Rick Brazell packed his bags and departed the Colville National Forest last week, leaving forest users stunned and uncertain about years of effort invested in the wilderness debate.
Since becoming the supervisor of the 1.1-million-acre forest six years ago, Brazell, 55, earned a reputation for bringing polarized groups together.
“He’s been instrumental in moving the Colville from a battleground to a showcase,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director for Conservation Northwest, which has been involved in logging and wilderness issues throughout Brazell’s term.
“When he arrived, the forest was in gridlock with no timber projects moving forward because they were too controversial or environmentally destructive to get through the legal process.”
Just recently, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers praised the Colville under Brazell as a model for collaboration between industry and conservation.
“(Brazell’s departure) creates instability at a point when we don’t need it,’ Friedman said.
Brazell will take charge of the Nez Perce- Clearwater national forests on Monday, but in an interview last week he said Colville Forest advocates have not wasted their time.
“Anytime a supervisor leaves, there’s always unfinished business,” he said.
“But the draft environmental impact statement is still on track to be out this spring. There’s too much energy invested in it,” he added noting that Rodney Smoldon, deputy forest supervisor, will be the acting forest supervisor until a successor is named.
Stakeholders and forest users have attended dozens and dozens of meetings in recent years and filed more than 3,000 letters arguing for and against creating more wilderness, which is closed to motorized and even mechanized equipment, such as mountain bikes.
Brazell said collaboration bringing opposing interests to tables where they debate, argue and try to reach conclusions has given a boost to the painfully slow public process.
Instead of taking public comment and going behind closed doors to come out with recommendations, Brazell has maintained more transparency.
The regional forester has allowed him to share where the Colville Forest staff is leaning on various wilderness proposals to county commissioners, the Colville Tribe, forest industry representatives, ranchers, recreationists and conservationists.
“We can’t legally make recommendations until the draft EIS comes out,” he said. “But if we can talk about it now, we can make our recommendations a little tighter. My dream is that maybe we can come up with a preferred alternative right off the bat that will have broad support.
“So we’ve formed a roundtable of top-notch problem solvers that represent a broad spectrum of interests to have a dialogue and bring interests closer together.
“We may not get there, but I’m an optimist. We haven’t had an appeal or litigation in six years on this forest because of collaboration. Dealing with roadless areas and wilderness is the 800-pound gorilla on this forest, but people have been willing to roll up their sleeves and work it out.”
Most groups and Colville Forest officials have agreed that about 80,000 acres of roadless areas should be protected, and there’s discussion on another 20,000-30,000 acres. The question remains: What type of protection?
Wilderness, which must be approved by Congress, is the gold standard for protecting wild lands from a heavy human hand.
But some interests have recommended other designations, such as “national recreation area” or “backcountry,” which would keep an area roadless but possibly allow mountain bikes and chainsaws.
“We’re so close to wrapping a bow around this thing, if we can just bring this roundtable together in a room to hammer it out,” he said. “It can’t be done in a meeting with 100 people.
“The solution is somewhere between those who want it all wilderness and those who don’t want any of it wilderness.
“The Forest Service position is that as long as these areas are protected, we can do it regardless of the exact designation. Our forest-planning process just identifies those areas with wilderness characteristics. Congress takes it from there.”
The Snow Peak rental cabin technically eliminates that area from wilderness recommendation, but Congress could make an exception, he said.
The Colville Tribe is concerned about forest fire if timberlands can’t be managed along the reservation border.
“So maybe we can have a buffer between the reservation and wilderness,” he said.
Conservation groups that once called for no timber harvesting on the Colville have agreed to support logging of 80 million board feet a year, he said.
“We’re currently doing about 40 million board feet, so you can see there’s progress from the timber industry’s point of view. … In my 30 years with the Forest Service, I’ve never worked in this environment.”
On Monday, he’ll be in Idaho, starting over.
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.