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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Jim Petersen: Environmentalists destroying forests instead of saving them

Jim Petersen

By Jim Petersen

What do environmentalists want?

The litigation driven collapse of the Colville National Forest’s historically robust forest restoration and fuels management programs raises a seemingly unanswerable question.

What do litigious environmentalists want, not just in the Colville National Forest but in every national forest in the West?

More to the point, what do Tim Coleman and his Kettle Range Conservation Group want? Coleman’s group successfully sued the Forest Service to stop the Sanpoil forest restoration project, which was developed under the aegis of the 2004 Tribal Forest Protection Act in consultation with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.

The court order signed June 23 by Judge Stanley Bastian, chief district judge of Washington’s Eastern District, sends Colville National Forest planners back to square one on a project that took years to plan.

Sanpoil proposed thinning and prescribed burning on about 18,000 acres over several years. Boise Cascade’s Kettle Falls mill bought the project – about 15 million board feet of timber including some harvestable trees larger than 21 inches in diameter.

This seems to be the crux of Coleman’s lawsuit. Never mind that the larger trees include shade tolerant grand firs that threaten younger ponderosas that are native to the Colville National Forest.

Grand fir is a thin-barked tree that is easily killed by insects and wildfire. It secured its foothold on the Colville during wetter than normal years in the 1950s and has continued to spread faster than it has been removed from forests in central and Eastern Washington.

Grand firs – think Christmas trees – have very bushy low hanging branches that act as ladder fuels, allowing wildfires to climb into forest canopies. Canopy fires kill almost everything in sight. Witness the Stickpin fire, which destroyed 54,000 acres in the Colville National Forest in 2015.

Grand firs enjoy the protection of the 21-inch rule, a failed set of standards known as the Eastside Screens that the federal government imposed in 1990s to conserve old growth forests east of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington.

The 21-inch screen requirement is failing because tree size and age do not correlate. Some tree species – in this case grand fir – grow much faster than other tree species – in this case native ponderosa pine.

Coleman and his Kettle Range Conservation litigants aren’t conserving anything. They pose a far greater danger to the Colville National Forest and its communities than forest restoration work ever has or will.

Among their harms: The water citizens drink, the oxygen that heathy forests release into the air we all breathe, critical fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation opportunity and jobs in Northeast Washington, not just at Boise Cascade but also Vaagen Brothers, Columbia Cedar and several small logging companies whose payrolls support every other business in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille county.

These counties have enjoyed a congressionally blessed working relationship with the Colville National Forest staff for many years. They have been strategic players in the success of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and its stakeholder partners – all contributors to several widely praised forest restoration projects.

Coleman is destroying the good work stakeholders are doing in northeast Washington forests. Fortunately, Farm Bill conferees in Washington, D.C., are considering 2024 revisions in the National Environmental Policy Act that would limit Coleman’s ability to destroy what the Forest Service and its citizen partners are trying to do.

Coleman’s wants and needs should not negate those of diverse publics that value green trees and healthy forests and communities.

Jim Petersen is the founder and president of the nonprofit Evergreen Foundation, based in Dalton Gardens, Idaho.