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Colville National Forest awards 10-year stewardship contract

The Colville National Forest has awarded a 10-year stewardship contract to a Northeast Washington sawmill owner, allowing logging in return for restoration work.

Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. was the sole bidder on the contract, which is valued at up to $30 million.

The goods-for-services contract will allow Vaagen to log up to 50 million board feet of timber throughout the next decade. In return, the lumber company will undertake stewardship of the land such as thinning dense stands of trees, maintaining roads, and conducting prescribed burns and watershed restoration projects.

Forest Service officials say the contract could become a national model for helping the cash-strapped agency get restoration work done.

The contract covers 54,000 acres in the Three Rivers Ranger District’s Mill Creek watershed. Some ponderosa pine stands in the watershed have thousands of trees per acre as a result of decades of fire suppression, said Russ Vaagen, the company’s vice president. The dense stands are unhealthy and prone to catastrophic fires, he said.

Vaagen said the project grew out of conversations that his dad, company President Duane Vaagen, had with the staff of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Forest Service officials.

There’s wide consensus among local industry officials, environmental groups and community members that more management, including logging, is needed on parts of the Colville National Forest to address overstocked stands of trees. But the Forest Service was hampered by declining budgets and shrinking staff.

The Colville National Forest already used stewardship contracts for smaller projects and was receptive to the idea of a larger pilot project. Forest officials also were looking for ways to accelerate restoration work, said Franklin Pemberton, forest spokesman.

The number of Colville National Forest employees has dropped by about 70 percent during the past 20 years, with current budgets allowing the forest to harvest about 40 million board feet of timber per year.

Using a contractor shifts upfront planning costs onto private industry, so the agency doesn’t have to foot those bills.

All of the contract work must be done in accordance with federal laws, Pemberton said. The projects will be advertised, and members of the public will have the opportunity to comment and appeal, he said.

Russ Vaagen said timber harvests on the 54,000 acres will include conventional harvests as well as pre-commercial and hand-thinning of trees. Reducing the number of trees competing for water and nutrients on dry sites will produce healthier stands.

“It’s a combination of best efforts to get it back to a healthy forest,” he said.

Logs from the projects will be taken to Vaagen Brothers sawmills in Colville and Usk, Wash. Eventually, the contract might generate enough work to add a second shift at the Usk mill, Vaagen said.

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