Forest Collaboration in Northeast Washington: Russ Vaagen

Forest Collaboration in Northeast Washington: Russ Vaagen

“There are a lot of misperceptions about what collaboration is and what collaboratives do. But the biggest problems aren’t on the inside where you would expect to find them. They are on the outside. Fringe groups are part of it, but the larger portion involves people who don’t understand collaboration and refuse to join our group because they fear we won’t accept them if they don’t agree with us. This isn’t true. Anyone can join us anytime. The more points of view we have represented in our coalition’s work the stronger we will be. Trust, transparency and diversity of opinion have been the keys to our ongoing success, and certainly the key to our political success.”

Russ Vaagen, Vice President Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, Colville, Washington President, Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition

Russ Vaagen is a fourth generation Northeast Washington lumberman, and the oldest son of Colville, lumber manufacturing icon, Duane Vaagen, whose pioneering work in forest collaboration has been nationally recognized. Young Vaagen graduated from Washington State University in 1999 with degrees in business management and human resources. As a Vaagen Brothers vice president, he oversees daily operations, business strategies and marketing. In this interview, he discusses his involvement in the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a collaborative established in 2002 in the hope of moving beyond management gridlock on the Colville National Forest. Mr. Vaagen is currently the organization’s president.

Evergreen: By our reckoning, you were fresh out of Washington State University about the time your dad turned the region’s lumber industry upside down with some frequently quoted public statements about how forest collaboration could help end political gridlock in western national forests. True?

Vaagen: I think that’s about right. I graduated from Washington State in 1999 and the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition was formed in 2002. But I think Dad’s interest in collaboratives goes back to the old Quincy Library Group in northern California.

Evergreen: And Quincy failed, much to the disappointment of many.

Vaagen: It did, but I think we all learned some very useful lessons from Quincy, so I’d stop short of calling it a failure. It was the first step in a long public process that only began to gain momentum when other innovators, like Dad, began to consider its problem solving possibilities.

Evergreen: We have known your father for many years and consider him to be one of the most creative thinkers and doers in the lumber industry today,

Vaagen: He is that. His mind goes a million miles an hour. Hard to keep up with him.

Evergreen: And now you are the president of the Northeast Washington coalition he helped start.

Vaagen: It’s a little bit scary, isn’t it.

Evergreen: Not really. Your generation is the generation that will determine what the future holds for forest collaboration. What do you see down the road in, say, 10 years?

Vaagen: Assuming our ability to overcome the near-term hurdles, I see a very bright future for the forest collaboratives that are forming across the West.

Evergreen: And what might those hurdles be?

Vaagen: There are a lot of misperceptions about what collaboration is and what collaboratives do. But the biggest problems aren’t on the inside where you would expect to find them. They are on the outside. Fringe groups are part of it, but the larger portion involves people who don’t understand collaboration and refuse to join our group because they fear we won’t accept them if they don’t agree with us. This isn’t true. Anyone can join us anytime. The more points of view we have represented in our coalition’s work the stronger we will be. Trust, transparency and diversity of opinion have been the keys to our ongoing success, and certainly the key to our political success.

Evergreen: How so politically?

Vaagen: Congress has given collaboration its interim blessing, but I don’t think we’ll be granted the legal authorities we need unless they see that collaboratives are truly bipartisan and that they fairly and honestly represent the interests of as many forest stakeholder groups as is humanly possible.

Evergreen: Apart from serial litigators, who hasn’t come to the collaborative table?

Vaagen: We have a hard time engaging ultra conservatives – the conspiracy theory crowd that sees collaboration as a step in the direction of a United Nation’s takeover of the United States. They love to throw stones at environmentalists and they hate the Forest Service on principle. We can’t force them to join us, but I’m hoping some of their more moderate brethren will give us a look, especially our ranching community. We support grazing on federal lands, but we have been unsuccessful in our efforts to get them to join and support our collaborative.

Evergreen: You would think they would want to be represented in such a successful organization.

Vaagen: You would. I think part of the problem is that they see us as a Kumbaya group-think with no goals or objectives, when what we really are is a large and diverse collection of individuals, with well- defined goals and objectives, representing the values and opinions of other large and diverse groups of stakeholders, some of which don’t live near the Colville National Forest, but see themselves as having a stake in how the Colville is managed and we welcome that.

Evergreen: We are on record as having said we see collaborators as the outliers who will finally force the forest policy decision-making process back down to the local and regional levels where it resided for a quarter-century following World War II. Would you agree?

Vaagen: I would. Our collaboratives need Congress’s official stamp of approval. So long as we are seen as not much more than ad hoc volunteer committees, we will lack the political and legal legitimacy we need to do the work we are attempting to do in western national forests.

Evergreen: And what exactly is that work?

Vaagen: The work involves the development and implementation of restoration projects in forested areas that are dying for lack of management. But please understand that our over-arching goal is to end political gridlock through collaboration – by presenting a united front composed of multiple and diverse stakeholders who agree that action is better than no action and collaboration is better than litigation.

Evergreen: No boogey men and no backroom dealing.

Vaagen: No boogey men and no backroom dealing. I don’t throw stones at conservationists in our group and they don’t throw stones at me. We are committed to talking through our differences of opinion. We sit around campfires and share stories – ideas, hopes and experiences - that help us to get to know one another better. Because we share this planet, we have to learn how to co-exist with people who have different values than our own. We have much more in common than you might expect.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed thus far has said much the same thing.

Vaagen: Learning how to trust one another is the key.

Evergreen: So we’ve been told. Is there a big idea on the Colville that keeps you all energized?

Vaagen: There is. We’d like to see the Colville divided into thirds – one third for backcountry (both motorized and non) including designating wilderness, one-third restoration with timber being a by-product of forest health treatments and one-third for active management. This would be the area that holds a perpetual supply of timber for the mills.

Evergreen: And you think this is doable?

Vaagen: We do, but we have to work on a watershed scale, which means we have to get away from all of the arbitrarily applied screens that the Forest Service is using that make management on any meaningful physical scale virtually impossible.

Evergreen: What former Forest Service Chief, Jack Ward Thomas, called “the crazy quilt” of conflicting environmental law and regulation?

Vaagen: Exactly. Think about this for a moment. There isn’t a reason on earth that the Colville, Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai national forests could not be managed under the same plan. Our forests hold the same tree types and wildlife species, and all of our rivers drain into the Columbia. So let’s combine these three forests for the next 20 years and see how it works with baseball-style arbitration as the means for resolving conflicts that collaboration can’t resolve.

Evergreen: We’re already hearing the usual suspects equate arbitration to “logging without laws.”

Vaagen: That’s nonsense. NEPA remains the law of the land, so no environmental laws can be broken by an arbitration judge. Arbitration simply forces litigators to come to the collaborative table with their best ideas for resolving conflict. The judge decides which ideas are best.

Evergreen: So you would combine the three forests into one for 20 years and, we suppose, give the collaboratives the authority to decide what parts will be actively managed, what parts will be designated wilderness and what parts will feature light touch restoration forestry – like what you have in mind for the Colville?

Vaagen: That’s right. I know of no other way to get beyond the fear that collaboration won’t work. We have to make it work, not just on federal lands, but on adjacent state and private lands. Nature doesn’t give a damn about property lines or human need. But we do, which is why have to do our planning and management work on much larger scales.

Evergreen: And you have actually talked about this in your collaborative group?

Vaagen: We have – and we aren’t the only ones discussing it. It’s fair to say that everyone involved in a forest collaborative group believes the system is broken and can’t be patched together again. We know that the scale we are working at is ridiculously small, but it the scale that Congress has authorized. It’s a start and we are grateful for it, but we are working too long and too hard on too few acres to make any kind of positive difference in our forests. For the same amount of money that Congress has allocated to forest collaboratives, we could be working on much larger scales.

Evergreen: One of the criticisms we hear is that you are all just lay people and that the Forest Service should be doing this work because they are the professionals.

Vaagen: And, as Dr. Phil says, “How’s that working out for you so far?”

Evergreen: We have argued that many who participate in collaboratives do have the professional qualifications to render judgments.

Vaagen: That’s true. Our critics can’t have it both ways. You can’t say in one breath that the Forest Service isn’t listening to the public and then, in the next breath, say oh gee, they’re the professionals. Let them do it.

Evergreen: The citizen forest.

Vaagen: Yes! I frankly believe the collaboratives should set the tone by laying down management principles, goals and objectives for the largest possible landscape for the longest possible time frame. Then let the professionals do the work annually that conforms to those principles and objectives. Congress and the collaboratives can provide oversight.

Evergreen: There is surely a limit to the size of the landscape you could manage this way.

Vaagen: We would not attempt to manage northern interior, dry-site, mixed conifer forests in the same way we would manage Douglas-fir forests in western Oregon and Washington, or the redwoods in California and the mixed conifer forests in the Southwest.

Evergreen: And the same environmental laws would apply?

Vaagen: They would. The only difference being that disagreements over management plans would be settled through arbitration, not litigation.

Evergreen: We’ve lost track of the number of House and Senate members who have introduced legislation aimed at resolving some of the problems you’ve outlined. What do you make of it?

Vaagen: I think the most important thing to remember here is that there are no silver bullets. No legislative fix that excludes conservationists and favors lumber interests – or vice versa – is going anywhere. My hope is that whatever gets ratified in the current congressional session empowers collaboratives to do more of what they are doing so successfully.

Evergreen: On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the success of your collaborative?

Vaagen: I’d give us a 8 – meaning there is always room for improvement – but, as I’ve already said, the factors that are thwarting our progress are coming from the outside. We still don’t have the certainty of timber supply we need to make long term investments in new wood processing technologies. And our conservation partners still don’t have a single new acre of designated wilderness. They deserve a lot of credit for staying the course with us, and we are absolutely committed to staying the course with them.

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