Embracing Forest Collaboration: Scott Atkison

Embracing Forest Collaboration: Scott Atkison

"The timber industry is going to have to learn to share these forests with others who have different values and want different things from the forest. Frankly, I welcome it, and rue the day when polarized factions no longer tear away at the fabric of our society. The American Revolution is still going on. We are still changing and still learning. If some of us were not constantly tearing away at what others of us think we know, we would still all think the earth is flat."

The late Leonard Netzorg, from “Distant Thunder,” a 1991 Evergreen interview with the famed industry lawyer

Scott Atkison is the President of the Idaho Forest Group, a five sawmill complex that is, by far, the largest consumer of logs in Idaho. IFG was created through the 2008 merger of Bennett Forest Industries and Riley Creek Lumber Company. Atkison was President and CEO of BFI at the time of the merger. BFI was founded by his grandfather, Dick Bennett, easily one of the most prominent lumbermen in the long history of sawmilling in Idaho. Riley Creek was owned by Marc Brinkmeyer, who is now Chairman of the IFG Board of Directors.

Atkison, who is 45 and has a background in accounting and finance, is remarkably comfortable with the collaborative process. Bennett, who has owned and operated sawmills for more than 60 years, says that little has happened yet that calms his fears that the insect-disease-wildfire crisis that has overtaken federal forests in Idaho will not soon invade neighboring state, tribal and private timberlands.

Evergreen: What led the Idaho Forest Group to embrace forest collaboration?

Atkison: We’d seen the early results of Duane Vaagen’s pioneering collaborative work in northeast Washington and thought it was worth pursuing in Idaho. Then Mike Crapo, one of our U.S. Senators, asked us to participate in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, which was then in its formative stages. I was all in immediately.

Evergreen: Why?

Atkison: I see collaboration as a very effective way to resolve disputes over the manner of management on federal forest lands in our state. It’s a lot cheaper than litigation, which always leaves one side or the other wanting something they didn’t get. We all have needs. Best that we all acknowledge them up front, then work toward a mutually acceptable solution. That’s collaboration.

Bennett: People who know me know that I’m all about results. Collaboration is delivering logs to our mills, so I’m supporting it. But the collaborative process is terribly inefficient. We need to figure out how to get it to move faster so more timber acres can be treated before they burn up.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed – including Mike Petersen, who runs the Lands Council – agrees with you. But we’re wondering if these forest collaboratives aren’t simply the result of people getting tired of fighting with one another over forest related issues that weren’t getting resolved.

Bennett: When a forest is lost to wildfire, everyone loses. We lose timber we could harvest, counties lost harvesting revenue, communities lose sawmills, people who hunt and fish lose their favorite places and the folks who enjoy Wilderness lose that too. It’s damned expensive all around.

Atkison: IFG has been involved in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative for eight years. In that time, the harvest level on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest has gone from zero to 65 million board feet a year. But I have to tell you honestly that the shared lesson the Clearwater collaboratives members soon learned from one another was that there were no villains at the table. We all have needs – in our case its logs – but for others it was more wilderness. I’m good with that.

Evergreen: How about your partner, Marc Brinkmeyer? Is he as supportive as you seem to be?

Atkison: Marc has been philosophically 110 percent with both Dick and I on the value of our investment in forest collaboration. The merger that created IFG brought together two families of very similar values. We’ve never had an internal disagreement over the worth of our investment in our dialogues with very diverse groups of stakeholders. I might add that Dick and I are both linear thinkers. We see things sequentially. Marc is a non-linear thinker, so he isn’t burdened by sequences. That’s a powerful combination in the lumber business.

Evergreen: It certainly is. You’re also involved in the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative, aren’t you?

Atkison: Yes, we are. We have three sawmills – Moyie Springs, Laclede and Chilco – that are benefitting from our Idaho Panhandle collaborations and two mills – Lewiston and Grangeville – that benefit from our involvement in the Clearwater Basin. Both groups are very effective problem solvers.

Bennett: We get most of our logs from state and private timberlands, but with so much federal timberland in Idaho, we can’t ignore the source, especially when you add in the fact that our federal lands are being overrun by insects and diseases that are threatening neighboring lands, including ours.

Evergreen: It’s a concern shared by everyone we’ve interviewed, which has us believing that Idahoans are finding ways to resolve their differences where federal forest management is concerned. But how do you insulate the work collaborative group members are doing from people who don’t support forest management in any form and don’t want to participate in a collaborative?

Atkison: If you’re asking about litigation, I don’t know how to protect collaboratives from lawsuits, nor do I think it is a good idea to cut someone out of the process just because they don’t agree with majority opinion. Collaboration is an educational process built on trust. It takes time. People will continue to have extreme views and there isn’t much we can do about it except to let the result speak for itself. Our form of government allows people to be heard. It’s part of our civil discourse. I wouldn’t change it. But I will add that I believe civil discourse has its limits.

Evergreen: Explain what you mean by its limits.

Atkison: I think our collaboratives could help themselves find greater satisfaction and longer-term success if they could develop a system for resolving disputes that seem to defy agreement. Likewise, Congress cannot expect people to collaborate in good faith if it then refuses to protect the collaborative process and its’ mutually agreed upon decisions from those who bargain in bad faith.

Bennett: Scott is correct. I can only add that I wish more people could see the terrible economic and environmental damage these big wildfires are doing in our western national forests. We have to get ahead of this problem before it too late. The risks we are facing is a big reason why we’ve made such a large commitment to the collaborative process.

Evergreen: Is there a case to be made for the fact that the diversity of these collaborative groups you are involved in makes it more difficult for so-called fringe groups to litigate projects?

Atkison: Most of the conservation community seems to share our hopes for collaboration as a problem solving tool. This is an evolving process. The more we do it, the more trust we build and the better at it we become. And here I use the collective we. This isn’t all about IFG, or even about us needing a stable and adequate log supply. It’s about finding pathways for resolving environmental conflicts that result from a collision of often vastly differing societal values.

Evergreen: But should people who live a long way from Idaho and have no vested interest in its forests have a say in the manner in which they are managed?

Atkison: These are national forests. They belong to everyone, not just Idahoans. It’s a bitter pill for people who believe the federal government long ago made promises it has not kept. I can only say that society’s felt necessities have clearly changed and there isn’t anything we can do about it except to continue to invest in the quite measurable results our forest collaboratives are producing.

Evergreen: We have long believed that society grants a social license to those who harvest the public’s timber. Would you agree?

Atkison: I certainly do. But it isn’t just a social license to harvest public timber. It’s a license to harvest timber on all public and private ownerships. Fish, wildlife, the air we breathe and the water we drink are publicly-owned assets. This is why we have federal, state and local laws that protect these assets.

Bennett: Most people don’t realize how heavily regulated we are, not just on the forest side but also on the manufacturing end. We’re all for clean air and clean water and places to play, but I still worry about scale and speed of collaboration. The collaboratives could help themselves if they focused more on what they want their forests to look like in the future and less on actual methods. Leave the “how to” questions to the professionals.

Evergreen: But the public still demands to be heard and it doesn’t necessarily trust scientists who sometimes disagree amongst themselves.

Atkison: That’s true, and we have to respect those with whom we may disagree. Think about this for a moment: it takes 70 to 90 years to grow a tree to commercial size in Idaho. I can convert that tree into high grade lumber in a matter of seconds. And there are no do-overs. So we work hard to make certain our loggers and millworkers have access to the best technology and the best training in the world.

Evergreen: How many people does IFG employ in its five-mill operation?

Atkison: Probably about 800 in our mills and another 500 independent contractors.

Bennett: So that’s about 1,300 families or about 5,000 moms and dads and youngsters that are also part of that social license you mentioned. The trees we harvest, process and replant put good food on a lot of tables and roofs over the heads of a lot of really talented people who work for us.

Evergreen: IFG is now one of the largest lumber manufacturers in North America. What limiting factors control your ability to grow larger?

Atkison: We are only limited by our raw material supply. But our goal is to be good, not big. Not just good in the wood processing side, but good for our customers, our communities and our employees. There is still a lot more we can do with just the five mills we have. We spend millions of dollars annually on technologies designed to improve product quality and manufacturing efficiency. This is a brutally competitive business. If you fall behind, you’ll never catch up.

Bennett: My father started out making wooden fruit boxes in our basement in Clarkston, Washington during the Second World War. He would not recognize the wood processing industry we have today. That’s how far we’ve come over the last 60-some years. And he’d be really dismayed to see the deplorable condition of our national forests. I am too.

Evergreen: Would IFG participate in another forest collaboration or is two enough?

Atkison: We’d be interested in helping get something started in western Montana, but it takes more than what we bring to the table. You have to have a diverse group of volunteer participants who are willing to invest their time and effort in finding new pathways to resolving old conflicts. We’re blessed to have two very good groups in our timbershed, but we need to find new blood. Collaboration takes a lot of energy and patience. I worry about the aging of our groups.

Evergreen: How so?

Atkison: The commitment is huge. We have people who have been sitting around the same tables talking about solutions for nearly 10 years. That’s a long time in any negotiation. These volunteers have my utmost respect and admiration. You cannot put a price on the value of the economic and environmental contributions they are making to Idaho’s lifestyle and future.

Evergreen: The Forest Service seems to be fully engaged, too, would you agree?

Atkison: They certainly are here and we are grateful for their commitment to using collaboration to increase the amount of work that gets done on the ground in our Idaho national forests.

Evergreen: Is there a point out there in the future where the trajectories of the Forest Service and collaborative groups intersect and it becomes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins?

Atkison: That’s an excellent question. The Forest Service has already asked conservationists and lumber companies to contribute more on the financial side, and we’re already doing some of that in support of our two collaboratives, but I don’t foresee a time when collaboratives will replace the Forest Service. Collaboration is only one of many tools Congress has provided the Forest Service. I think what collaboratives bring to the table is a truly diverse public voice that cannot be ignored.

Evergreen: You are known to not be much of a political animal. How does that work in a company that buys more federal timber than any other company in Idaho?

Atkison: No, I’m not much for politics, at least not in a Republican-Democrat sense. I happily leave the political aspects of our business to Dick and Marc and Bob Boeh, who is our government relations vice president. They are very good at it. I prefer to concentrate on our growth strategy.

Evergreen: And what might that be?

Atkison: Hire the best people, invest in the best technology and produce the finest quality products and opportunity will find you when the time is right. Growth for its own sake is growth for the wrong reason. We want to get better at what we do in our forests, mills and communities. Patience, preparation and partnerships are everything in our business.

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