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Colville’s Duane Vaagen left the timber wars behind to forge good jobs in the ‘bipartisan forest’

Duane Vaagen, president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber, poses for a photo atop a crane on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, at Vaagen Brothers Lumber  in Colville, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Duane Vaagen, president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber, poses for a photo atop a crane on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, at Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

COLVILLE – Lumber executives thought this was the year for a triumphant trip to Washington, D.C.

Duane Vaagen, a 65-year-old sawmill owner in Colville, was among them. President Donald Trump had invited industry leaders to tell him what they wanted.

But he wasn’t celebrating after this trip with 24 other timber industry representatives from the Federal Forest Resource Coalition. It was too early for him to tell if the way the U.S. Forest Service manages the forests will change. He is skeptical after fighting in court, with many administrations and with leaders from both parties for decades with little change.

“I guess I’m a Republican but the forest is bipartisan,” Vaagen said.

He pitched his national-forest-management viewpoint tinged with the history of his family owned and operated sawmills in Colville and Usk. They also have interests in sawmills in Snowflake, Arizona, and British Columbia.

His two sons, Russ and Curtis, and daughter, Emily, work in the business with ownership going back to his father and grandfather.

They operate one of the few remaining family-owned sawmills in the West, where at one time many small towns in the mountains were anchored by at least one. But they plan to be the last one standing by making changes.

His son Russ is 40 and already has 20 years in the business. He graduated from Washington State University. He determined years ago that environmentalists didn’t want to put him out of business. Rather, he searched for common interests such as protecting the streams and wildlife as well as local jobs.

He has been vice president for 12 years and goes on the road more than his father now to promote change in the industry that will lead to a steady supply of timber and healthy forests.

“I learned from my father the stick-to-it attitude,” Russ Vaagen said. “I also got the will to survive and do the job right as well from him.”

Vaagen mill history

Duane Vaagen is a nationally known proponent of thinning large areas of the national forests of densely growing small trees to save the forest. He also believes in collaborating with environmental groups and other stakeholders to get it done faster.

Vaagen said some in the timber industry believe he is collaborating with the enemy because of his work with environmentalists.

But he said he doesn’t care about what they think if they can get logs for the sawmills and prevent forest fires. He just hopes the Forest Service can get more areas open for restoration work before it is too late. That’s the message he delivered in Washington, D.C.

“Duane always has a view that you can always do more,” said David Bruce, chief financial officer for Vaagen’s lumber company.

It all started in the 1930s with his mother’s family homestead in the Squaw Creek area about 15 miles east of Colville. His mother’s father, Valdemar Anderson, and his family lived off the land. Among their tools were a portable sawmill and horses.

Vaagen told the story while sitting in his comfortable, modern office on the second floor of company headquarters next to the Colville sawmill. The giant, lighted, white gantry crane used to unload log trucks was moving outside. The family name is painted across it and can be seen from far away. There are 124 workers hustling to convert acres of logs to lumber.

About 95 loads of saw logs and 40 loads of pulp logs are milled each day. The work pulses millions of dollars each year into the local economy. All are small logs – 4.5 to 11.5 inches in diameter – mostly from forest thinning and fire salvage.

The Colville mill produces 170 million board feet of lumber annually with the Usk mill capable of another 120 million board feet.

Last year after nearby forest fires, Vaagen Brothers asked why people didn’t harvest burned timber, he said. They were told nobody wanted it, but they said they did, just like their grandfather did years ago.

The formal beginning by the two brothers and their wives of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. in the early 1950s was humble with a well-used portable sawmill and a borrowed team of horses.

In 1960, his father wanted to buy small logs some called “dog hair,” Vaagen said. “So I guess the idea of thinning the small logs goes back to the ’60s.”

In 1969, they bought the current site in Colville and began building a sawmill. Then they acquired a planer facility to finish lumber in Spokane in 1970.

The crews started working frantically on the partially finished Colville mill in 1972 because the Squaw Creek mill was destroyed by fire.

Part of the Squaw Creek crew went to their Chewelah sawmill to work while the rest went to work in Colville. Then fire hit the Colville mill in 1974 after it was partially opened. The family and crew worked two 10-hour shifts, seven days a week for six weeks. They were back in business.

Vaagen family tragedies struck in the mid-1970s reshaping the company’s and Duane’s futures.

His father died in 1975 and Duane became vice president.

His brother, Dean, was killed in a vehicle accident in 1979. His aunt, Elizabeth Vaagen, died in 1976, and his uncle, Bud Vaagen, died in 1980. It all led to the 28-year-old Duane Vaagen becoming president of the company.

Evolving to survive

In 1987, Duane Vaagen introduced the first computer-guided Hew Saw to rapidly cut small logs. He studied the machinery and techniques in Finland and continues to return to keep up with the technology in a country he admires for efficiency and forest management.

Vaagen made sure his sawmill business was constantly evolving.

They learned to buy timber at the right price, to have the right mill to process it and then make sure they knew their customers’ needs.

Some mills were closed over the years, including those in Ione, Chewelah and Republic. Others were opened, such as the mill in Usk 11 years ago. Like their ancestors, they wanted to keep the sawmills close to the source of timber. When it isn’t available, sawmills close, he said.

He took over at a time known as the “timber wars,” when many timber sales became court fights.

U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, the Democrat from Spokane who also represented rural northeast Washington, worked to end the debate.

Vaagen remembers going to Foley’s Spokane office in the morning and the environmentalists going in the afternoon. Foley and his staff would try to hammer out a compromise.

Foley once said this was the most difficult issue he had worked on to find common ground.

There wasn’t really one moment when the realization hit him, Vaagen said. But he began to change his view and approach. He realized he would have to work with the opposition if his family’s business was going to survive. He made contact with environmentalists. He eventually got one to help him set up a collaborative group that remains today.

“Collaboration was all new then and it seemed like a good avenue for starting a conversation with folks who were shutting down every timber sale offered on the Colville, and all over the West,” Vaagen said.

He is proud of the fact that there has been very little timber-sale litigation in the past 10 years. He credits that to working with all interested groups in the area. But he said the Forest Service is still only treating a fraction of the forest that needs it.

His recent notoriety came when Vaagen Brothers put up over $2 million without guarantee of return in a first-of–its-kind Forest Service stewardship project known as Mill Creek A to Z. It’s close to his family’s homestead and includes thinning and forest restoration projects.

This is the first third of a 54,000-acre project area to be handled this way during the next decade. Vaagen Brothers and other companies would like to do more stewardship projects.

Bruce, the CFO, said that the upfront costs for the environmental assessment for this first phase were higher than anticipated. He said he believes what they learned about the process will help keep costs down for the next phases.

Vaagen said they know now that they can do the work faster and for less money than the Forest Service.

“So maybe they shouldn’t privatize national forests but maybe privatize management because they (Forest Service) can’t do it,” Vaagen said.

He rattles off many ideas that are spawned in collaboration meetings.

One of them is the belief that receipts from forest stewardship projects like A to Z should be returned to the forest budget for the next projects.

And there is a relatively new concept of returning 25 percent of the stumpage from these projects to the county governments to replace dwindling federal funds for county governments in forest communities. Now excess revenue from forest projects goes back to Washington, D.C.

Collaboration leader

“Duane Vaagen has been a leader in setting up the whole collaborative process,” said Pend Oreille County Commissioner Make Manus. “While looking out for their interests they also are looking out for the community.”

Mike Peterson, Lands Council executive director, said he has been working with Vaagen Brothers and others on collaboration in forest management for many years and feels it is spreading.

“It’s an antidote to confrontation,” Peterson said.

An environmental leader for many years from Priest Lake, Barry Rosenberg, disagrees with Peterson. He was one of the local objectors to the A to Z project and supported the request for an injunction last year that a judge denied. The case was scheduled to be heard in federal court in June.

Rosenberg said he feels that the collaboration group isn’t looking at projects to see if they are good for the forest, instead they are just finding ways to support it and keep their proposal.

“It’s kind of backwards,” he said.

“It’s impossible to do timber sales without further harm,” he said. “The collaborative group makes it fit. All have interests – all benefit.”

Rosenberg and other environmentalists believe disease and fire are natural recurring parts of the forest and thinning isn’t the ultimate answer.

Colville National Forest Supervisor Rodney Smolden has said for years that due to budget constraints crews are only able to prepare a small percentage of the thinning and forest restoration work needed each year to have a healthy forest. He believes like other foresters that it and other types of forest restoration projects are vital to improving forest health.

“I could spend the rest of my day logging trees that were planted after I was born,” Vaagen said.

Vaagen said they utilize timber from federal, state, tribal and private lands to keep their mills going in Colville and Usk. But it takes all of these sources to keep Vaagen Brothers and other mills in business. Increasing the harvest of small logs from the national forest will also let them expand employment at their mills.

He is optimistic about the future because of the recent progress they have made working with others outside the industry. He thinks the broad support for the A to Z project and the willingness of the Forest Service to get involved and defend it is encouraging.

Vaagen points out that they are now only arguing about one-third of the national forest instead of the entire thing. With two-thirds agreeably locked up in wilderness or with other restrictions, they are down to the third they agree needs active management.

Everyone is just working on the best way to do it, he said. That’s progress after 30 years.


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