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.
One Congressional staffer speaking on condition of anonymity said that if the Columbia Highlands Initiative is going to go anywhere, something positive had better happen soon. It's time for Plan B.
And Friedman knows it. He is frankly frustrated. "We've been in that holding pattern for a year," he said. The collaborative process may have gone as far as it can go.
That's not quite to the finish line. The Columbia Highlands proposal offers something to just about everyone. Designating new wilderness areas wouldn't even keep out hunters or end grazing there. But — and this turns out to be a huge but — it would slightly restrict the acreage available to motorized vehicles. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts — both recreational riders and ranchers who use the vehicles to supply and check on the stock they run in the national forest — have dug in their heels.
The politicians won't act unless everyone is on board. Cue the sound of brakes screeching, as the process skids to a dead stop.
"They don't have any use for our olive branch," Friedman said. He explained that he has talked with prominent citizens who ride off-road vehicles and are perfectly reasonable, "but there’s a price for showing leadership, and we have yet to see anybody ready to step up for the job. It’s hard to negotiate with empty chairs.”
Not that he's eager to abandon the effort. "The stakes are high," he said. The coalition's agreement on Colville Forest management represents "probably the leading collaborative model in the national forest system." Still, "collaboration is expensive" while "war is cheap." He's not ready to declare war yet, but "we can say 'no,' too." Right now, his group is "considering what we can do to send the right message."