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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Longtime conservation leader abruptly fired by Lands Council board of directors

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands of the Washington Department of Natural Resources speaks as Mike Petersen, right, Executive Director of The Lands Council, moderates a town hall on environmental legislation and policy on state lands on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Spokane, Wash.   (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Mike Petersen, a longtime conservation advocate and executive director of the Lands Council, was fired by the board of directors March 5.

Petersen had worked at the council for nearly 30 years.

He declined to comment due to settlement talks with the Lands Council.

Chris Bachman, the wildlife director for the council and a friend of Petersen’s, quit in protest Friday. His last day at the Spokane-based conservation nonprofit will be Thursday. Bachman has accepted a new job working at the Mountain Lion Foundation.

“On the 5th of March, the board fired him,” Bachman said. “Out of nowhere, at 11 a.m. Effective immediately. Clean out your desk. You’re done.”

Greg Gordon, the board’s co-chair, declined to comment.

Staff members have not been told why Petersen was fired, Bachman said.

“That’s part of my gripe. No one has told anybody why,” Bachman said.

Mitch Friedman, the executive director of Seattle-based Conservation Northwest, said when he heard about the firing he called Gordon to see what was going on.

“Gordon said there was no scandal,” Friedman said.

While they’re still unclear on the reason for Petersen’s firing, Friedman and Bachman both said they don’t believe it was the result of inappropriate behavior.

According to Amanda Parish, the interim executive director, Petersen’s firing does not represent a major shift in the Lands Council’s approach toward regional environmental work.

“The details of his departure are still under negotiation, so for legal and privacy reasons I can’t speak to it further,” she said in an email, adding later, “I have deep respect for Mike’s legacy of environmental conservation in our region. While The Lands Council is experiencing internal restructuring, our board and staff don’t intend to make major changes to our external work.”

Petersen’s abrupt ouster will have a negative effect on regional conservation work, Friedman said.

“You don’t lose an asset like that and not pay some cost,” he said. “It’s not a role a group like mine from Seattle can step in and pick up the slack.”

In particular, Petersen helped pioneer collaborative timber sales in the Colville National Forest. In 2015, the Lands Council backed the A-to-Z project near Colville. Under the terms of that project, Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. paid for the environmental review of the timber sale, a move that garnered national attention and some controversy. The Alliance of the Wild Rockies filed a preliminary injunction against the project in federal court, although in 2017 a judge ruled the sale could continue.

This collaborative approach to conservation has divided the conservation community in the past, with some arguing that when conservationists collaborate with industry, conservation loses.

Petersen started his career with Earth First!, an environmental group known for protests, lawsuits and, occasionally, controversy. Petersen and others brought similar tactics to the Inland Northwest, routinely protesting timber sales in the Colville and Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

“How did you get from road blockades and protests and getting arrested to collaborating with the timber industry,” Petersen said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review in 2019. “How did that evolve?”

Petersen called direct action and litigation a “tool” that environmentalists need to use to get a seat at the table. But once that happens, he said, collaboration is the next step.

In the 1990s, The Lands Council and the Kettle Range Conservation Group “challenged every single timber sale,” he said in 2019. They were so successful they eventually forced the the Forest Service and the timber industry to sit down and negotiate, he said.

Alan Harper, a forester for the Coeur d’Alene-based lumber company Idaho Forest Group, said he’s appreciated Petersen’s willingness to talk and work through differences. The two have worked together as part of the Panhandle Forest Collaborative for 15 years. He’s “severely disappointed” that Petersen was fired.

“I don’t agree with everything he wants to do,” Harper said. “He doesn’t agree with me on everything. But we’ve always been able to come to conclusions that everybody got something that bettered the projects.”

The Panhandle Forest Collaborative met on March 20. The Lands Council did not send a representative, Harper said.

“It has put a lot of our forest and wilderness work in jeopardy,” Bachman said. “He’s been building relationships and trust in different communities for years. I just feel like there wasn’t a lot of foresight.”