Forest Collaboration in Northeast Washington: Mike Petersen

Forest Collaboration in Northeast Washington: Mike Petersen

“I would respectfully disagree with critics who suggest that collaboration is Ouija board stuff. Between the U.S. Forest Service and major universities with programs in the environmental sciences, we have access to a wealth of tools and information that help us understand what’s happening in forests and what management alternatives are available to us.

Both the Idaho Panhandle Collaborative and the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition have websites that describe our work in great detail. The Lands Council also has a site as does Evergreen. We’re all open books. Anyone who wants to know what we think or where we get our science data can pretty easily figure it out.”

Mike Petersen, Executive Director The Lands Council, Spokane, Washington From a June 18, 2015 Evergreen interview in Spokane

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 a little known but congressionally blessed problem solving process called forest collaboration.

In this interview, Mr. Petersen discusses his enduring relationship with Duane Vaagen, President of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, Colville, Washington. Mr. Vaagen pioneered forest collaboration in Northeast Washington. “It was our defining moment,” Mr. Petersen says of his chance encounter with Mr. Vaagen following a 2001 meeting in Colville. The two men have worked side by side since then, publicly supporting one another’s ideas about actively managed forests and wilderness designations.

Evergreen: Mike, this is our second interview with you. On April 14, we talked about the Land Council’s decision to embrace forest collaboration and the leadership role you’ve played in the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative. But your first collaborative outreach came in Northeast Washington and was the result of your chance meeting with Duane Vaagen, Isn’t that right?

Petersen: That’s correct. Duane and I met at a meeting of some sort – I don’t recall what – in Colville in 2001 or 2002. Tim Coleman, who runs the Kettle Range Conservation Group at Republic, Washington, had met earlier with Duane to start these discussions. Duane approached me after the Colville meeting with some ‘what if’ questions about wilderness and timber management. I liked what he had to say.

Evergreen: And what was it he said that you liked?

Petersen: Well, it’s more than a decade ago, so I don’t remember his exact words, but basically he thought we could help each other get our needs met on the Colville National Forest.

Evergreen: The Council’s need being...

Petersen: More designated wilderness and better forestry in the managed part of the forest.

Evergreen: And what did Mr. Vaagen say he needed?

Petersen: Certainty in log supply – the timber he needs to keep his mills running at Colville and Usk.

Evergreen: So what exactly was Mr. Vaagen’s pitch?

Petersen: He said he thought the Colville was large enough to accommodate our desire for more designated wilderness as well his need for areas for timber production.

Evergreen: Pretty daring thinking in 2001 – especially coming from a lumberman whose industry has opposed wilderness designations for decades.

Petersen: It certainly was, and that was why Tim and I were so intrigued. But over the years, I’ve learned that Duane is very transparent and pretty disarming at the same time. He makes you think – or at least does me.

Evergreen: Many people don’t understand what designated wilderness means, so perhaps you could describe the designation to us.

Petersen: Sure. Congressionally designated wilderness areas can only be reached on foot or horseback. There are no roads and motorized travel is not permitted. Forests are not managed, except by nature, and no timber harvesting will ever occur for any reason.

Evergreen: And Mr. Vaagen is okay with that?

Petersen: Then, as now, one of Duane’s biggest talking points is that the Colville is large enough to accommodate every forest user group.

Evergreen: Do you agree with him?

Petersen: I do. The Colville divides itself pretty nicely into thirds - one third wilderness, one third backcountry, requiring light touch restoration, and one third active timber management that is managed under sustainable, ecological forest practices.

Evergreen: How might these more sustainable ecological practices differ from what happened on the Colville National Forest in the past?

Petersen: In the past there was often an emphasis on taking high value trees, including old growth. There was extensive clearcutting and even thinning with bulldozers that has had severe impacts. The Colville built an extensive road system that it cannot afford to maintain, which is still impacting water quality and the fishery. In the future there should be an increase in insect and fire resistant species, protection of old growth and large trees, and a road system that protects water quality.

Evergreen: How big is the Colville?

Petersen: A little more than one million acres, about one-third the size of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, which was created through the merger of three national forests in 1973.

Evergreen: And one million acres is enough?

Petersen: I think so, though it has taken us some time to sort out the acres and the policies for managing them.

Evergreen: Let’s come back to that in a moment. So you and Tim and Duane stumble across one another’s very different paths in 2001. Then what? Duane’s openness had to have left you wondering what had just happened.

Petersen: It was our defining moment, for sure.

Evergreen: How so?

Petersen: Wilderness advocates aren’t conditioned to think in terms of sharing a forest with lumbermen. Likewise, lumbermen aren’t conditioned to think in terms of sharing a forest with wilderness advocates. But Duane saw that we needed certainty – the certainty that there will be wilderness and the certainty that there will be actively management forests.

Evergreen: And that was the big idea that Duane discussed with you and Tim?

Petersen: You got it.

Evergreen: Who is the ‘our’ in ‘our defining moment?’

Petersen: All of us. Over time, Duane’s ideas certainly helped broaden our horizons at the Lands Council, but we’ve also helped Duane define and refine his ideas about how the Colville National Forest ought to be managed. But more broadly, the ‘our’ is all of us who have embraced forest collaboration as an innovative and proactive problem solving alternative to litigation.

Evergreen: Take us back to the beginning. What happened following that meeting with Duane?

Petersen: Jim Doran soon arrived on the scene. He’s a conservationist who, at the time, was the mayor of Twisp, a little town in central Washington’s Methow Valley. Jim is a lawyer by profession, but I don’t know how much law he practices anymore. Anyway, Duane hired him to help us get the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition established.

Evergreen: I wonder what Mr. Doran brought to the table?

Petersen: You’ll have to ask Duane or Jim for the details, but it’s my recollection that Jim had been leading the charge in the Methow Valley. It’s a beautiful area with a long history in logging and a lot of wilderness potential.

Evergreen: The story we hear is that Duane made a believer out of Mr. Doran by taking him through his small log sawmill and showing him all the high value products he was making from small diameter trees that are clogging Northeast Washington forests.

Petersen: I’ve heard that same story, but you’d have to ask Jim if it’s true. I can tell you that Duane’s mills at Colville and Usk are state-of-the-art mills that do a nice job of converting small diameter trees into quality wood products.

Evergreen: And these are the trees that conservationists like you believe we need to be removing from overgrown areas on the Colville and Idaho Panhandle National Forests?

Petersen: That’s correct. But restoring forests to their more natural range of variability isn’t just a matter of removing small trees. It’s more about bringing back tree species that have lost their places in the landscape as a result of the exclusion of fire, high-grading shade intolerant tree species, like western white pine and western larch and allowing shade tolerant tree species, like white fir, to take over landscapes that were more open a century ago.

Evergreen: This is the restoration strategy that collaborators talk about for northern Idaho and northeast Washington?

Petersen: It is – and there are a lot of forest stands in the roaded portion of the forest that are far outside their historical range.

Evergreen: The historical range being what - and since we can’t turn back the clock, what next?

Petersen: The concept of historic range is that the forest had a mix of young, medium and old growth stands. As natural processes, such as fire and insects occurred, older stands might die and be replaced with young forest. Because of past management, there is far less old growth than historically, and because of fire suppression there are also less young stands. The result is there are far more medium age stands, which creates problems for wildlife and changes fire behavior. Restoring a more historic forest composition is now a goal of the Forest Service, as well as our collaboration. How and where this restoration occurs should be driven by science.

Evergreen: The dozen or so people we’ve interviewed since April all agree that the key to collaborative success is diversity - meaning you need to assemble a stakeholder group that represents the interests of every forest user group.

Petersen: That’s true, but you have to start with what’s readily available. In our case, we had us – the Lands Council and Tim Coleman– and we had Duane and Jim Doran, and they brought in Lloyd McGee, who is now with the Nature Conservancy, and Maurice Williamson, a forestry consultant who lives in Colville. Gloria Flora came later. She’s our paid staffer and a Forest Service retiree with strong wilderness credentials. We also have some county commissioners in our camp.

Evergreen: Sounds like a good group.

Petersen: It is, but we don’t have the politics right yet. There is more spade work to do.

Evergreen: How so?

Petersen: We are still getting some pushback from conservationists and folks on the right who don’t yet see much legitimacy or hope in our work.

Evergreen: Those who see forest collaboration as some sort of United Nations Agenda 21 plot?

Petersen: I don’t know that I’d go that far. Collaboration is still new. There are a lot of fears on both the left and the right. It’s something we have to acknowledge and respect, and it’s the reason we need to be more inclusive in our meetings. All of our meetings are open to the public. There are no secrets. All forest user groups are welcome.

Evergreen: There’s still a lot of deep seated anger in rural timber communities, isn’t there?

Petersen: Yes, there is, and it’s very understandable given the economic hardships that have befallen these communities. But there’s also a lot of anger among conservationists who see their last chance at wilderness disappearing before their very eyes.

Evergreen: How do you get beyond the anger?

Petersen: By doing what we’re doing – collaborating, problem solving, building on our successes, small though they are.

Evergreen: Who’s missing from the table?

Petersen: Ranchers who graze their sheep or cattle on federal forests lands. Also, all-terrain vehicle groups that often butt heads with hikers. County commissioners who long for a return to the good old days. Those would be the main ones at the local level.

Evergreen: How’d they get left out?

Petersen: Some have chosen to stay away as a matter of principle. But our collaborative group is partly to blame.

Evergreen: Why?

Petersen: In our overly simplistic thinking we assumed that if conservationists and lumbermen could agree, the deal was done. It was our oversight.

Evergreen: How do you correct it?

Petersen: Like I said, more spadework. You reach out to leaders in other user groups and let them know their values and opinions are welcome in our group.

Evergreen: We’ll hazard a guess that Duane Vaagen agrees with your assessment.

Petersen: Duane has been very supportive. So has his son, Russ, who we also work with very closely. We all recognize that diversity of opinion makes our group stronger.

Evergreen: But it probably also makes it more difficult to reach agreement on what’s needed in the Colville National Forest.

Petersen: That’s true. Collaborative agreement takes time. Trust and transparency are essential. As you said a few moments ago, there is a lot of anger and suspicion. But we’ve come a long way since 2000.

Evergreen: We’ll hazard a guess that not everyone in the conversation community is happy with you.

Petersen: I have been raked over the coals by several people, but you can’t please everyone.

Evergreen: Nor can we, it seems. We’ve been accused of “drinking the Kool-Aid” and being “too Kumbaya.” About all we can say is that this is the most hopeful sign of progress in the old timber wars that we’ve seen in 30 years.

Petersen: I certainly agree with you.

Evergreen: There is a perception that those doing the collaborating aren’t qualified to make the kinds of decisions you’re making, and that what you’re up to is all Ouija board stuff.

Petersen: I would respectfully disagree with critics who suggest that collaboration is Ouija board stuff. Between the U.S. Forest Service and major universities with programs in the environmental sciences, we have access to a wealth of tools and information that help us understand what’s happening in forests and what management alternatives are available to us.

Both the Idaho Panhandle Collaborative and the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition have websites that describe our work in great detail. The Lands Council also has a site as does Evergreen. We’re all open books. Anyone who wants to know what we think or where we get our science data can pretty easily figure it out.

Evergreen: We are indeed, but how do we overcome the criticism from more rigid conservationists who believe collaborative groups are focused too much on economics and too little on ecology?

Petersen: Collaboration will always have its critics and its skeptics. Good monitoring work after projects are completed will help some, but let’s recognize and respect the fact that some people simply believe nature’s way is the only way.

Evergreen: For years, we’ve been saying that nature is indifferent to human need, which is why managing forests is the only way to insure than human needs are met.

Petersen: I agree, though management can take many forms and may not always involve delivering logs to mills. Research scientists Paul Hessburg and Derek Churchill among others say this: More than a century of forest and fire management of Inland Pacific landscapes has transformed their successional and disturbance dynamics. Regional connectivity in many terrestrial and aquatic habitats has been fragmented, flows of some ecological and physical processes have been altered in space and time, and the frequency, size and intensity of many disturbances that configure these habitats have been altered. Communities have existed near national forests for over a century and we are going to keep putting out fires near them - and thereby increasing fuel loads and favoring shade tolerant species.  Expecting there to be no impact from that is simply unscientific. This is why science based management is needed.

Evergreen: Have collaborative groups stacked the deck against the more rigid conservation groups that prefer litigation to collaboration?

Petersen: I don’t think so, but there is a fundamental disagreement about whether our forests need restoration. And again, some individuals simply prefer to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks at the rest of us. Not much we can do about that.

Evergreen: You’ve pretty clearly come down on the side of thinning and active management.

Petersen: We have, but again, restoration won’t always deliver logs to mills. This is why we support Duane’s ideas about designated wilderness, areas where forests are actively managed and areas where the emphasis is on light touch restoration over long periods of time. And restoration is not even spaced thinning, it is about leaving patches, creating gaps, and looking at how fire and disturbance moves through the landscape. It is also about wildlife corridors and protecting unique habitats.

Evergreen: Sort of the zoning idea writ large. We do this here and that there.

Petersen: As a practical matter, that’s what we’ve been doing since the Wilderness Act was ratified in 1964. The fact that we still have so much unroaded forestland in Idaho and Northeast Washington gives us an opportunity to identify areas best suited to management, wilderness or something in between.

Evergreen: Draw us a picture of the collaborative process 10 years down the road.

Petersen: Good question. I’ll try to answer. Assuming Congress stays the course, I think you’ll find us working at much larger geographic scales. We won’t be down in the weeds where we are today, and we won’t be as focused on specific project details.

Evergreen: Sounds like more work for an already overworked Forest Service.

Petersen: There is a great need for more NEPA teams – skilled people who understand the law and can guide projects through the National Environmental Protection Act’s approval process.

Evergreen: More public funding at a time when many believe the nation is already broke.

Petersen: Restoring forests costs a lot less when there is a local lumber infrastructure, like we have in Northeast Washington and Idaho. Funding to fight fires should not be coming out of the Forest Service budget. There is some momentum to fund it out of FEMA, just like earthquakes and hurricanes.

Evergreen: So the hope is that Congress will see a cost saving in funding the NEPA teams that the collaboratives need to get their work done faster and more efficiently on much larger physical scales.

Petersen: That is the hope.

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