Kurtis Vaagen: Can Collaboration Replace Litigation?

Kurtis Vaagen: Can Collaboration Replace Litigation?

Evergreen: Nature isn’t waiting.

Vaagen: That’s for sure – and our latest wildfire season proves the point in spades. In our state, we lost more than one million acres to wildfire. It is a record I hope we never repeat, but who knows what next year will bring? We can’t litigate ourselves out of this mess, but we can collaborate ourselves to a better forest future for everyone in Washington. Why would anyone want to do otherwise?

Kurtis Vaagen, Tribal Liaison Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company Colville, Washington

Kurtis Vaagen is a third generation Washington lumberman, and the younger of Duane Vaagen’s two sons. Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company was established near Colville by the elder Mr. Vaagen’s father in 1952. His grandson, Kurtis, 31, handles special projects for the company, devoting a good deal of his time to the company’s relationship with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation. The tribe owns about 1.4 million acres of which 660,000 acres are prime timberland in Northeast Washington and sells timber to Vaagen Brothers. Mr. Vaagen was also responsible for daily operation of Vaagen Brother’s portable sawmill in northern Arizona, before it was leased to another company.

Evergreen: Tell us a bit about your growing up years and your education

Vaagen I was born and raised here in Colville, and spent just about every opportunity I could find in the woods. After graduating Colville High School in 2003 I moved to Spokane and enrolled in Spokane Community College. I earned my AAS Degree from SCC in Environmental Sciences and Forestry.

Evergreen: Did you always believe you’d come to work here?

Vaagen: I always knew I wanted to live in this area, given my desire to work close to the forest. And, at some level, I knew my Dad would provide the opportunity for me to engage in the forest health debate underway here in Northeast Washington and around the country. But my dad never said, ‘You have to come to work for our family’s company. That was my choice, and I’m glad I made it.

Evergreen: What’s the lure?

Vaagen: I have the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in our industry. I also get to contribute to the community I have been a part of my entire life. Couple these two things with our geographic location and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I have done a fair amount of traveling for someone my age. And I’ve seen some beautiful country, but there is no place quite like our corner of the world. We’re all very lucky to live here.

Evergreen: What’s your job here at Vaagen Brothers?

Vaagen: I have a number of Jobs, but up to this point I have been bouncing around filling in for other members of the team when we get too busy. Working with the Colville Tribe is one of my main goals and interests. Every day is its own learning experience.

Evergreen: We had heard that you work closely with the Colville tribal forestry department, and we presume your relationship is as a buyer of their timber. Correct?

Vaagen: We do buy logs from the Colville Indian Reservation. Given our proximity to reservation timberland, there is mutual benefit in our ability to provide them with a market for logs that in other areas are not utilized simply because there are no mills within economical hauling distance. We work closely with their forestry crew to insure that our relationship continues to grow in a positive manner.

Evergreen: Have you had the opportunity to tour the tribe’s forests and get to know a little about their brand of forestry?

Vaagen: I have been on a number of tours on their tribal lands. They have been modifying their forest practices at a pace much faster than I have seen anywhere else. The Tribe knows what a healthy forest should look like, and they do what it takes to make their reservation look and produce in a manner consistent with their long term vision. It’s my understanding that tribes that manage their own timberlands try to look seven generations into the future. That’s very impressive.

Evergreen: It certainly is. How would you compare what the tribe is doing on their timberlands with what the Forest Service does on the Colville National Forest?

Vaagen: The biggest difference I see between the two ownerships is that the Tribe knows how to make a profit while doing right by the land. The Tribe’s forestry staff goes through NEPA planning process much like the Forest Service, but it proceeds knowing that the forest treatments it designs – mainly mechanical thinnings and the application of prescribed fire – need to generate sufficient revenue to pay for the work. The Forest Service has no such mandate. Some of its projects make a little money, others are revenue neutral and some are money losers. In the latter case, taxpayers foot the bill.

Evergreen: What you’re saying is that tribes have to make a living, pay their bills and reinvest in their land, just like other private timberland owners.

Vaagen: Absolutely. Members of the Colville Tribe are very fortunate to have a beautiful natural resource and a talented management staff. The landscapes they produce are very attractive, and the revenue they earn through management employs many tribal members.

Evergreen: Your father, Duane, has been a leader in the forest collaboration movement in the West for many years. Many find it unusual that a lumberman would support collaboration. Do you?

Vaagen: As kids, my brother Russ and I both lived with the timber wars. Our dad always spoke of the need for us to find a better way of doing things with the environmental community. He felt that, for the most part, everyone engaged in the forestry debate was more or less on the same page. And he was right, but there was no communication bridge all of us could cross together. Now there is. It’s collaboration. We’re big supporters in our family because we see collaboration as the only route local forest experts can take to make their voices heard in the national debate about how federal lands should be managed.

Evergreen: Can collaboration replace litigation?

Vaagen: Collaboration should replace litigation but up to this point it hasn’t taken the power away from serial litigators who put their own extreme agendas before forest stewardship. With the support of the participating environmental networks and participating timber representatives, collaboration creates a transparent process that allows forest stakeholder groups find practical, on the ground solutions to environmental problems. It beats wasting money on litigation at a time when wildfires are destroying millions of acres of precious forestland every year.

Evergreen: Nature isn’t waiting for us to quit arguing.

Vaagen: That’s for sure – and our latest wildfire season proves the point in spades. In our state, we lost more than one million acres to wildfire. It is a record I hope we never repeat, but who knows what next year will bring? We can’t litigate ourselves out of this mess, but we can collaborate ourselves to a better forest future for everyone in Washington. Why would anyone want to do otherwise?

Evergreen: Your brother, Russ, is the current president of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition [NEWFC]. Do you participate in any of the organization’s meetings or projects?

Vaagen: My brother is our family’s advisor when it comes to NEWFC. Russ has excellent political skills, way above my own – at least for now. I have not been directly engaged with the meetings but do speak open and often with collaborative members.

Evergreen: Do you think the Forest Service is supportive of the Coalition?

Vaagen: I think our local Forest Service folks are very supportive of NEWFC’s members and the work they do. There seems to be good support at the regional and national levels, too. But there is a lot of room for improvement in terms of the size of projects and the time it takes to get them planned and implemented. Working at the right scale is vital, if for no reason other than the fact that collaboration is the sharpest tool in the Forest Service’s tool box.

Evergreen: Is there strong community support for NEWFC – or perhaps more directly – do you think people living in this area understand how difficult and time consuming the collaborative process can be?

Vaagen: I believe most people within the community are supportive. I’d also be willing to bet that most don’t know how much time and effort has been put forth by the collaborative members. We’re talking thousands of volunteer hours by people who see great value in the work they do. And make no mistake here’ you almost can’t put a value on what they’ve done for our forests, our communities and, on a personal level, our family. We are well aware of the enormous effort that has been invested in the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition.

Evergreen: The Coalition’s membership is aging. How will you recruit new community volunteers?

Vaagen: It may be hard to find the right people to fill the looming holes within the collaboratives but I know there are people with knowledge and desire to help our forests turn into a thriving ecosystem again. The people are out there, they just need the opportunity to step into the process. They also need to know their work won’t be cut short by serial litigants that don’t participate in the process.

Evergreen: With the Forest Service’s blessing, Vaagen Brothers paid for the Environmental Impact Statement for the A to Z forest restoration project. Rumor has it the cost was around $1 million. And now the project is hung up in appeal letters from serial litigants. Are you getting any feedback from the community about the project or the decision to pay for the EIS?

Vaagen: Right now the project is under the objection period. The Forest Service has pulled the decision to address the threat of litigation. But the public needs to know that the groups responsible for this threat were invited to collaborate on the project and declined. I think the A to Z objectors are a prime example of the damage serial litigants are doing that needs to be addressed by Congress. The federal government can’t possibly expect collaborators to continue volunteering hundreds of hours of their personal time to collaborative forest restoration projects, only to have their work blown apart by lawyers that are actually paid by taxpayer. It’s ridiculous.

Evergreen: It’s our understanding that the objection was to the fact that Vaagen Brothers paid for the Environmental Impact Statement, creating at least the appearance of collusion.

Vaagen: We paid for the work, but had no say in the development of the EIS, which followed strict Forest Service protocols and federal environmental laws. The process was completely transparent, and the review currently underway will prove that there was no collusion by anyone involved in the project.

Evergreen: Do you think people living in this area understand the great wildfire risk posed by dead and dying timber stands on the Colville National Forest?

Vaagen: I think some do but only during fire season. It amazes me how quickly people forget about the dangers of wildfire. It isn’t hard to show someone the high fuel loads on the Colville National Forest. Given that we mechanically thin less than 1 percent of the total acreage annually, the fuel buildup is easily seen along our forest roads. If we don’t soon pick up the restoration pace, nature will do the cleanup work for us. I don’t think the public will care much for result. Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime recreation land could be lost for a century or more.

Evergreen: Economically speaking, Vaagen Brothers is easily the largest private employer in NE Washington. How does that feel to you?

Vaagen: There are a number of large employers in our area really. We are fortunate to live in an area that has so much to offer both economically and socially. We are very proud to provide jobs for our community and employ one of the best crews in the industry. Our area has one of the healthiest infrastructures in our industry which allows us to treat the forest appropriately. I think the Colville National Forest should be rewarded for this but in many instances they are not.

Evergreen: We know you’ve also worked in northern Arizona trying to find small diameter logs for the portable Hew Saw your Dad took down there a few years ago. Tell us about that experience. How does it compare with what’s happening on federal lands in NE Washington?

Vaagen: We were given the task of making viable products out of small diameter ponderosa pine in Northern Arizona. It took some time to work the bugs out of the mill, but with the upgrades we made, and a great crew, we got there. But then the Forest Service stopped putting up projects close enough to the sawmill to make it work, all the while continuing to pour time, money and manpower into the pilot 4FRI project, which still hasn’t made much of an impact in northern Arizona’s overstocked forests. By contrast, NE Washington has the infrastructure needed to do – at scale - what the Forest Service is trying to do with 4FRI.

Evergreen: 4FRI – the Four Forests Restoration Initiative – boasts a 2.4 million acre analysis and implementation plan for northern Arizona. It is – as you suggest – very strange that the Forest Service is proceeding on such a large scale with so little wood processing infrastructure remaining in Arizona. You’d think that they’d be investing taxpayer dollars in areas where there is sufficient milling infrastructure to sustain large projects over long periods of time. NE, Washington, Idaho or western Montana come immediately to mind.

Vaagen: I think the Forest Service struggles with the reality that it is charged with managing nearly 200 million acres of forestland. The enormity of it all seems to cloud their ability to reconcile acres needing treatment with proximity to milling infrastructure and sustainable markets. They are so focused on new and experimental ways of convert wood fiber to products that they have lost sight of the fundamentals that go with breaking down logs into secondary and tertiary products.

The emphasis on biomass and biofuels seems to take all the attention but costs so much money that it makes these projects loose more money than they make in stumpage. I can see why the Forest Service wants to incentivize biomass solutions but to put up projects that are strictly biomass in areas such as Arizona gives me the impression that they don’t understand the economic makeup of the projects they put together. The key to bringing infrastructure back to the west is to fill up existing infrastructure so they can invest in new technologies.

Evergreen: We unfortunately hear this criticism more and more – sometimes from people who actually work for the Forest Service!

Vaagen: Forest Service leadership needs to speak more forcefully on the subject of keeping existing wood processing infrastructure in place, because once it’s gone, it’s probably gone for good. The big investments in infrastructure will appropriately be made by the private sector, but only if the capital costs can be recovered in a reasonable time. My dad thinks it takes 20 years to amortize the $50 million plus it costs to build a new, state of the art sawmill. What this means is that the Forest Service needs to be designing projects that have a 20-year life cycle.

Evergreen: And then there is the matter of institutional knowledge, which is tough to retain once the infrastructure is gone.

Vaagen: That’s true. How do you put a price on what our father knows how to do when it comes to owning and operating a saw mill? And we don’t need to limit this to our dad. Look at any well run wood products manufacturer in the West. How do you value the accumulated knowledge? More to the point, why isn’t the Forest Service placing a higher value on institutional knowledge when it selects contractors for its big projects. The 4FRI mess proves the case in point

Evergreen: You and your brother will be running this company in a few years. Tell us what you see in terms of growth potential – and how will you get there?

Vaagen: My brother and I are fairly experienced for our age. Russ brings an interesting perspective to the table that few can. We have been brought up raising the bar and we have all intentions of doing so in the future. We understand the forest needs treatment on a larger scale and our father has positioned our company to be ready for the wave of small wood that our national forests have been growing for the last 100 years. My brother and I are very optimistic about the future but I think our dad will have his hands on our shoulders for years to come. We are very fortunate to have such a visionary within the industry as a mentor. We will get there using the best technology, coupled with a great team to grow our business as the forest and the markets evolve around us.

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