Embracing Forest Collaboration: Mike Petersen

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Mike Petersen

“When we leave forests to nature, as so many people today seem to want to do, we get whatever nature serves up, which can be pretty devastating at times, but with forestry we have options, and a degree of predictability not found in nature.”

Alan Houston, PhD wildlife biologist Ames Plantation, Grand Junction Tennessee Evergreen Magazine Spring, 1997

Four years ago, Mike Petersen, Executive Director of the Spokane-based Lands Council, told his organization’s Board of Directors they needed to shelve their litigation strategy, forsake their “no federal forest management” stance and embrace forest collaboration. In this interview, Mr. Petersen explains why he recommended such a startling turnabout, and his hopes that collaborating with the Council’s former adversaries will yield better outcomes for the Council and the region’s federal forests.

Evergreen: Mr. Petersen, the Lands Council was a successful appellant and litigant in many cases involving U.S. Forest Service management plans and projects. What led you to recommend that the strategy be shelved in favor of forest collaboration?

Petersen: We weren’t meeting one of our primary objectives, which is the designation of more Wilderness. More broadly, though, I had concluded that the only way we’d ever get more land classified as Wilderness was through the collaborative process.

Evergreen: What led you to this conclusion?

Petersen: The mere fact that Congress had not reached consensus on new Wilderness designations was a big part of it, but I also sensed that the general public was becoming increasingly unhappy about the role that appeals and litigation were playing in delaying work that is needed to restore western national forests.

Evergreen: How did your Board of Directors react to your recommendation?

Petersen: I am blessed to have some very good listeners and thinkers on our board. They understood my reasoning and have been very supportive.

Evergreen: What has been the reaction from your colleagues in the conservation community?

Petersen: It has been mixed. Many continue to oppose our decision on the grounds that it is not our job to collaborate or to help the Forest Service design timber sales. Others have been very supportive and are doing the same things we are doing now.

Evergreen: How do you execute such a dramatic reversal? Where did you start?

Petersen: Initially, a colleague and I reached out to Duane Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company at Colville, which is about 90 miles north of Spokane. Duane is a wonderfully creative thinker, and he’s been a real pioneer in forest collaboration in northeast Washington. We consider him to be a trusted partner.

Evergreen: We’ll get to the trust question in a moment, but we’d like to know what you learned from your early conversations with Mr. Vaagen.

Petersen: Most importantly, we learned that mills like his need a steady supply of small logs. Duane isn’t interested in entering roadless areas. He believes he can run his operation successfully on a steady and certain supply of timber from federal lands that aren’t reserved from logging.

Evergreen: And you aim to help him gain the certainty he seeks from the federal government?

Petersen: We aim to help each other in every way we possibly can. That is a bedrock principle in every successful collaborative effort.

Evergreen: You referenced trust a moment ago. How did you overcome such deep-seated distrust?

Petersen: It helped that we shared a belief that the system is broken. And it is. So you promise each other you will stay at the table until you figure out how to fix it, and then you fix it one project at a time. It isn’t a very efficient way to do business, but we believe that success begets success. But to your direct question about trust, you build it by doing what you say you will do and by not giving up in the face of disagreements that have to be resolved before you can move forward.

Evergreen: Is Duane Vaagen the only lumbermen with whom you work?

Petersen: Not at all. Bob Boeh of the Idaho Forest Group in Coeur d’Alene has been very helpful, as have several others who share our belief that collaboration is a great problem solving tool.

Evergreen: Have there been any big arguments since you reached out to the region’s lumbermen?

Petersen: Not one. Some of us have become friends. Duane Vaagen’s son, Russ, and I have appeared on the same programs so many times we think we could give one another’s presentations without missing a beat. There will always be differences of opinion on how to get where we think we are headed, but the lumbermen we work with recognize our desire for more designated Wilderness areas and we recognize their need for a certain and steady supply of federal logs.

Evergreen: When you set out to find common ground, what was your first area of agreement?

Petersen: Neither of us liked what the Forest Service was doing. By that I mean we did not feel that the agency was listening to us. It’s a huge bureaucracy, and one in which the only way to get promoted is to move from job to job. Staff is never in one place long enough to learn much about the forest or the community. It’s a terrible way to run a business.

Evergreen: How have you overcome the bureaucratic nature of the Forest Service?

Petersen: Personalities are key to forest collaborative success. We have a real pearl in Mary Farnsworth, who is the supervisor on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. She’s very supportive. We also got a lot of help from Rick Brazell, who was supervisor on the Colville National Forest when we were getting started. I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Forest Service is an immovable object. That’s not the case, but it takes work and a willingness to try new things.

Evergreen: How many collaborative successes can you count since you started out?

Petersen: About three dozen over the last 12 years. Most have been on the Colville because that’s where we started, but I can count eight projects on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest and maybe five on the Kootenai in northwest Montana. In total, about 50,000 acres.

Evergreen: Apart from personalities, what drives success?

Petersen: All collaboratives are place-based, which is another way of saying that all politics are local. Collaboratives gain lots of strength from local knowledge, from the participation of people who have lived in a particular area long enough to develop an understanding of its social, economic and cultural idiosyncrasies. Some conservationists believe local people are a detriment because they believe their decisions are always based on preserving their economy at the expense of the environment. We haven’t found this to be true. What they seek is a more balanced consideration of local need. We agree.

Evergreen: But you still have to gain consensus with people who live a long way from rural timber communities and have little or no economic stake in your deliberations.

Petersen: That’s true, which is why the work we do on the ground has to speak for itself, and it has to be based on consensus among stakeholders who are involved in the collaborative.

Evergreen: Can you define the collaborative process in simple term?

Petersen: It would be an oversimplification to call it negotiation, because it involves much more. But every successful collaboration begins with a frank discussion about what the stakeholders at the table need to declare victory with their constituents. The bargaining can be hard at times, but collaboration is designed to unite people in a common purpose. Sometimes, professional mediators are needed, but my experience is that reasonable people can find ways to overcome their disagreements.

Evergreen: Is there a legislative framework for collaboration?

Petersen: There is. The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 contained a provision creating the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The CFLRP structure is based on competitive selection of collaboratively developed proposals. Proposals were judged on their ecological, economic, and social sustainability. Thirteen were funded in 2012, including one in northern Idaho and another in northeastern Washington.

Evergreen: Didn’t the 2014 Farm Bill also speak to the need for forest collaboration?

Petersen: It certainly did. It made Stewardship Contracting permanent and it authorized states to identify areas at high risk of insect and disease mortality. In Idaho, multiple resource agencies worked collaboratively with conservationists, lumbermen and other stakeholders to identify 1.7 million high priority that are now part of 50 different projects in which collaboration will play a significant role.

Evergreen: What collaborative projects has the Lands Council worked on that stand out in your mind?

Petersen: The Bottom Canyon project on the Idaho Panhandle’s Fernan Ranger District comes immediately to mind. The Forest Service developed the initial plan, which we who make up the Idaho Panhandle Collaborative all thought was too small, so we asked if we could take a crack at revising it and, to our surprise, they said yes. We took it from 1,200 to 2,400 acres and from seven million board feet to 30 million board feet.

Evergreen: That’s impressive. How did you do it?

Petersen: A lot of credit goes to Chad Hudson, the Fernan District Ranger. Likewise, the Idaho Forest Group for hiring Northwest Management, a forestry consulting firm based in Moscow, Idaho that helped us develop a first-rate set of GIS maps we could use to identify areas needing treatment. It was really exciting for all of us. Again, personalities are key; the right mix of people.

Evergreen: Where is the project located?

Petersen: It’s in the Little North Fork Coeur d’ Alene River drainage in Kootenai County. The entire Coeur d’Alene River drainage has been logged and re-logged for more than a century. In the early days, it was hit pretty hard by loggers, wildfires and blister rust. But’s is a very resilient and productive forest with lots of potential for restoring western white pine and other native tree species.

Evergreen: So you see lots of potential for other collaborative projects in the Shoshone-Kootenai area?

Petersen: We do. More than half of the 2.8 million acre Idaho Panhandle National Forest lies within Shoshone County. I’ve more or less cleared my calendar so we can identify more projects there. And I hope to meet soon with the Shoshone County Commissioners. The county had a forest collaborative at one time, and we want to do our part to get it back up and running, or fold it into the Panhandle Collaborative, so we can identify some projects.

Evergreen: Why county commissioners?

Petersen: Counties are the local government units the Forest Service is legally required to engage. They get a percentage of the revenue derived from federal timber sales. It is revenue they need to help fund county schools and roads because the federal government does not pay property tax on the lands it owns within counties. In Shoshone County’s case, the Idaho Panhandle National Forest accounts for about 80 percent of all the acres that lie within the county.

Evergreen: We presume that the projects you are describing take the form of thinning in overly dense timber stands.

Petersen: That’s generally true. Prescribed fire is also an important tool, but in most cases, the forests we hope to thin are too dense. They have to be thinned before fire can be safely reintroduced.

Evergreen: So having viable markets for thinned trees is an important consideration?

Petersen: Absolutely, and not just sawmills but also skilled loggers capable of doing this work. If I have learned nothing else from the lumbermen I’ve met, I’ve learned that a healthy timber economy is vital to having a healthy forest environment. Not all conservationists agree with this, but I’ve concluded that timber management is needed to restore white pine, western larch and other fire and insect resistant species.

Evergreen: Are there any principles or concepts that are guiding you in your ongoing dialogue with the region’s lumbermen or, more broadly, with all of the stakeholders engaged in collaboration?

Petersen: That’s a wonderful question, but it will take me a few minutes to answer.

Evergreen: By all means.

Petersen: Early last year, one of our directors suggested we bring key stakeholders – lumbermen and conservationists - together for a weekend to see if we could hash out some ideas on paper. We ended up at the Snyder Guard Station on the Moyie River, so we now call ourselves the Snyder Group. There are probably 15 or 20 of us: conservationists, lumbermen, county commissioners, state legislators and ATV groups from Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington. Together, we’ve come up with a working document we call “Renewing our National Forests: Principles and Concepts.”

Evergreen: Can you share it with us?

Petersen: I can, but the document is pretty tedious. Better that I try to summarize it, bearing in mind that it is a work in progress and by no means the only such effort underway across the West.

Evergreen: We’re ready.

Petersen: Obviously bi-partisan support is key to implementing these principles on the legislative front. This said, the principles we’ve identified revolve around institutionalizing the collaborative process. We all recognize the need to work at a landscape scale, meaning more acres get treated faster and more efficiently. Then there is the need to refocus environmental laws that are supposed to protect forests and wildlife, but are hindering restoration that will ultimately provide better habitat for those species. We also all agree that keeping counties whole, economically, socially and environmentally is vital. Likewise, whatever we do must provide a net gain for all stakeholders. And lastly, there is the concept of equality of permanence on all acres.

Evergreen: And what exactly is equality of permanence of acres?

Petersen: It’s Bob Boeh’s idea and it’s a good one. What it says is that all of the acres designated for a particular purpose must be designated permanently. Wilderness acre designations are permanent and have been since Congress ratified the Wilderness Act in 1964. But other designations – roadless acres, active management acres, restoration acres and recreation acres - have never been granted permanent status. We think it’s time.

Evergreen: Sounds like a job for Congress.

Petersen: It is for sure, but again, bi-partisan support is key. The fact that we have such diverse groups of stakeholders at many tables will hopefully signal Congress that a lot of changed is underway in rural areas that have suffered mightily at the hands of warring factions. Collaborators are tackling some very large environmental and economic issues at ground level. A pretty good case can be made for the fact that this historic moment in time rivals the 1905 creation of the National Forest System.

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