No Mill, No Market, No Forest: No. 2 (2016)

No Mill, No Market, No Forest: No. 2 (2016)

Editors note: If you haven't read part one of this speech it can be found here.

Tree Topics, Trends & Technology: Tools for Today & Tomorrow

2016 Family Forest Landowners & Managers Conference & Exposition

Sponsored by the Idaho Forest Owners Assn. and the Society of American Foresters

University Inn, Moscow, Idaho

Monday, March 28, 2016

James D. Petersen

Founder and President

The Evergreen Foundation


Good morning.

For those of you who want to take notes, my title is, “No Mill, No Market, No Forest, No. 2.”

I delivered No. 1 at a Forest Service-sponsored conference in Denver in January of 2004. Why I was invited remains a mystery to me, but it was easily the second most hated speech I’ve ever given. More on that in a moment.

The most hated speech I ever delivered was to a Forest Service legislative affairs conference in Phoenix in November of 2003. It was titled, “What is the Forest Service Doing Right and What Is It Doing Wrong.”

My old friend, Marlin Johnson, who worked for the Forest Service for more than 40 years, got me invited and devilishly suggested my very fertile title. At the time, he was running what was left of the timber shop in the Regional Office in Albuquerque, and was close to retirement.

About half of my audience in Phoenix was composed of Marlin’s peers – men nearing retirement who had transformed the largely custodial Forest Service into a world class forestry organization following World War II. The other half of my audience was composed of much younger men and women who knew little about the agency’s history or its contributions to forestry and the nation’s post-war economic surge – easily the greatest period of expansion  in American history.

Judging from the looks on their faces, I’d say that my reprise made the younger members of my audience very uncomfortable, but probably not as uncomfortable as my reminding them that minus sawmills capable of buying Forest Service timber at competitive prices, there wasn’t much reason for them to come to work.

This truth was also my main message in Denver, and my introduction to the fact that new recruits in the Forest Service of that era did not like to be reminded that timber harvesting was what paid the Forest Service’s bills. Now taxpayers pay the bills because what is left of the green timber sale program is a pittance when compared with the Forest Service’s annual budget, most of which is spent putting out forest fires.

Meanwhile, back in Denver, the smiles on the faces of the older men in the room told me they could hardly contain their glee, but the frowns on the faces of their much younger cohorts – men and women - reaffirmed everything I already suspected about the cultural explosion that rocked the post-war Forest Service after the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of Gene Bernardi in Bernardi versus Butz, the Title 7 court case that led to the 1973 consent decree.

The decree, and the social upheaval that accompanied Vietnam, shook the Forest Service to its core. Nothing would ever be the same again for the generation of men who had shepherded the Forest Service to stratospheric heights following the Second World War..

Opening the West’s national forests to management remains one of the greatest engineering feats in our country’s history.  And it never would have happened as it did without the vision and leadership of House and Senate Democrats from Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Montana. They – and not their Republican colleagues – were the ones who believed the nation’s federal timber should be sold at public auction to the highest bidder and not in monopolistic quid pro quo transactions – euphemistically known as “cooperative sustained yield agreements - involving the West’s largest timberland owners.

Your program says I am here to talk with you about “Federal Land Management: Progress or Oxymoron?” And in a manner of speaking, I am. So the short answer to your question is, “Yes, the Forest Service is making progress and, no, it is not an oxymoron.” In fact, the Forest Service has come a long way since I spoke to its legislative affairs folks in Phoenix more than 12 years ago. We can measure their progress in acres, board feet, cubic feet, tons and Btu’s.

More significant though are the cultural changes I am observing in an agency that I have been watching closely for 30 years. Some of the old “can do” spirit is back, though it is packaged differently than it was in the days when the primary mission of the mostly male Forest Service was to “get out the cut.”

Those of you who own timberland or manage land for someone else should thank your lucky stars that the Forest Service is slowly finding its way out of the “Analysis-Paralysis Wilderness,” especially if the land in your care is adjacent to one of our crumbling national forests. Given the risks you face from close by insects, pathogens and wildfire, I frankly don’t know how you sleep at night.

I am aware of only one major private timberland owner in Idaho that is actively supporting the Forest Service’s effort to do a better job on its lands. That owner is the Idaho Forest Group, which is also Idaho’s largest log purchaser and processor. But the rest of Idaho’s big landowners remain silent. The “why” of this is baffling and, frankly, suspect.

For years, the rumor flew around western Oregon that the big vertically integrated timber companies were quietly funding environmental groups that were crushing their smaller and landless competitors in federal district and circuit courts.

I never found any proof that the rumor was true, but my heavy involvement in the campaign to encourage Congress to ratify the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, brought me face to face with major landowners west of the Cascades who were indeed attempting to sabotage the campaign because they did not want federal logs competing with their logs or land values.

The truth be told, the federal government’s still controversial June 1990 decision to list the northern spotted owl as a threatened species added billions of dollars to the bottom lines of major timberland owners in the Douglas-fir region. Good for them, and good for their shareholders, but disastrous for the communities and counties left high and dry. And even more disastrous for mixed confer dry site national forests in the Intermountain West that are falling apart before our very eyes.

When my friend, Phil Aune, asked me last fall if I would speak to you this morning, he said he hoped I would talk about forest collaboration. It is really what I came to talk about because it knits together my topic in your program with the topic of my 2004 Denver speech and my 2003 Phoenix speech.

The progress the Forest Service is making is absolutely and undeniably on the backs of collaborative groups  - and the one thing more than 50 collaborators have told me since I started interviewing them last April is that collaborative forest restoration is doomed if the Intermountain region loses its wood processing infrastructure, for it is this infrastructure that provides the sustainable private markets that make it possible to do the kind of forest restoration work the Forest Service is doing with the help and support of the volunteer memberships of the region’s collaborative groups.

It is vital that you understand that these groups aren’t just loggers and lumbermen in disguise who are dreaming about jumpstarting the old federal timber sale program.  Short of a third world war, I cannot imagine a circumstance in which Congress, the public, or the collaboratives for that matter, would approve of such a reversal of course.

What we have here in what many call “the New West” are quite diverse collaborative groups composed of conservationists, lumbermen, hunters, fishermen, local governments and all seasons recreation users who volunteer hundreds of hours of their time to working through complex and often controversial problems that have defied Forest Service solution.

These volunteers, whose dedication I have come to admire, bloody well understand the cold calculus that accompanies my admonition: no mill, no market, no forest.

I have been a working journalist for 54 years. For 35 of those years, my main interest has been in learning and writing about forestry and wood processing. In my opinion, the surprising story of the emergence of the forest collaboratives is the best – and certainly most hopeful – forestry story I have covered since I cut my teeth on the raucous 1971 clearcutting debates in Coos Bay, Oregon. The protagonists were Brock Evans, then a young staffer with the Sierra Club in Seattle, and a forest industry legend named Bill Hagenstein, who was to become my mentor for the next 43 years. When Bill died in September of 2014, a forestry friend said to me, “You are the last man standing.”

“Whatever do you mean,” I replied.

“You are the last one who tells the truth about us. You know us better than we know ourselves.”

As lovely as his sentiment was, it isn’t true.

What is true – and pretty damned exciting in my view – is that the story about the ecological collapse of the West’s great natural forests finally has legs under it, just like the Forest Service itself.

We can again thank this region’s forest collaboratives for the about face in the way the Forest Service is conducting its business. The fact that these collaboratives are willing to go to court to defend their actions – and those of the Forest Service – has helped immeasurably on severeal fronts, including a noticeable improvement in the quality of reporting on forestry issues by the nation’s major news services.

We have chronicled the rise of these collaboratives and the progress they are making in two special Evergreen reports – one titled ‘The Ticking Time Bomb in Idaho’s National Forests,” which I suppose some of you have seen, and, more recently, “Montana’s National Forests: Burning an Empire.” We have copies for sale with us should you want a few. Both reports have played to such rave reviews that we are now at work on a third report focused on national forests east of the Cascades in Washington State, scene of history making wildfires last summer in central and eastern Washington..

Our Idaho and Montana reports trace quite remarkable progress on collaborative fronts that owe their very existence to the determination of diverse groups of stakeholders who have come together out of a shared concern for the collapse and incineration of once beautiful federal forests that have been the cornerstone of an evolving way of life in the West for more than a century.

This coming together did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because a handful of this region’s lumbermen and conservationists were willing to take a chance on one another’s pledge to try to work out their differences. The Clearwater Basin Collaborative, the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative, the Northeast Washington Forest Collation, the Kootenai National Forest Stakeholders Coalition, the Kootenai Valley Idaho Resource Initiative, and western Montana’s Blackfoot Challenge, are the living, breathing results of promises kept and miles traveled together in one of the most remarkable journeys in the history of public lands forestry in America.

I think this sea change would delight all of the old Truman Democrats who made certain that the West’s great national forests did not become the defacto property of all of the old vertically integrated companies that have become REIT’s and TIMO’s that, like their forbearers, are still trying to sabotage what is left of federal forest management.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the five people who I think have been most instrumental in this renaissance. They are, in no particular order:

Roger Johnson, owner of the Pyramid Lumber Company at Seeley Lake, Montana.

Bob Boeh, Vice President, Government Affairs and Community Outreach, the Idaho Forest Group, Coeur d’Alene

Bruce Vincent, a founder of Kootenai Stakeholders and a member of the Evergreen Foundation Board of Directors

Mike Petersen, Executive Director of the Lands Council, Spokane, Washington, one of the most sincere and imaginative people I’ve ever met

Duane Vaagen, the visionary owner, Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, Colville, Washington

I have no idea where the collaborative process is headed, but the mere fact that so many diverse forest user groups are in the same big tent - talking and planning and doing - has delighted many in Congress. But it has also enraged the conflict industry, which, for reasons of its own, would rather sue than search for solutions to controversial or sensitive forest management problems.

Despite its success, collaboration is no panacea. Its main challenges are a lack of capacity, a graying of its membership, a lack of funding and the inability to work on landscapes that are large enough to be ecologically meaningful. These are problems that only Congress can address and, slowly but surely, Congress is addressing them – most recently in the 2014 Farm Bill, which empowered western governors to work with collaboratives to prioritize restoration work on available national forest lands within their states.

Likewise, within the framework of the Good Neighbor Authority, which empowers state forestry departments to help the Forest Service get more restoration work done on the ground in a more timely manner. Restoration usually takes two forms: thinning in overstocked and dying forests and the reintroduction of prescribed fire, often in combination with one another.

Last session, Congress tried but failed to find agreement on expanding the authority of categorical exclusions, and it failed to fix the fire borrowing mess, but I expect both issues will be revisited until agreement is found. You would think these issues were no-brainers, but most members of Congress come from east of the Mississippi and barely grasp the concept of federal land ownership, much less its attendant responsibilities and investments. They are easy marks for fear mongers who oppose the forest collaboratives, and forestry itself.

Litigators are also a big headache for the collaboratives, and will remain so until Congress sees fit to insulate them from social malcontents for whom litigation has become a government funded meal ticket. Arbitration and balance of harms legislation are the two most often discussed solutions. Both ideas are well beyond my pay grade.

I got an email from my friend Chuck Roady a couple of weeks ago. Chuck runs the Stoltze Land and Lumber Company at Columbia Falls, Montana, the oldest continuously operating sawmill in Montana. Chuck wanted to be here this morning, but he is up to his eyeballs in insurance people, so he asked that I convey his sentiments to the private timberland owners in this room.

“Set ‘em straight,” Chuck said. “Tell them that if we lose what is left of the federal timber sale program, we will also lose the mills it supports, and if we lose them, their private timber won’t be worth squat because the competitive log market will be long gone.”

Chuck is right: No mill, no market, no forest. Or as my old friend, Don Johnson of Rough and Ready Lumber Company fame loved to say, “Stumps on the hill. Money in the till.”

I wish we had more time for this connect-the-dots exercise, but you have a very full two days ahead of you. So let me close by saying that collaboration is real and that its advancement is a measurable sign that progress is being made in the urgently needed effort to pull the West’s great national forests back from the brink of ecological collapse. It has smart guys like Dennis Becker, your last morning speaker, thinking about long overdue changes in the way the nation’s forest policies are crafted and implemented.

If the turnabout I have described seems like a too little, too late drop in the bucket, remember two things. First, nothing is forever; nature is remarkably resilient. And second, for decades, the forestry fraternity dismissed public fears and misperceptions about forest management. Regaining lost trust is going to take time and cost a lot of money. The collaboratives are leading the way. You ignore their success at your own peril.

Thank you.

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