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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ignoring years of collaboration, Colville National Forest reduces eligible wilderness areas in draft plan

The fire lookout cabin perched on Little Snowy Top Mountain can be seen in this 2015 aerial photo overlooking the Salmo-Priest Wilderness. Rupert Cutler photo. (RUPERT CUTLER / RUPERT CUTLER)

A proposal that would have more than quadrupled the amount of protected wilderness in Eastern Washington came to a screeching halt earlier this fall.

The Colville National Forest released its draft management plan Sept. 8. To the surprise of conservation groups and one of the area’s largest timber producers, the draft didn’t contain many recommendations hammered out over years of give-and-take between stakeholders.

In particular, under the draft plan, about 60,000 acres of the Colville National Forest will be designated as recommended wilderness.

A coalition, which represents environmental, industrial and recreation interests, originally proposed more than 200,000 acres, said Mike Petersen, the executive director of The Lands Council and a founding member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, or NEWFC.

However, county commissioners from Pend Oreille, Stevens and Ferry counties do not support increasing the recommended wilderness area. Nor does the cattle industry. The Forest Service cited that opposition as a reason for reducing the amount of proposed wilderness.

Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. and NEWFC board president, formally objected to the draft plan in a Nov. 6 letter. In the letter, he said the Forest Service’s decision was “skewed” by special interest groups.

“The Colville National Forest belongs to all citizens of Washington and the United States,” he wrote. “Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille county commissioners represent just a tiny fraction of these citizens.”

Later in the letter he said it’s unavoidable that locals will have “personal, financial interests” in what happens to federal land, but that those interests should “have no bearing on federal land management issues.”

“It kind of undermines that collaborative spirit when you make a decision without really much explanation,” Petersen said. “It just looks like ‘Wow, you’re our public lands managers but you somehow went a different direction and didn’t really explain why.’ ”

Other members of the NEWFC expressed their shock at the decision.

“I can’t believe this,” said Tim Coleman, the executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group. “After all these years and all this investment and time and coming up with a compromise, and they’re going to do this to us.”

As part of the compromise, the forest plan championed by NEWFC calls for increased logging on other parts of the Colville National Forest and building new trails for mountain bikers, motorcyclists and ATV riders, who would lose access to some trails if Congress approved new wilderness.

That collaboration between industry and conservation groups was praised by Vicki Christiansen, the interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers during an August tour of the Colville National Forest where Vaagen Bros. are logging small-diameter trees.

The Colville National Forest has one designated wilderness area – the 41,335-acre Salmo-Priest Wilderness, which represents 3 percent of the Colville National Forest’s 1.1 million acres.

The U.S. Forest Service considered the various proposals and requests, said Franklin Pemberton, a spokesman for the agency. The 60,000 acres of proposed wilderness represents a compromise between conflicting interests.

“The forest considered these comments by looking for areas where it made sense to reduce acres based on actual conditions on the ground (for example, noticeable past harvest activities and old roads, community water supplies),” he said in an email.

For example, in some areas adjacent to the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, the Forest Service “shaved acres off” because of conditions on the ground, he said.

However, “to be responsive to groups that wanted more recommended wilderness, we added about 3,000 acres to the Bald Snow recommended wilderness,” Pemberton said.

Wilderness areas such as the Salmo-Priest Wilderness must be created by an act of Congress. However, recommended wilderness areas have some management restrictions that other areas don’t. For instance, Forest Service personnel and volunteer groups can use chain saws to thin trees. In a designated wilderness, chain saws are prohibited. Additionally, mineral leasing is possible in recommended wilderness areas.

And Forest Service personnel manage forest fires in both recommended and designated wilderness areas, despite a popular misconception that they can’t.

For instance, the Forest Service sent smoke jumpers into the Salmo-Priest Wilderness area to fight a forest fire in 2017. They had chain saws but were forced to retreat when it became too dangerous.

Commissioners from Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties believe the 1964 Wilderness Act does not allow addition of new lands and worry that more restrictions will reduce recreation and increase fire danger.

“Our intention is to object to any designations of wilderness beyond what’s already in the forest,” Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell said.

The 1964 act called for the secretary of agriculture to review, within 10 years, which lands are or are not suitable for a wilderness designation. According to the commissioners, lands not included in that decades-old analysis are not eligible for wilderness protection.

According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness designations are for forests that have kept their “primeval” character, showing little influence of human activity. Logging and mining are prohibited in wilderness areas, as are chain saws, motor vehicles and mountain bikes.

“If it wasn’t wilderness-compliant, then how could it get wilderness-compliant over time,” Dashiell said. “Once it’s not wilderness, how does it revert to wilderness.”

However, Congress has voted numerous times since 1974 to create new wilderness areas. In 2008, the 106,577-acre Big Sky Wilderness was created in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest after five years of congressional debate.

Washington state has a total of 4.5 million acres of federally designated wilderness.

Creating new wilderness is usually a slow and politically fraught process.

For more than a decade, Friends of the Scotchman Peaks built support in Idaho and Montana for a the creation of an 88,000-acre wilderness area spanning Idaho and Montana.

This spring that effort was derailed – perhaps permanently – by a Bonner County advisory vote. Voters rejected the plan 5,672 to 4,831. Although that vote is not legally binding, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, chose not to reintroduce legislation that would have created the wilderness area following the vote.

That decision essentially allowed Bonner County voters to decide a federal issue, said Petersen, of the Lands Council.

“That kind of ignores that these are public lands,” he said. “It will be a new thing to pick up on. It does influence politicians.”

Local control is at the core of the wilderness-or-no-wilderness debate in many ways.

Johnna Exner, Ferry County Commission chairwoman, noted about 100,000 people live in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Her job, she said, is to represent their interests.

“That’s the frustrating part, it ties our hands,” she said of the proposed wilderness designation.

The cattle industry, a powerful group in the tri-county area, also opposes any new wilderness designation. There are 58 grazing allotments on the Colville National Forest covering 810,000 acres.

In a letter objecting to the draft forest plan, the Washington State Cattleman’s Association said creating more wilderness and roadless areas would hurt ranchers. A wilderness recommendation would have a “long-lasting negative effect on livestock grazing,” the letter states.

The Stevens County Cattleman’s Association also filed a letter objecting to the 60,000 acres of proposed wilderness, among other things.

However, according to the Wilderness Act, cattle can remain in a wilderness area, although ranchers may have to leave their trucks behind.

Altogether, 20 groups filed objections. Many of those objections touched on the wilderness proposal. However, objectors also raised concerns about riparian area regulations, decommissioning roads and other issues.

A 90-day objection period opened Nov. 7 and likely will be extended, Pemberton said. Forest Service staff are reading the objections and “identifying issues.”

Once that’s done the Forest Service will schedule meetings with with objectors and the reviewing official, Allen Rowley, the acting National Forest System associate deputy chief.

The Forest Service hopes to have a resolution sometime in the spring, the Forest Service’s Pemberton said.

The plan is intended to last for 15 years, although most plans remain in place much longer. The current Colville Forest management plan was drafted in 1988, and the review process started in 2003.

For many involved in the years of collaboration, the setback threatens an unlikely alliance between industry and conservation.

Working with the Vaagen Brothers was “unique” and a marked shift in strategy from earlier, more confrontational, environmental efforts, Petersen said. “A lot of it was trust-building,” he said. “It takes a long time to build trust, and you can blow it in a second.”

Coleman, who was a founding member of the NEWFC, echoed Petersen’s concerns.

“We want to maintain good relationships with the Forest Service,” he said. “But this particular problem is a creation of their own.”