Gloria Flora: Using Nature's Templates

Gloria Flora: Using Nature's Templates

You worked for the Forest Service for 23 years and were met with much controversy surrounding your 1997 decision to forbid oil and gas drilling along the 356,000-acre Rocky Mountain Front in western Montana; though it pales when compared to your final and tumultuous years as the embattled supervisor of Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. You resigned in December of 1999 and started your own consulting business, which you call Sustainable Obtainable Solutions. Then you were nearly killed in a car wreck, and now you are the Executive Director of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, easily one of the most successful collaboratives in the nation. Orion Magazine describes your journey as "the rise, fall and resurrection” of Gloria Flora. It seems to us that you have some explaining to do here!

[Laughing} "I do, don’t I!"

From a lively conversation with Gloria Flora, Executive Director Northeast Washington Forest Coalition - Colville, Washington

Gloria Flora, graceful though she is, is no shrinking violet. If she was, she’d probably still be working for the U.S. Forest Service. But she resigned in disgust on December 31, 1999 in a last ditch effort to call public attention to what she called the “fed-bashing” that grew from Nevada’s Sagebrush Rebellion and the formation of the Shovels-To Jarbidge Brigade, which demanded that she re-open a road along the Jarbidge River that had been washed out during a flood. Elko County, in response to the District Ranger’s draft decision, rechanneled 900 feet of river and tried to blade a new road with a bulldozer. That was Flora’s first day on the job.

Flora refused to reopen the road because fish biologists said rebuilding it would harm endangered bull trout. The situation quickly escalated, making an already tense situation even worse. Over the next decade, Forest Service employees - in uniform or civilian clothing – routinely were denied service in Elko restaurants. Teachers taunted the children, and their spouses were accosted in supermarkets, churches, banquets – even their own driveways. For their safety, Forest Service employees were advised not to wear their uniforms when traveling in rural Nevada.

“The threats weren’t idle,” Flora recalls. “A Forest Service outhouse, A District Ranger Office and a District Ranger’s home were bombed. The explosion narrowly missed his wife and child.”

Forest Service Chief, Mike Dombeck, who had had been impressed by Flora’s leadership skills when she was Supervisor of Montana’s Lewis and Clark National Forest, transferred her from Montana to Nevada following her Rocky Mountain Front decision. Now, perhaps fearing for her safety, he again offered to transfer Flora, but she refused. Instead, she resigned in a fiery letter in which she noted that two million Nevadans had “watched silently, or worse, in amusement, as a small percent of their number broke laws and trounced the rights of others with impunity.”

Now, 17 years later, Flora and her husband live quietly on 65 acres in the mountains west of Colville, Washington. When she isn’t wearing her Northeast Washington Forest Coalition hat, or conducting seminars for groups that engage her consulting services, she tends an edible forest garden and several demonstration projects on her forest-farm. Flora calls what she does “sylvan-culture,” not silviculture, which limits itself to the art and science of growing trees because sylvan-culture incorporates growing food and timber in forest settings, supporting habitats and humans. Flora also busies herself  cloning her trees to preserve genetic traits she believes will be important as the region’s climate warms in the decades to come.

Evergreen: Ms. Flora, given your pedigree, it is a little difficult to know exactly where to start with this interview. The mere fact that you are now serving as Executive Director of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, tells us that much has changed in your life since you left the Forest Service in 1999.

Flora: It certainly has in some ways. But my non-profit organization’s mission is similar to the Forest Service’s commitment to sustain public lands. I am still very engaged in forest issues, like protecting the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, working with the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and the Colville National Forest. Also teaching wildfire and drought resilience on small farms and ranches with forested lands. My passion for conservation hasn’t changed so, while my life is different than it was for many years, I haven’t slowed down one bit.

Evergreen: Any regrets about your Forest Service years?

Flora: None, though I find it a bit ironic that I am now engaged in all kinds of stewardship and collaborative work that was being promoted by other progressive thinkers in the agency before I left.

Evergreen: How so?

Flora: We talked the talk about restoration forestry, but we never walked the walk. We never made the necessary investments or policy changes required to get us off the ground. Now restoration is all we talk about. We don’t have a choice. Recognition of our miscalculations, about fire, drought and forest health dynamics now consumes us – and our forests. Unfortunately, in some areas we no longer have the infrastructure – the wood processing capacity or the markets – needed to handle all of the by-products of the restoration work that needs doing.

Evergreen: Insects, diseases and inevitable wildfire seem to be the drivers, wouldn’t you agree?

Flora: I absolutely agree – and our situation is only going to get worse as our climate continues to warm. Multiple, multiple, multiple wildfires. We lack the capacity – including the dedicated federal dollars – to deal with this problem. Wildfire is consuming a larger and larger percentage of the Forest Service’s budget, leaving less for restoration work on a meaningful scale.

Evergreen: And when you talk restoration, we assume you mean thinning and the reintroduction of prescribed fire, so as to reduce the density of woody debris that often fuels subsequent wildfires...

Flora: That’s correct.

Evergreen: It seems like a no-brainer to us.

Flora: It seems pretty straight-forward. Understanding the underlying causes, the science and the solutions science provides is part of it. But there are conflicts in the research and the issues swirling about us are laden with conflicting values and agendas. There are no convenient bogymen that lend themselves to six-second sound bites. So many factors have contributed to our current condition that it is impossible to affix blame for the complex ecological collapse of western federal forests.

Evergreen: And so if you lean hard left or hard right, you tend to go looking for the usual suspects: radical environmentalists who oppose all forms of forest management, or greedy lumbermen who presumably want to chop down all the trees.

Flora: It was certainly that way during my Forest Service years. We had wilderness advocates and timber industry advocates, but no one who advocated for forests or the intrinsic benefits they provide that you can’t easily monetize. For years, those who bravely stood up publicly and said, “Wait a minute, we have a problem here. Our forests are dying and burning. What’s happening and why?” weren’t heard above the din of dissent.

Evergreen: We published our first forest health report in 1989. It was titled, “Gray ghosts in the Blue Mountains,” and it chronicled the decline of forests in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It was the first of maybe 10 reports that essentially fell on deaf ears. Only recently have westerners of all stripes finally started to pay attention, at least during wildfire season. In your opinion, how did we finally break through the fog?

Flora: Persistence has a lot to do with it. Also the increasing size and ferocity of the wildfires we witnessing. But collaboration deserves most of the credit. It represents the convergence of previously “irreconcilable” points of view concerning wilderness and timber advocacies.

Evergreen: We marvel at the symbolism and political power represented in the reconciliation of these previously irreconcilable points of view. Some very brave souls stepped forward from both camps.

Flora: They certainly did. History will record that here in Northeast Washington, no one has done more to lift up the cause of forest collaboration than Duane Vaagen and Mike Petersen. Duane is one of the most innovative lumbermen I’ve ever known. Mike took an enormous personal risk in suggesting to his Lands Council board that they shelve litigation in favor of collaboration. Together, Duane and Mike created something larger than themselves.

Evergreen: When we interviewed Mike last year, we asked him why he did it and he matter-of-factly said “because we weren’t getting our needs met.”

Flora: I think Duane would tell you the same story. No one was getting their needs met. Our Northeast Washington Forest Coalition has become the big tent in which an increasingly diverse group of forest stakeholders gathers to help the Forest Service identify and implement projects, and find solutions to politically sensitive issues.

Evergreen: Speaking of political sensitivities, the collaboratives we’ve investigated in Idaho, Montana and eastern Washington seem to provide a necessary kind of political cover for both the Forest Service and members of Congress that support collaboration.

Flora: I think that’s true, but also true is the increased confidence the Forest Service has  knowing that these collaboratives are quite prepared to go to federal court to defend the veracity of their work and their trust relationships with the Forest Service. It took a long time for these groups and the Forest Service to get to where they are today.

Evergreen: What we see today is reminiscent of the era when lumbermen carried the Forest Service’s water in Senate Appropriations Committee hearings. They wanted to make sure the agency had sufficient money for its timber sale and reforestation budgets.

Flora: That was still occurring early in my Forest Service career, but after the old timber sale program went into decline, the agency went for years without having many friends or advocates.

Evergreen: There appears to be an invisible line that joins these collaboratives with the Forest Service. Would you agree?

Flora: To a point, yes, but these are complex relationships, not just on a personal level, but also on legal and regulatory levels. There is no legal mandate requiring Forest Service to consider what collaborative groups suggest, though in the 2014 Farm Bill, and in its Good Neighbor Authority, Congress made it very clear that it likes and supports the collaborative process.

Evergreen: So would it be fair to say that the Forest Service is on notice to support collaboration.

Flora: I don’t know that I’d say it exactly that way. At the highest levels in the Forest Service, including Chief Tidwell’s office, there is strong support for collaboration. What’s missing are the manpower and money needed to support collaboration and forest restoration on meaningful geophysical scales.

Evergreen: The fire borrowing mess.

Flora: The fire borrowing mess. What sense does it make to take money away from forest restoration work to fight forest fires? Restoration – on a meaningful scale – can significantly reduce the incidence of wildfire, and thus the cost of fighting forest fires, so I would think Congress would want to make sure the restoration budget remained intact.

Evergreen: Why is this so bloody difficult for members of Congress to understand?

Flora: Most members of Congress are from east of the Mississippi River. They barely grasp the concept of federal land ownership, or the integral relationship between western communities and national forests, so they are easy marks for the doomsayers of any ilk. But I think the larger problem is that our western national forests are competing for tax dollars against federal agencies whose budgets dwarf that of the Forest Service: defense, education, health care and interest on our national debt consume the lion’s share of taxpayer dollars.

Evergreen: How do we get beyond this?

Flora: I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of exploring the human dimension of the forest health crisis we are witnessing in western national forests.

Evergreen: Human dimension?

Flora: Although nature can undo our best work in a single earthquake, flood, landslide, volcanic eruption or wildfire, the fact is that we humans possess extraordinary problem solving skills, and nature provides excellent templates to follow. Those skills allow us to project ourselves beyond the crisis of the moment. We light the way to a better future by providing real world solutions to complex problems. Civilization marching forward - intelligently.

Evergreen: Give us an example.

Flora: The diverse values represented by our largely rural coalition have allowed us to bridge the cultural divide that has heretofore distanced us from major urban centers like Seattle and Portland. Increasingly, our urban neighbors no longer buy into the claim that rural folks have a callous disregard for the environment and should not be allowed to influence decisions about national forest management.

Evergreen: Can you give us a real-world example?

Flora: I can. There is a lot of buzz in both Portland and Seattle about using cross-laminated timbers to construct buildings 15-20 stories tall. CLT can be assembled from small diameter trees that are a byproduct of our rural forest restoration efforts. So we have a conversation going.

Evergreen: Pardon our cynicism but we can see the headlines now: “Clearcuts for Skyscrapers,” not unlike the old “Clearcuts for Kids,” mantra chanted by radical environmentalists who opposed the harvest of federal timber, even though some of the revenue helped support rural schools.

Flora: But you can understand the old angst given some pretty horrendous examples from years ago. Forest restoration has nothing to do with clearcutting for profit. The work involves the almost surgical removal of diseased, dead or weaker species of trees that are better removed from forests in which so many trees are present that the forest cannot protect itself from the invasion of insects or pathogens that prey on overstressed trees, especially in times of prolonged drought.

Evergreen: Let’s go back to something you said earlier that got us to thinking about how difficult it is for most people to understand the Forest Service culture and mission. Where does this breakdown occur?

Flora: Historically, the Forest Service had much closer direct economic ties to its rural communities than it does today. Old timers remember “the good old days” when the Forest Service’s mission was largely confined to getting out the annual cut that supported local sawmills. The long transition from timber to ecosystem management has been difficult for rural timber communities to understand and accept. E

Evergreen: To say nothing of this whole business of ownership and control.

Flora: It has been very difficult for rural communities to accept the fact that they don’t control the national forests that surround their community. They belong to the nation and to future generations. Many people feel disenfranchised.

Evergreen: And understandably so. Rural values and local knowledge of national forests get no respect in urban centers. Wouldn’t you agree that this knowledge needs to be front and center at the big table where decisions with very long term economic and environmental implications are made?

Flora: I absolutely agree, which is why I so readily accepted Russ Vaagen’s invitation to get involved in the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition.  You can’t do the kind of restoration work we are doing without lots of local ecological and operational knowledge. Nor can you do it without local wood processing infrastructure, which is what Vaagen Lumber and our other wood users bring to the table.

Evergreen: What exactly does the Executive Director of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition do?

Flora: A little bit of everything. Some strategic leadership, the administrative tasks, protocols, meeting agendas and everything in between. As a practical matter, I am one of the group’s technical advisors. Government-speak is my second language, and I understand the Forest Service’s culture viscerally. In a perfect world, I’d be spending a lot more time on strategic planning, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Evergreen: In the 30 years that we’ve been reporting from the rural West, we have heard it – again and again - said that old sawmill towns have no future, so they need to re-invent themselves. But for myriad reasons, mostly cultural, Microsoft isn’t likely to open a research campus in Kettle Falls and Goldman Sachs probably isn’t going to open an office in Colville anytime soon. Tourism, though important, is seasonal and doesn’t pay very well. Yet here you are in rural Northeast Washington, surrounded by trees. How do you respond to the urban notion that you need to reinvent yourselves.

Flora: We are reinventing ourselves every day. This is what forest collaboration is all about. It is why our local wood manufacturers are investing millions of dollars in new waste-to-energy and wood processing technologies that give birth to products like cross-laminated timber. On a small scale, our Northeast Washington communities house as much creativity as you will find in any community in the Puget Sound. It just comes in different packages, and it has a different focus and feel to it than you would find at Microsoft.

Evergreen: Speaking of creativity, there is a good deal of research housed at the University of Montana that makes a convincing case for the fact that at least 70 percent of the restoration work that needs doing in western national forests can pay for itself if the work includes all age classes, and not just the smallest trees.

Flora: That would certainly be the case here in Northeast Washington, thanks in large part to the world class wood processing technologies that the Vaagen’s bring to the table. Their ability to manufacture a product from small diameter timber that the consumer market readily accepts is pretty amazing. But I don’t agree with “all age classes” if we’re talking old growth as well. We’ve eliminated over 90 percent of the old growth throughout the nation. This isn’t a forest component that needs to be further reduced.

Evergreen: We know of only two mills in the entire west that still process old growth, but isn’t the lesson here that forest restoration can pretty much pay its own way, with far fewer taxpayer dollars, if the work is done on geophysical scales that make sense, and if you focus on age and species class diversity, and not just small diameter trees?

Flora: It doesn’t fly if you are claiming that the cost of restoration can only be covered by removing the oldest and largest trees. Restoration can pay for a portion of its cost, but the rest should to be viewed an investment in the future. For years, the timber harvest was so intense that we were living off our forest principal, rather than living off the interest our investment was generating. Other than replanting, we didn’t reinvest. Forest ecosystems are more than trees. Now it’s time to reinvest.

Evergreen: What you are saying is that there is more to this business of forest restoration that mere dollars and cents economics.

Flora: Exactly. Preservation is also part of the forest palate. We have plenty of land and space up here to do a good job of providing economic as well as ecosystem benefits. Going back to your discussion about how hard it is to understand the Forest Service, I think that the intrinsic mission of the agency is to speak for the unborn, to say, “What are we doing here that will benefit future generations?” This is where preservation meets the road.”

Evergreen: We’d agree, but we don’t see much benefit in black sticks. Millions of acres of late succession habitat that were set aside in no-harvest reserves have been lost in big, stand replacing wildfires over the last decade.

Flora: Few people see value in your black sticks, except nature writ large. Nature’s time frame is measured in millennia. Humans, a few decades. Stand replacing wildfires are nature’s way of restoring long term. The members of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition recognize the natural benefits of small, frequent fires, but we also understand that the ferocious stand replacing fires we are witnessing today have significant social and economic impacts on our time frame. This is why we are so adamant about restoring forests before they burn. It’s a lot less expensive and time-consuming than picking up the pieces after a major wildfire.

Evergreen: With nearly 50 percent of the Forest Service’s entire annual budget now allocated to fighting forest fires, we don’t see how anyone could successfully argue against what you’re saying, so let’s turn to “sylvan-culture” for a moment. Tell us how you got interested in it.

Flora: I have a degree in landscape architecture and I’ve always been intensely interested in the natural world, especially forests.  Sylvan-culture lets me combine my interests in silviculture and edible and medicinal plants - both native and domestic - that can grow in our forests. We’ve married the two concepts on our place south of Colville. It gives me peace, and I learn from it every day.

Evergreen: A bit like the big sourdough project you mentioned earlier.

Flora: [Laughs} I did say that, didn’t I? Well, forest restoration is a giant sourdough project, not unlike the family commitment to pass sourdough yeast from one generation to the next. But instead of conserving bread yeast, our coalition is working to conserve large representations of every tree species and age class present on the Colville National Forest: seedlings to old growth; fir, ponderosa, larch, lodgepole, spruce, cedar and hemlock. We don’t have a good balance at the moment, but if we do what science suggests, restoration forestry – which is what our coalition is all about – we can get the Colville back on track generationally, like passing sourdough yeast from one generation of bread lovers to the next.

Evergreen: All kidding aside, this is going to take a long time, isn’t it?

Flora: It is. We spent a lot of years moving the sandbox from place to place. Trust was lost in the battle over whether the sandbox should be moved at all. Now the sandbox is in one place and we’re trying to get as many perspectives involved for as long as people are willing to listen and learn. We must focus on restoring trust and eliminating the pendulum swings. The Mike Petersen’s of the world won’t stay at the collaborative table forever if their organization’s needs aren’t met, and the Vaagen’s won’t continue to invest millions of dollars in wood processing technologies if the certainty they need to justify these investments isn’t present. If conservationists and lumbermen walk away from the table now, the West’s national forests are toast, figuratively and literally.

Evergreen: Which brings us to the need for Congress to support the collaboratives by fixing the fire borrowing mess and doing a much better job of funding the work these all volunteer groups have been doing across the Intermountain West.

Flora: Congress – our country – can ill afford to let this wagon start rolling backwards down the hill. Starting over is not an option.

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