For the past four years, a mix of loggers, environmentalists and business leaders have been getting together in northeastern Washington to find an agreeable way of managing the Colville National Forest.
Before then, the 1.1 million-acre forest was in a virtual lockdown, thanks to lawsuits filed by environmentalists, who felt the public land was being managed sloppily and that their concerns weren’t being heard. Although minor squabbles persist, there hasn’t been a lawsuit filed since the coalition started meeting. If anything, members of the group now agree the U.S. Forest Service should be doing more to manage the land, not less.
The coalition’s ability to blow through the lawsuit log jam hasn’t gone unnoticed in Coeur d’Alene, where a similar group has recently formed.
“The forests here have suffered from management by litigation,” explained Jonathan Coe, president of the Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce, which organized the group. “It’s about building goodwill, common sense and trust, and nothing else. It’s an effort we felt was worth making.”
Many of the major timber sales proposed in recent years by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests have been torpedoed by lawsuits from environmental groups. Coe and leaders within the U.S. Forest Service hope the new Coeur d’Alene Forestry Coalition will help identify and defuse concerns early in the process of planning projects.
The group includes representatives from the timber industry, as well as conservationists, including The Lands Council of Spokane. But one major player is missing: The Kootenai Environmental Alliance. The Coeur d’Alene-based environmental group has been behind many of the recent lawsuits filed against the Forest Service but has refused to participate in the first year of the coalition’s existence.
KEA Director Barry Rosenberg could not be reached for comment last week, but in numerous previous interviews he said his reluctance comes from a distrust of officials in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. He said the agency continues to focus most of its efforts on cutting trees rather than fixing decades of damage done by past logging in the forest. “The Panhandle is one of the most aggressive timber forests in the West,” Rosenberg said.
KEA’s refusal to participate has sparked a lively internal debate during the past year among regional environmental groups over the issue of collaboration. Mike Petersen, director of The Lands Council, said he also had reservations about joining the group, but ultimately decided to give it a chance.
“My skepticism of the Panhandle (National Forests) is extremely high, as well. I’m just maybe more naïve,” Petersen said. “I’m also eternally hopeful. I want it to succeed.”
Randy Swick, ranger of the Forest Service’s Coeur d’Alene River District, said the coalition’s door will remain open. “We’re willing to be patient,” he said. “We want to move forward as best we can.”
The coalition’s first task involves a proposed forest thinning project in the Blue and Alder creeks area east of Coeur d’Alene. The Forest Service believes these drainages are overgrown and ripe for a burn. They’re also close to many homes. The coalition has taken a field trip to the area and has also listened to independent experts discuss different treatment options. The coalition will provide input on the project.
With luck, there will be consensus and the project will commence without appeal, Swick said. Still, the coalition’s support does not make the project immune from lawsuits. “At least we will have given it our best shot up front,” Swick explained.
This lack of certainty is what soured Jim Petersen on the idea of forestry coalitions. Petersen is the executive director of the Montana-based Evergreen Foundation, which publishes the nation’s most widely read forestry journal, Evergreen Magazine. He participated in similar efforts in the 1980s.
“There have been coalitions after coalitions after coalitions. Most of these coalitions are gone now. Most of those who were involved in them are no longer interested because they believe the process is doomed,” Petersen said. “Until somebody figures out how to stuff the litigation genie back in the bottle, these efforts are doomed. All it takes is one malcontent, one person who disagrees, and all the effort goes down the drain.”
Supporters of the idea, however, say there’s ample evidence of success.
Tim Coleman, wilderness campaign director for Conservation Northwest, has been closely involved with the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. He was once a fierce critic of how the Forest Service and timber companies managed the land. With input from the coalition, the agency has identified an abundance of projects that provide logs to the local sawmill without sparking lawsuits.
“It’s working really well,” he said. “There were projects held up for years by appeals and litigation that have been resolved.”
Matthew Koehler, executive director of The WildWest Institute, of Missoula, said the Kootenai Stakeholders Coalition in northwest Montana has also succeeded in bringing together former foes. One place of agreement has been thinning wildfire-prone forest near communities.
“There’s literally generations of work that could be done there,” Koehler said.
But Koehler and other environmentalists say the coalitions must be open and inclusive to everybody. “These are public lands. They belong equally to everyone,” he said.
Koehler said another important ingredient is a willingness by the supervisor of the local national forest to back away from hot-button projects, including those that involve work in old growth forest or in the backcountry far from homes.
“We do feel there’s a tremendous amount of common ground that could be achieved, especially if the Forest Service would stop putting so much of their time and resources into controversial projects,” Koehler said.
This won’t be easy, with the Forest Service facing an unprecedented budget crunch and an increasing inability to fund the restoration projects favored by environmentalists. Randy Swick, the Coeur d’Alene ranger, said the fuels-thinning projects produce mostly small-diameter logs that are of little value to mills and don’t cover the steep costs of decommissioning roads or fixing silt-clogged streams.
Informing the public on these challenges is critical and why the agency is working closely with the coalitions, Swick added.
Ron Roizen, a consultant and sociologist from Wallace, Idaho, has been attending the monthly meetings of the Coeur d’Alene Forestry Coalition. Roizen described his interest as “a normal citizen who’s very concerned about Wallace burning down.”
Those attending the meetings have deeply divided views on how the forest should be managed, Roizen said. Some want it left alone with minor thinning conducted on forest periphery. Others, like Roizen, believe broad thinning of the forests is the only way to prevent a major catastrophe, such as the 1910 fire that burned much of Wallace.
At times the debate seems like a “quasi-religious conflict,” Roizen said. Nonetheless, he said the forum seems to offer the best chance at keeping the debate out of a courtroom. He also said getting to know people with differing views has been helpful and eye-opening.
“I have to confess, I rather like Mike Petersen,” Roizen said, referring to the director of The Lands Council. “He seems like a reasonably decent guy. The coalition is the only game in town where you can actually hear what some of these folks have to say.”