.

Evergreen: Why do you think you have been able to avoid appeals and litigation?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Good question. I’m not sure I know the answer, given that there is nothing to prevent anyone who disagrees with one of our projects from suing us. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that our collaboratives can honestly claim very diverse memberships – meaning our members bring very different value systems to the table where our proposed projects are discussed. We’re prepared to defend our work in court, and I think that makes opposing lawyers very nervous.

Evergreen: And here the Forest Service regularly contradicts itself. On the one hand, it loves the fact that your groups do hold diverse memberships that do have standing in court, but on the other hand, it seems willing to defend to the death the right of someone from, say, Connecticut, to sue to stop projects they’ve never even seen.

Johnson-Gebhardt: I know, and it is monumentally frustrating for collaborators who volunteer thousands of hours of time to finding solutions, but there isn’t anything we can do about it unless or until Congress decides to insulate forest collaboration from litigation.

Evergreen: Which isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

Johnson-Gebhardt: Correct. But we are at least reframing the debate.

Evergreen: In what way?

Johnson-Gebhardt: The debate isn’t between Republicans and Democrats. Many high ranking members of both parties support collaboration. I see it as more of an East-West thing. People who live in the West see the problem every day and know the clock is ticking on solutions. People who live in the East may never see the problem, and haven’t a clue what it will take to fix it, but they still want to flex their political muscles where protecting the environment is concerned. It’s our job to educate them.

Evergreen: So what should we read on the bottom line where forest collaboration is concerned?

Johnson-Gebhardt: What you should be able to read loud and clear is action – acres treated – healthier and more resilient forests better able to provide sustainable multiple economic and environmental benefits for communities and our nation.

Evergreen: And if we can’t read it loud and clear?

Johnson-Gebhardt: Then the project was a waste of time and should never have been proposed because we don’t have any time to waste, and we certainly don’t want to invest our money or anyone else’s in a project that isn’t going to produce measurable results for years to come.

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