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Consensus helps harvest
Different interests cooperate to balance uses of Colville National Forest

Barbara Coyner
For the Capital Press

COLVILLE, Wash. - The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition has chain-sawed through red tape to more than triple harvests from the Colville National Forest.

Coalition members Lloyd McGee and Claudia Michalke said determination and civility are crucial to opening up national forest land to timber harvests. The broad-based group represents all sides of forest issues, including harvesting, environmental protection and community development.

A logger uses equipment to thin overcrowded stands near Colville, Wash. Some of the pressure to over-harvest private lands has decreased due to the efforts of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition to promote federal timber harvests. The Colville National Forest has been designated a “model forest” by the USDA.)

"When we started the group, we started off at a low trust level," said McGee, a forester for Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company in Colville. "We agreed to be open and transparent, we shared information and we made sure there were no surprises."

Back in 2002, mill owner Duane Vaagen watched as a lack of federal timber led to private lands being hammered to make up the volume. As the gridlock over logging on national forests continued, mills struggled for supply and communities fell into an economic slump.

Vaagen, who had buried his Republic sawmill and tuned his remaining mill with Scandinavian technology to cut small logs, approached local environmental activists such as Mike Petersen of The Lands Council and Forest Service leaders about improving the situation for everyone.

While federal foresters were attending seminars on collaborative processes, Colville National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell decided to "just do it," he said.

Coalition director Claudia Michalke said having some ground rules helped people representing different interests work together.

"Fortunately, participants came to the table with the same point of view," Michalke said. "They all believed in abundance, not scarcity. And they emphasized their common interests."

The coalition's tenacity brought results, including a 2005 memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service that cut through layers of red tape. The annual harvest from the Colville National Forest went from 18 million board feet in 2005 to 61 million board feet in 2008. The USDA designated the Colville National Forest as a "Model Forest" for the nation.

McGee said the coalition succeeded because it hasn't insisted on a majority rule approach, instead working toward consensus among its 13 board members.

"We had to do something different, so we worked together to find solutions," McGee said. "We need national forest management, and we need to quit over-harvesting private lands. We also need conservation. When we began this process, we agreed that we'd set aside one-third for active management, one-third for restoration and one-third for wilderness or set-aside."

As the coalition pursues a balanced goal, McGee and Michalke said group members have learned balance as well.

"We don't have any template," McGee said. "We just make things up as we go and try to be reasonable. You need people skills to keep this type of group together."