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Editorial: Colville forest stewardship program could become model

If a unique effort to assess a corner of the Colville National Forest succeeds, will anybody heed it?

The U.S. Forest Service, lacking the caulked boots on the ground to properly manage all of the forest’s 1.1 million acres, has handed responsibility for planning on 54,000 acres to Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. The Colville company in September was awarded a $30 million bid to assume stewardship of the tract in the Mill Creek area northeast of the Stevens County community.

The work has the support of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, which for 10 years has brought timber and environmental representatives together in an effort to satisfy the interests of both without the litigation that has paralyzed operations at other national forests. In that decade, cooperation has cleared the way for more than 30 “treats”: harvest, thinning, controlled burns and recreation projects with economic and environmental payoffs.

But the forest’s timber production – roughly 40 million board feet – is only about one-third the historic, unsustainable 100,000 million-plus board feet of the late 1980s. Coalition members have bought into a harvest of as much as 80,000 board feet, but with a staff 70 percent smaller than 20 years ago, the Colville Forest cannot do all the work necessary to put that much out for bid.

In the Mill Creek watershed, the work to satisfy the National Environmental Policy Act requirements has been contracted out to a third party, Cramer Fish Services. Vaagen Brothers will pay the tab, which could reach $1 million.

Coalition members envision an outcome that allots one-third of the study area to timber harvest – enough to boost total forest production to 60 million board feet – another third to mixed management action, and a final third suitable for wilderness designation. The Forest Service will determine whether the NEPA study is adequate, and price whatever timber becomes available for sale to Vaagen Brothers.

The study and its outcome will test the good will of all involved, and some who are not. Off-road motorists remain suspicious, as do environmental groups already calling the process a step toward the privatization of national forests. Area tribes have monitored the progress of the coalition but have not been direct participants.

Coalition members caution that a plan that does not include a wilderness component could break up the alliance. That would be the worst possible outcome.

The group has become a model and the hope of many who care about the nation’s forests but cannot find common ground. While the courts try to mediate their differences, millions of acres have gone up in smoke, to the benefit of nobody. Fires are part of nature’s cycle; the cataclysmic blazes sweeping through the West’s under-managed forests are not.

Some call the Colville the “asbestos forest” because recent fires have been few and small. One dry summer, one thunderstorm, and that asbestos becomes tinder.

At 54,000 acres, the Mill Creek pilot program is tiny. But if the results strike the appropriate balance among competing demands, there could be light in the forest – without ignition.

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