The Logging Industry and Conservationists Partner to Restore Forests

After decades of fighting, forestry stakeholders have a reconciliation of sorts.
by | August 31, 2011 AT 3:00 PM
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Skip Brandt is no environmentalist. He describes select environmental groups as “fringe terrorists.” So Brandt, the commissioner of Idaho County, the largest county in the state, says he’s more than a little surprised at where he finds himself today: as a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a diverse group of timber interests, environmental groups and local government officials working to resolve land management conflicts in the Clearwater Basin, a 3.4-million-acre stretch of public lands in north central Idaho. “I’m a lifelong resident of this state, a former state senator, and I never thought we’d be where we are today -- literally drug into the collaborative process,” says Brandt, a member of the group’s economic and recreation committee. “Everyone is willing to sit down and talk about issues and attempt to address them.”

That kind of collaboration is relatively new to the Basin, which is part of the largest complex of wild public lands in the continental United States. Natural resource planning there has been fraught for decades. Fights over logging rights have usually ended in litigation and acrimony. Economic changes have hammered the timber industry. Insects, disease and fire have undermined forest health and municipal watersheds. These types of challenges aren’t unique to the Clearwater Basin. From the Wallow Fire in Eastern Arizona, which scorched thousands of acres this summer, to the double-digit unemployment rates facing languishing Pacific Northwest timber towns, signs of problems in the nation’s forests -- and forest economies -- abound.

But crisis breeds opportunity. And over the past 10 years, a slow but unmistakable shift has been taking place in the world of U.S. forest management. People who were once on opposite sides of forestry issues are now collaborating on projects that reduce fire risk, enhance fish and wildlife habitats, and, ideally, lead to a new “value-added” wood products industry. Although these restoration projects started out small -- focused on treating 10 to 15 acres -- such initiatives are now expanding to include hundreds of thousands of acres. The principle of collaboration was also given a boost two years ago when Congress established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), which this year allocated $22 million to 10 projects around the country, including $3.5 million for projects connected to the Clearwater Basin.

The rationale behind the CFLRP is simple, says Doug Crandall, director of legislative affairs for the U.S. Forest Service. Referring to a growing number of “explosive situations” unfolding in the nation’s forests, Crandall notes that “recognition of the need for restoration has never been greater,” and that the forest service “wants to see restoration on a larger scale so we can see the impacts on water and forest [projects].”

It’s not going to be easy. It can take years to develop the kind of trust required to make these projects work. But despite the challenges -- limited budgets, lingering animosities and lack of markets for new kinds of wood products -- the people working on the ground remain optimistic. “Local communities, environmentalists and the timber industry collectively reject the notion that we have to choose” between ecological concerns and business interests, says Maia Enzer, policy director for Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based nonprofit that helped convene a collaborative to develop a restoration plan for the Malheur Forest in eastern Oregon. “The old paradigm of jobs versus the environment is done.”

Crandall lays it out even more bluntly. “We have a lot of problems, and we don’t want to spend a lot of time in court,” he says. “Where you have a climate of cooperation, you can get more work done.”

To understand how and why such collaborative enterprises evolved, start with the forest service’s historic multiple-use mandate, codified by Congress in 1960. The move signaled a conscious shift to a management approach that balanced conservation, recreation and timber uses in the nation’s 155 national forests, encompassing some 193 million acres.

Despite that mixed-use mission, however, for decades the scales remained “tilted heavily toward resource extraction,” says Scott Brennan, a forest program manager with the Wilderness Society and co-chairman of a restoration collaborative working on the 1.4-million-acre Southwestern Crown of the Continent project in Montana. “That’s why there was so much conflict around forests for so many years.”

One of those headline-making conflicts was the infamous battle in the Pacific Northwest over the northern spotted owl, which was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. That decision led to the notorious Northwest “timber wars” and virtually shut down logging on federally managed forests for months. Similarly, in 1996, concerns about declining numbers of nesting sites for the Mexican spotted owl temporarily halted logging on national Ponderosa pine forests in Arizona and New Mexico -- and ultimately compelled the Forest Service to reduce timber sales by 70 percent.

Litigation halted logging in places all over the West. But the damage to the health of the nation’s forests was already done, says Mark Webb, a judge and county commissioner in Grant County, Ore., and a member of the Malhuer collaborative. “A century of active management means you can’t go back to the way it was,” he says. Decades of aggressive firefighting and the selective harvesting of large trees has left behind millions of acres of underbrush and fire- and insect-prone stands. In Oregon, says Webb, a turning point for collaboration occurred when “environmentalists began to realize that you can’t stop active management or you’re going to lose the last stand of old growth forest.” Plans are underway in the Eastern Oregon forest for four restoration projects, the largest around 42,000 acres.

The forest service arrived at the same conclusion, albeit by a different route. “In the past, the forest has produced a lot of commodities for us,” says Henry Provencio, a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, referring to northern Arizona’s famous Ponderosa pine stands. “But we ran into a few bumps suggesting Ponderosas need restoration rather than commodity use.” One such bump was a 2002 fire that scorched half a million acres of pines along with hundreds of houses. Until this year’s Wallow fire, the 2002 blaze was the largest fire in Arizona’s recorded history. “It was screaming to us that we need to get back to something more natural,” Provencio says.

Today, Provencio is the team leader for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a northern Arizona project targeting 2.4 million acres of the Ponderosa pine ecosystem located on four different national forests. One of the main objectives is to clear out fire-prone clumps of underbrush and small trees. To that end, the Forest Service issued a bid in June that will award timber companies an unprecedented 10 years’ worth of such thinning projects. Although the work will give loggers a chance to get back in the woods, finding a market for the smaller trees will be a challenge, says Provencio. Those trees, he says, are typically considered “non-merchantable.”

In Oregon, Webb agrees that the key to a collaborative solution is ensuring that there’s a market for those smaller trees. “The only way for our community to be healthy is to develop an economy tied to federal lands,” he says, noting that 60 percent of the county he represents is public land. As the restoration work moves forward, he says, the question becomes “how to create value off of wood products that don’t traditionally create value.”

Such a market solution could include energy production. That’s the plan for the Southwestern Crown of the Continent initiative in Montana. The 10-year project, which this year received $3.5 million from CFLRP, calls for restoring 46,000 acres of forest land and thinning fire-hazard brush on about 27,000 acres. One plan is for the forest cuttings generated by the restoration to be burned in a co-generation plant, providing heat and energy. There are still numerous hurdles, including finding a power company to guarantee purchase of the energy. But forest managers and lumber companies alike say they’re optimistic about the idea.

Part of what’s driving the current collaborative sprit is the economic downturn. In a recessionary climate, collaboration offers a nice quid pro quo: Timber companies perform the restoration work in exchange for trees, a trade that “offsets the cost of restoration,” says Provencio. The goal, he adds, is “to get as close to zero dollars per acre on treatment as we possibly can.”

Using forest restoration products to fuel green industries makes that exchange even more efficient, says Crandall. “If we create renewable energy from work we’re already doing, it creates jobs, reduces greenhouse gases and improves forests.” If the restoration projects are successful, they should also reduce costs to taxpayers, as the Forest Service spends more than half of its approximately $5 billion budget fighting fires.

Still, despite all the reasons why it might be the right time to come together, not everybody’s ready to join hands. There’s still plenty of litigation in the world of forestry. In July, for example, environmental groups filed an emergency injunction to stop logging operations they say threaten black-backed woodpeckers in national forests around Lake Tahoe, Calif. That same month, the Oregon timber industry sued the Obama administration in a move to increase the amount of logging allowed in western Oregon forests managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Nonetheless, collaborative approaches to forest management are stronger than they’ve ever been. “We have an extremely diverse group of stakeholders, timber industry and environmentalists -- everyone working toward a common goal,” says Provencio, referring to the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. “You can’t ask for more.”