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Hailed last year for collaborating, Colville Forest factions have gotten nowhere

They can't agree on limits for off-road vehicles, used by both ranchers and recreational riders, and that has left a promising compromise stuck in the mud.

The Colville National Forest: Is there enough to go around?

The Colville National Forest: Is there enough to go around? U.S. Forest Service

If last year's rosy visions had come to pass, we'd be celebrating new wilderness and recreaton areas in northeastern Washington's Colville National Forest. Ranchers in the area would be able to sell development rights to put money in their pockets while preserving their land and livelihood. Loggers and mills would be benefiting from a steady supply of timber from less protected land. And everybody might be singing "Kumbaya."

Hold the kumbaya. Hold the rest of it, too.

Last summer, Conservation Northwest (CNW) announced its Columbia Highlands Initiative, under which new federal legislation would carve new wilderness, recreation, and conservation areas out of the Colville Natonal Forest. The forest's management plan would provide for thinning to reduce fire danger near inhabited areas, and would permit a regular flow of log.

Private funds would be raised to buy development rights to ranches, helping ranchers to stay in business — if that's what they want — and saving their land for wildlife instead of houses. The extraordinary but tiny Salmo-Priest Wilderness in the state's northeast corner would get some extra protection, as would corridors for wildlife between the Rockies and the Cascades. And this would all be achieved through collaboration among interest groups, not rammed down anybody's throat.

The first step was a "Blueprint" that CNW and the rest of the coalition took two years working out. The participants signed a memorandum of understanding under which the forest products industry agreed to work for wilderness, and CNW agreed to support timber harvest for 10 years after federal legislation passed.

This collaborative approach "wasn't like the red meat we used to [feed supporters]," said Conservation Northwest's executive director, Mitch Friedman, at the time. But "we don't like the culture wars." The organization, he said, has concluded that the time for cultural warfare has largely passed. "Colville is part of an overarching message: This isn't the '80s."

In The Seattle Times last July, Craig Welch wrote that "after decades of lawsuits and arguments about this corner of the state, environmentalists and logging companies tried a different approach."

They talked. And talked some more. Eight years later they're putting forward something new: proposals to set aside tens of thousands of acres as wilderness…

The efforts still are being massaged, and all sides concede they're just getting started. But few dispute something remarkable has happened. Former enemies are working so well together that they're jointly trying to bring others along.

"The environmentalists here aren't just in it for themselves," said Russ Vaagen, of Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville, Stevens County. "They're not trying to lock us out of the woods. They want us back in. But they've got things they want to achieve, too."

Back then, just about everybody seemed to like the idea.

"Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell last year took part in six months of round-table discussions about how to satisfy diverse groups of forest users," Welch wrote. He quoted statements by both lawmakers praising the collaboration, including Cantwell's statement that, "When the time is right, I will be honored to introduce wilderness legislation in the U.S. Senate."

The time doesn't seem to be right yet. Will it ever be? The momentum that the proposal seemed to have last year has dissipated.

Most people in Northeast Washington still seem to like the idea. A recent Pew Environmental Group poll showed that many people have never heard of it, but given the details, 57 percent responded positively. Republicans as well as Democrats in Spokane, Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties thought that the combination of new wilderness, new trails, and increased timber flow sounded good.

But it will be hard, if not impossible, to get every one on board. In a recent letter to the editor, Ferry County commissioner Brian Dansel wrote that he felt it "necessary to address the 'Wilderness Area' designation that is being sought by a certain group in Ferry County." Lest one get the wrong impression from rhetoric about "a certain group," he noted that "[i]f we … speak out against them, we are labeled a right wing nut, or even a conspiracy theorist. Well, I am neither, but I do know right from wrong, and a 'Wilderness Area' designation for Ferry County is wrong." This is not language that invites or even permits much compromise.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, May 13, 8:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Off-road vehicles are merely cars by another name. The associated obstructionism is thus part of the same (woefully under-reported) story as suburban Pierce County's bigoted belief mass transit is welfare and the suburbanites' resultant war against transit-riders and mass transit: in Ferry County as in Pierce, it's the infinite selfishness, greed and malice of the car-huggers against all the rest of us.

Posted Fri, May 13, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

You need to get the formula right. Here's how it works:

Just close your eyes real tight and silently say to yourself, "Collaboration! Collaboration! Collaboration!" as many times as you can possibly stand it. Then click your heels three times, open your eyes and, presto, it's done.

You know, Toto, there's really no place like Ferry County.

woofer

Posted Fri, May 13, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

I have watched this unfold in my area and have been so impressed to see loggers and some of the ranchers (not all are against it, just the loudest few) come to the table and work it out with hunters and anglers and conservationists. The ORV faction are being unbelievably unreasonable--they are frothing at the thought of even not losing any actual mileage of trails through swap outs! I think collaboration hasn't failed; it's just hit a wall of idiocy. Our leadership has dropped the ball by not telling them to suck it up and make a deal for the greater good. I am disappointed in Cathy McMorris, not collaboration!

EmilyPost

Posted Fri, May 13, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate


No mountains in the Columbia Highlands look anything like those pictures with DJC's story.

Posted Fri, May 13, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Yes, those mountains in the picture are somewhere else all right.

Not mentioned in the article is that this "collaboration" would triple the timber cut on the Colville National Forest, taking it way beyond what even the traditionally timber-mad Forest Service thinks it ought to be. The areas that would be designated as Wilderness have very little in the way of forest on them - "rock and ice" as the saying goes, only minus the ice in this case. About all that Wilderness would do for them would be to exclude ORVs - a good thing for wildlife, yes, but hardly worth giving away the rest of the forested parts of the National Forest for.

This deal would "protect" the high elevation rocks while turning over the lower forested areas to the timber industry. The taxpayers would as usual subsidize the logging that would result, employing a small number of people at great cost per job. Can't we just hand them the money instead? It'd be way cheaper.

And, of course, all this logging will be sold as "restoring" the forests, like just about all logging in such places is touted these days. The only real winner if this thing gets pushed through will be the timber industry. The losers will be the rest of us who once again will pay to see public lands get logged.

It's very possible that in the quest to cut a deal, the Wilderness component here will default to some other designation that lets ORVs stay. If so, it will mean drawing lines on maps that mean absolutely nothing at all. In any case, the environmental benefits of this "collaboration" are few, the costs great, and the status quo is preferable.

Posted Fri, May 13, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I think you and I must be looking at different maps, Snoqualman.

First, there isn't a ton of "rock and ice" here; this isn't the Cascades. The lands along the Kettle Crest and the Selkirks are some of the most important wildlife habitat in the state as they link vital cores in the Cascades and Rockies. 215,000 acres are proposed as wilderness and 140,000 acres as national conservation areas that would be managed to near wilderness standards, with restoration forestry in those places where fire suppression and other management have caused problems on the landscape. In sum, **almost two-thirds** of the landscape is dedicated to conservation objectives.

Second, the "triple" value you use is misleading, because the forest has been mired in lawsuits and gridlock for decades... so plenty of taxpayer money has been spent to get zippo protected *or* logged. This collaboration has brought rigorous guidelines to all of the logging that don't exist in many other forests. The conservation partners in the NE WA Forestry Coalition are involved in every project to make sure that these guidelines are followed (including no new roads in roadless areas, no net increase in roads, no cutting of old growth (no cutting of trees more than 21 inches in diameter, max), good buffers on streams and protection of endangered species habitat, etc.

Logging has to happen--people use wood. But why not use the best standards possible and plan it thoughtfully w/ years of collaboration and effort to do it right? Why not protect 2/3 of the landscape and make the other 1/3 quality timber removal?

We also can't just put our fingers in our ears and pretend the forest will just stay the way it is if we do nothing. The status quo is not an option; the wilderness quality lands will continue to be degraded by legal and illegal ORV access (travel management planning is going on right now);conservative political will threatens all roadless areas in the US; and the Forest Service can't use tax dollars to wage legal battles forever.

Wilderness and Congressionally designated conservation areas are the best protection for this vital and beautiful place, and this collaboration has been the closest northeast WA has come to that vision since the lands were politically removed from the earlier statewide wilderness efforts. The community has been working towards this vision for decades; now is the time to make it happen.

It is the right thing, done the best way possible for local economies, as far as I can see and I for one am pretty amazed at the process. I hope it presses past the ORV issue soon.

Posted Sat, May 14, 7:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the info, ChickenButt. I'm sorry to say this still sounds full of holes to me.

The Colville National Forest website says that there are 1.1 million acres there. So I'm not sure how you would be "protecting two thirds of the landscape." I think I understand the 215,000 acres of Wilderness, but just what would a "National Conservation Area" be? What does it conserve, and just how is it different than Wilderness?

But even assuming that an "NCA" really protects something, the NCA and Wilderness acreage seems to add up to 355,000 acres out of 1.1 million. How is that protecting two thirds of the forest? I can only assume that you are counting some sort of "restoration logging" zone as protection. That doesn't strike me as real. "Restoration logging" is something that means many different things to many different people. I for one don't believe that there is any such thing. More logging isn't the solution to problems created by past logging, much as some people might want it to be. Calling it "forest protection" seems like wishful thinking at best.

There seem to be an awful lot of details and numbers being glossed over here. Of course it's good whenever diverse interests get together, but just because something gets called "collaboration" doesn't mean one should stop asking hard questions about what it all really means on the ground. This sounds like a timber bill to me, with increased logging labeled as "protection." My experience is that things that sound too good to be true usually aren't true, and this sounds too good to be true.

I do agree with you that logging is necessary, and I myself do use wood. But the really productive timberlands are on private land, not on the Colville National Forest. There is no shortage of wood, far from it. Public lands are the only places where we have any real hope of protecting forests. There are way too many devils in the details here for my comfort. I sincerely hope that Senator Maria Cantwell looks deeply into them before signing on to this.

Posted Sun, May 15, 1:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I highly recommend you go check out the maps and the layout on Conservation NW's site; only 1/3 of the landscape is "active forestry," and that is to a much higher standard than most forests because of the collaboration. There is nothing to hide, and all is put out in numbers and descriptions. (http://www.conservationnw.org/columbiahighlands/a-proposal-for-the-future) I guess we disagree on the fundamentals of whether or not one can restore old growth quality and health to a fire-supressed landscape in dry forests of WA. The science says it is a good thing, but it is management, of course, and if you believe *all* management is bad, then you won't hear the evidence.

Yes, it is still just a proposal, and all must be legislated, but without collaboration, NO wilderness would happen, only continued logging using the old standards and increased ORV use. That isn't good for your vision, either. Those threats are very real and very much poised at the gate. And this is a very real solution that many many people have signed onto, which in the end, is the only kind of solution that ever really gets anything accomplished.

We can't sit back on status quo anymore, and this is a community that has its own ideas about how to use the land in their backyard. I applaud all the parties for going in to work WITH people. To ignore local needs is folly. This is only a move in the right direction, something that has been in the works for decades, and the closest this landscape has been to any kind of protection for a while. Its time has come, and without this, even the most pristine areas won't be that way for long.

Posted Sun, May 15, 11:31 a.m. Inappropriate

ChickenButt, thanks again, I have read everything I can find on your website about this and studied the map. It still looks to me like a deal for 215,000 acres of Wilderness (good) for tripling the timber cut elsewhere (not so good.)

Sorry, but I just don't believe your vision of restoration logging. I understand the idea that you cut the smaller trees and leave the larger ones, hopefully bringing back places to be more like what they once were. But this is not a particularly new idea, and the reality I have observed in many places where it has been done is that the thickets start growing back the minute you walk away after cutting them, in many cases becoming more dense within 15 or 20 years than they were before the restoration logging. It's also very expensive to do. So-called forestry school "science" isn't worthy of that name. They are masters at ignoring evidence that doesn't support their vision of logging as good for forests.

If there were really so many threats "poised at the gate" as you say, how is it that this place remains as wonderful as you say it is. Have things suddenly changed? I don't think so. If anything, the popping of the housing bubble means wood demand will stay low for years, especially in a mountainous, high cost place like the Colville Forest. As it is, logging there is already heavily taxpayer subsidized. This plan would only increase that, whether or not it's called "restoration."

At bottom, this looks to be a quid pro quo for a modest amount of new Wilderness in exchange for greatly increased subsidized logging on the rest of the Colville. Is it not true that there will be three times the volume of wood being cut if this happens? Obviously you see that as good, but I just don't see how it adds up to a net gain for the place. But thanks much for your thoughts.

Posted Sun, May 15, 11:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I loved this piece by Derrick Knowles of Spokane about what the Columbia Highlands stand to lose...you might enjoy. http://www.conservationnw.org/scat/why-wilderness-why-now

"Big, imminent threats to wildlands like the proposed Salmo Basin road and logging plan and oil/gas or mining proposals tend to really motivate the American public to voice their deep conservation values and demand protection of our special places. It can be more challenging to sound the alarm for the many wild places that may not face imminent destruction, but instead are losing their wild character and ecosystem integrity to the slow erosion and watering down of one wilderness after another.

Then when the day inevitably comes that the more visible and imminent threats to wild areas and wildlife—a uranium mine, salvage logging project, or a vast expansion of ORV trails perhaps—are pushed on the public, the argument is often made that the area just isn’t that wild any more anyway."

Posted Mon, May 16, 12:16 p.m. Inappropriate

If you've never been to the Columbia Highlands, I highly recommend checking out this cool multimedia Google flyover to see how special and biologically diverse this amazing corner of our state really is: http://www.conservationnw.org/audiovideo/tour-of-the-wild-columbia-highlands

It's like taking an overflight of the area without having to leave your comfy chair.

Posted Mon, May 16, 5:32 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't think anyone is saying it's not a great place, or that it doesn't deserve protection. It's just that this plan gives away way too much in exchange for protecting a smallish part of it.

Rhapsodize, but verify!

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