RICE, Wash. – Connie Bergstrom has spent three decades roaming northeast Washington’s Huckleberry Mountains.
The retired biology teacher knows which seeps hold enough water to quench the thirst of a horse and a dog during a dusty, August trail ride. She knows where to spot signs of bears. She knows which watering holes to avoid at dusk, because cougars linger there.
Two years ago, however, Bergstrom stumbled upon a surprise. It was a clear-cut so stark, she thought the land had been stripped for surface mining. Not only were the trees gone, but the grasses and shrubs had been killed with a herbicide.
“We all understand logging. We see the need for it,” said Bergstrom, 58, who describes herself as “not a knee-jerk environmentalist.”
But that clear-cut and others that followed looked “like one of those pictures in National Geographic, where countries made deserts out of their mountains,” she said. They were startling, according to Bergstrom, even in a region steeped in commercial forestry.
The bare spots on the hillsides are the signature of a new landowner. In 2005, Boise Cascade sold off 2.2 million acres of its timber holdings in multiple states to Forest Capital Partners, a timber investment firm with offices in Boston and Portland. The sale included roughly 270,000 acres in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties.
Forest Capital is frank about its plans for the property. The company intends to clear-cut more acres, killing brush through aerial spraying. The exposed ground will be replanted with seedlings.
The new regimen will produce more vigorous tree growth, said Tom Holt, general manager for Forest Capital’s western division, who bristles at comments like Bergstrom’s. Over time, the company expects a 30 percent to 75 percent increase in the volume of timber grown on its northeast Washington stands.
“We’re probably leading some of the new thinking in the Inland region,” Holt said.
After the purchase, Forest Capital spent millions of dollars inventorying former Boise Cascade lands. Holt said his company saw room for improvement in northeast Washington.
Boise Cascade had moved away from clear-cuts, and the quality of its tree stands suffered as a result, Holt said. Lower-valued white fir grew in. The mature trees left in the harvest units were susceptible to disease.
“You weren’t really adding any value to the property,” Holt said.
By clear-cutting and spraying, Forest Capital plans to improve the tree mix. Douglas fir, larch and cedar also are native, and they’re more lucrative to grow than white fir, Holt said. By knocking out competing vegetation with herbicides, seedlings get a boost during their initial growing seasons, he added.
Neighbors remain skeptical that Forest Capital’s methods, which are common in coastal Oregon and Washington, will succeed in the drier Inland Northwest.
Judy Bates lives near Northport, Wash., where Forest Capital’s clear-cuts have sparked concerns from nearby property owners.
“This different approach to logging does not look sustainable to us,” said Bates, a 20-year resident of the area. “The character of the region has built slowly over many generations. This new situation is a destabilizing factor, and it’s happening very quickly.”
Over the past two years, Forest Capital logged 28,000 acres in northeast Washington. About 9,000 acres were clear-cut and sprayed, according to company figures. Some of the drier sites aren’t suitable for clear-cuts, Holt said, because the trees grow too slowly for Forest Capital to recover money invested in spraying and replanting.
Forest Capital is a relatively new, fast-growing firm. Founded by two foresters with MBAs, the company bought its first acreage in 2002. Now it’s one of the 10 largest private timberland owners in the U.S., with 2.5 million acres of trees.
Technically, Forest Capital is a TIMO, or timber investment management organization. TIMOs operate sort of like mutual funds. They attract wealthy individuals and institutional investors who want to diversify their portfolios by owning forestland. In addition to cutting trees, Forest Capital has a real estate arm, Westslope Properties, which sells high-value timber parcels for recreational property.
Buying a stake in Forest Capital costs “well north of $10 million,” co-founder Matt Donegan said in a 2006 interview. The company does not disclose who its investors are.
Forest Capital’s logging practices are compatible with Washington’s Forest Practices Act. The act allows private landowners to create clear-cuts as big as 240 acres, creating openings that could stretch one-quarter to one-half mile. The U.S. Forest Service, in contrast, caps most of its clear-cuts at 40 acres.
In northeast Washington, Forest Capital’s clear-cuts averaged 55 acres last year, company officials said.
Clear-cuts evoke strong reactions from the public, said Patty Henson, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which administers the state’s forest practices act. The law protects resources such as creeks and lakes but doesn’t regulate aesthetics.
“It’s not at all uncommon for neighbors who live near a harvest area to be concerned about their views, particularly if it’s a costly vacation home,” Henson said.
Clear-cut sites must be replanted within two years, she added. “In about five years, it will look like a short, little forest.”
Forest Capital’s neighbors said lost views are a minor concern compared to potential impacts on wildlife and watersheds.
Bergstrom often rides her horse in Kentry Ridge, part of the Huckleberry Mountains that rise between the Columbia River and the larger Selkirk range to the east. Last month, she pointed out a slope where 20 feet of ground was sloughing. It was part of a Forest Capital clear-cut.
“You can see how it slid,” Bergstrom said. “It won’t be long before it all goes over.”
Bob Broden, the company’s regional manager in Colville, said clear-cuts on Kentry Ridge were used to weed out parasitic mistletoe and other forest pests. Foresters guard against erosion because it reduces soil productivity, he said. “The majority of the ridge is very stable. … There shouldn’t be an erosion problem up there,” Broden said.
Tom McKern, whose 1,300-acre ranch borders Forest Capital property on Kentry Ridge, isn’t so sure. In the early 1980s, Boise Cascade clear-cut and burned more than 100 acres above his ranch. The next two springs, McKern’s property flooded. The water gouged the hillside, transported boulders and left silt deposits in the ranch’s outbuildings. McKern, 66, said the flooding was the worst in the ranch’s 104-year history.
The former Stevens County commissioner said he’s a timber industry supporter who believes in people’s right to profit from their land without undue government interference, but he called Forest Capital’s aggressive cutting “disturbing.”
The value of forest
Others, such as beekeeper John Kraus, worry about the herbicide spraying, which knocks out native plants.
“Vetch, sweet clover, chokecherry, Oregon grape and snowberry – those are all plants the bees work,” said Kraus, who puts his hives on private forestland in northeast Washington. None of the hives is on Forest Capital ground, but the bees – which roam in a three-mile radius – don’t acknowledge property lines, he said.
Spraying also reduces habitat, said Dana Base, the Colville-based district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Songbirds that eat berries, such as robins and bluebirds, are affected by the loss of shrubs, Base said. So are moose, whose diet includes woody plants such as willows and serviceberries.
“I don’t mean to point fingers. They’re in the business of growing fiber,” Base said of Forest Capital. However, “I really wish there was something we could offer these companies not to spray so much.”
Brian Kernohan, Forest Capital’s wildlife and forest stewardship manager, said critics are losing sight of scale. The company logs and sprays only a small percentage of its holdings each year. Birds and other animals can move to adjoining parcels to search for food, Kernohan said.
Without a profit, Forest Capital can’t continue to manage the land as working forest, he said. It’s a dilemma faced by timber owners, whose property is increasingly valuable for rural subdivisions or trophy properties.
“Those managed timberlands are better for the health of the landscape,” Kernohan said, “compared to a development or a Wal-Mart parking lot.”