Embracing Forest Collaboration: Phil Hough

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Phil Hough

“Historical conflict between timber production and wilderness protection is ebbing. Collaborations throughout our region are making progress in finding support for responsible timber practices and for wilderness. Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, along with other conservations groups, community organizations and representatives from the timber industry are taking part in the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders and the Panhandle Forest Collaborative.

Participants in these efforts are finding they share common values and interests. This doesn’t mean that we always see eye to eye with the timber guys or even our fellow conservationists. But we do believe that dialogue is better than conflict. Communities don’t win when timber projects or wilderness proposals are perpetually stalled.”

Phil Hough, Executive Director Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, Sagle, Idaho “Conservation Through Collaboration and Conversations” Peak Experience Newsletter, January-February 2013

Editor’s Note: Phillip Hough comes by his interest in forestry and wilderness quite naturally. His great grandfather was Franklin Hough, an upstate New York physician who went on to become the first Chief of the Division of Forestry, forerunner of the U.S. Forest Service. Like his great grandfather, Mr. Hough is an ardent conservationist. He helped start Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness at Sandpoint, Idaho a decade ago. In this interview, Hough, who was an executive with Hyatt Hotels for 20 years, explains how collaboration and lumber industry support are bringing his group closer to the day when the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness may be designated by Congress.

Evergreen: Mr. Hough, how does a hotel industry executive find his way to Sandpoint, Idaho?

Hough: I was burned out on hotels and needed to find something new. My wife and I love to take long hiking trips. We’ve been the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. So when we started looking for a place to land, we set up a criteria that included a four season climate, a reliable Internet connection, proximity to a good airport and access to the arts in a community with a small town feel to it. There are, of course, lots of towns across the West that fit this description, but Sandpoint also had affordable housing. We were smitten the first time we drove across the long bridge.

Evergreen: A lot of my growing up occurred around Sandpoint, so I’ve crossed it at least a thousand times. The view is breathtaking.

Hough: Northern Idaho is spectacular, not just for its scenery but also for its quite diverse economy. There is a great balance between protected landscapes and working landscapes.

Evergreen: You sound like poster children for the New West Economy that has been the subject of many books and even more articles in newspapers and magazines.

Hough: I suppose we are. This is a great place to build a small business. But I’d add that I don’t personally believe that traditional businesses – like lumber manufacturing – need to be displaced for the so-called New Economy to form or prosper. Northern Idaho is, for example, fortunate to have a quite valuable and viable timber industry that has been here for more than a century.

Evergreen: And for most of those years, it has prospered alongside a robust tourism sector.

Hough: That’s what I understand, though around Sandpoint, and I suppose Coeur d’Alene, there has been enormous growth in the second home market. Lots of very affluent families spend their summers in awfully nice homes on Pend Oreille and Coeur d’Alene Lakes. They, more than the nightly or weekly tourists, are the reason we have a robust arts community and lots of top quality restaurants.

Evergreen: We hear that some of the visitors you describe have also invested in startup businesses in northern Idaho.

Hough: That’s true, and much of the credit goes to the accessibility of educational and research opportunities associated with the University of Idaho. I failed to mention earlier that the presence of a suite of educational opportunities was also on the list my wife and I put together before moving.

Evergreen: Tell us about your Scotchman Peaks Wilderness group. How does a guy whose professional experience is in hotels get involved in forming such a group?

Hough: Our interest in hiking had a lot to do with it. But we certainly didn’t come here looking for the chance to advocate for a new wilderness area. Still, it didn’t take us long to find Scotsman Peaks on the Idaho-Montana Divide. The peaks are the highest elevations in Bonner County and offer wonderful views of Pend Oreille Lake to the west and Montana’s Cabinet Mountains to the east.

Evergreen: The peaks were visible from a plateau on my grandparent’s ranch. I know them well, but never hiked there. I guess I was always too busy fishing Rapid Lightning Creek. Tell us what led to your decision to help found Friends of Scotchman Peaks?

Hough: My desire to see the area be officially designated as wilderness. It’s an 88,000 acre roadless area that is both a geologic marvel and a biologically treasure that features hundreds of plant and animal species that make the Peaks a very special place.

Evergreen: The way you describe the area, it seems like a slam-dunk. Why hasn’t it already received official wilderness designation from Congress?

Hough: As you know, wilderness designations take a lot of time and can be very controversial. Congress has been increasingly reluctant to designate wilderness areas unless there is broad bipartisan public support. What intrigued me about the Peaks – in addition to their raw beauty – was the possibility that it could be designated alongside a vibrant timber industry. Timber management and wilderness are generally seen as polar opposites, so when our group came together we were focused on the forest planning process and making sure it had balanced forest plan recommendations. We naturally became part of both the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders when they formed so we could continue our conversation with lumbermen and loggers in both Idaho and northwest Montana about their interests as well as our interest in Scotchman Peaks.

Evergreen: And what did you learn from your initial meetings with them?

Hough: We learned that we had a lot in common in terms of our love of the outdoors and all that it offers in our four-season recreational world.

Evergreen: We’ve looked at your Scotchman marketing package. It’s very impressive, a vastly different approach from what we’ve seen from wilderness advocates in the past.

Hough: I got 20 years of very solid business training from the Hyatt chain that I really didn’t appreciate until I had the opportunity to apply those skills to Scotchman Peaks. We are well organized, focused and low key. You don’t get far today trying to scare the public silly, or by bemoaning the last of this or that, at least not in this part of the world. So we opted for an educational approach designed to help the public understand the rareness of the area’s natural resources.

Evergreen: I’d like to read something from your brochure that struck close to home for me because the area you describe bordered my grandparent’s ranch:

“The Scotchman Peaks are carved almost entirely out of one block of stone that began twisting eons ago on an axis dictated by the collision of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. As one corner rose, the other sank; until the difference in strata along the Hope Fault, marking the southwestern edge of the Scotchman’s, is now measured in tens of thousands of feet. This base of Precambrian stone – some of the oldest on the planet – is the foundation for a diverse and beautiful place full of things wild and lovely, animate and not.”

That’s a nice visual and a nice piece of writing – and it certainly speaks well for your Hyatt training.

Hough: Thank you. I can’t take credit for writing those words, but I did enjoy helping put together the overall marketing package. We were fortunate enough to attract some talented writers and resource specialists. As I’ve already said, I’m committed to the idea that this beautiful area can be preserved, despite its close proximity to a vibrant and technologically advanced timber industry that is so important, economically and culturally, to northern Idaho’s very being.

Evergreen: Tell us about your group.

Hough: We cross just about every political and professional spectrum. Most of us bring solid, long term problem solving skills to the group. We share a desire for more designated wilderness, but not at the expense of other people who hold different values than ours. This is where our problem solving skills come into play.

Evergreen: How so?

Hough: I mentioned earlier that we joined the Idaho Panhandle collaborative group. We see collaboration as a pathway for bringing together disparate views and focusing them on a single point or problem requiring a solution. Businesses do this every day of the week. When I take off my business hat and put on my conservation hat, is there some unknown reason why I should suddenly lose my problem solving skills? There is not. Collaboration is all about problem solving.

Evergreen: Well, having come out of the Hyatt world, you certainly should know something about what drives businesses to behave as they do.

Hough: I absolutely do. And what I know first is that businesses are run by real people who are, as a rule, principled and hardworking. Corporations are neither baseless nor faceless. As collaborators working to solve complex business or conservation problems, it is incumbent on us to find pathways that link us in a common endeavor. This is how trust gets built.

Evergreen: Is it fair to say that collaborating with lumbermen and loggers is a leap of faith for you?

Hough: It’s a leap of faith for all of us. We are driven by a shared desire to solve problems related to both forest management and conservation. We also know that none of us who are engaged in this will ever get what we want without the help of one another. Good forestry and conservation are inseparable parts of a greater whole.

Evergreen: Critics of this series of interviews say that you are simply bargaining away publicly owned assets. How do you respond?

Hough: I’ve heard that criticism. Quite the contrary, I’d say we are engaged in a conversation that is conserving public assents – not just special places like Scotchman Peaks, but also an economy that has been the backbone of northern Idaho for more than 100 years. The fact that we have a timber industry here is key to the forest restoration hopes of every collaborative in this region.

Evergreen: We suppose you get hate mail for saying things like that in public.

Hough: Probably no more than you get for interviewing people like me. What we share in this conversation is our mutual understanding that the forest restoration work now underway on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest would not be possible were it not for the know-how, technology and markets provided by Idaho’s loggers and lumbermen.

Evergreen: We note with interest that even the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce – an organization rich in lumber history - has endorsed your Scotchman Peaks wilderness proposal.

Hough: They were with us on our most recent trip to Washington, D.C., helping us solicit House and Senate support for our proposal.

Evergreen: How is your campaign progressing?

Hough: It’s going well. Idaho Senator Jim Risch, who sits on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had some nice things to say about our collaborative work in a committee hearing a couple of weeks ago. Given his widely regarded conservative credentials, it’s clear to me that Idaho’s collaborative groups are on a lot of radar screens. That’s a very hopeful sign.

Evergreen: So why does collaboration still have so many skeptics in the public arena?

Hough: Not having personally experienced the pain of the economic fallout that has occurred in the West’s timber industry, I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer your question, but there remains a lot of heartache and suffering in many rural timber towns. It has made it difficult for many people to see collaboration in its true light, much less want to try it. And, of course, there have been some notable failures. But here in Idaho we all seem to have stumbled onto common ground.

Evergreen: The perception is that horse-trading is what drives the collaborative process. “I’ll give you this if you give me that.”

Hough: Successful collaboration isn’t horse-trading or negotiating, at least not in a win-lose sense. In a successful collaboration, all parties gain something – and one’s gains are not made at the expense of someone else’s values. For example, at Bottom Canyon, on the Fernan Ranger District east of Coeur d’ Alene, the collaborative proposal increased the amount of timber scheduled for harvest, does more restoration work than was in the original plan and takes a more comprehensive look at cumulative impacts,, thus ensuring conservation values in the long run. Building trust among the collaborative participants was vital to bringing about these results.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed has stress the importance of building trust relationships.

Hough: Trust breaks down barriers to constructive dialogue. It takes time and a willingness to communicate honestly with one another. There can be no side deals or backroom dealing. Transparency is key to gaining trust, both within and beyond the collaboratives.

Evergreen: So it’s great that you all trust one another but it will take time for the collaborative process to gain the public’s trust and respect?

Hough: That’s for sure. And public confidence in the legitimacy of the projects we undertake will depend a lot on visual outcomes and, of course, monitoring data gathered over long periods of time.

Evergreen: There are certainly reasons to be hopeful, but we are getting an earful about how the process is slow and inefficient and isn’t working on large enough physical or geographic scales to make a significant difference in forests that are currently on the brink of ecological collapse.

Hough: You will hear the same complaint from conservationists who is engaged in collaboratives. We all realize that we need to find ways to work faster and more efficiently on more acres requiring treatment of one kind or another. I’m confident that success will bring more success, just as it does in every startup business. Look at it this way: we are building equity in a new community-based problem solving model. A decade from now, collaboration will probably look much different than looks today, but we have to walk before we can run. As trust replaces skepticism around the collaborative table, and as skeptical publics become more supportive, collaboration will move forward more efficiently and effectively.

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