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Model tames timber fights

By Dan Hansen
May 01, 2010

In a guest column, former Spokesman-Review reporter and editor Dan Hansen writes about changing times, the power of compromise, and the progress of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition.

The president of the United States told people in Republic, Wash., that it was “time to fight.”

They gave that a try, until their livelihoods swirled in the toilet. Now, they’re trying something that isn’t so popular in this era of hate politics: compromise.

From 1987 to 1991, the annual cut of timber on the Colville National Forest averaged an unprecedented – and unsustainable – 120 million board feet. That galvanized environmentalists, who used federal rules to stop new timber projects.

The cut was declining in 1992, the year that George H.W. Bush came to town. For years after, loggers rarely cut more than 40 million board feet, and often far less.

The government estimates that every 1 million board feet equals nine jobs in rural communities. So, as the woods shut down, mills closed and families left for places like Spokane. And folks grew angry. Ferry County commissioners called conservationists “self-serving vultures” in a 2002 letter printed in the same weekly newspaper that in 1995 had pleaded for “a bit of civility” over forest issues.

When things got most tense, Tim Coleman, executive director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group, joked that his Republic office hadn’t been burned only because it shared a building with the state liquor store. He shrugged off rumors that someone had put a $10,000 bounty on his head – until the day Coleman felt a vibration in his Subaru and discovered a lug nut missing and others loose. It could have been an accident, but the same thing happened to another member of Coleman’s group.

Meanwhile, the second-generation president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber Co. was laying off men he’d known all his life. “It’s easy for (Coleman) to be 180 degrees from me, but I’ve got all these families depending on me,” Duane Vaagen told me in 2003, when I was a Spokesman-Review reporter covering natural resource issues.

It was time to stop fighting and start talking.

Were there areas of the forest so overgrown they could benefit from cutting? Yes, agreed Coleman and other conservationists – as long as new roads weren’t constructed.Were there areas that should not be touched? Yes, Russ Vaagen, vice president of the timber company, conceded in a 2005 interview.

Vaagen, Coleman and others willing to compromise formed the Northeastern Washington Forestry Coalition. A key early participant was forest supervisor Rich Brazell, who since has left the Colville to manage forests in Idaho.

Not everyone’s on board. Cattlemen remain skeptical. City people who primarily use the forests as a playground for ATVs and snowmobiles haven’t shown a lot of interest. There’s disagreement on the issue of designating new wilderness areas (though the coalition hopes eventually to take a compromise proposal to Congress).

But the number of people around the table has grown steadily and timber appeals have stopped, now that environmentalists have a say in the planning. The cut on the Colville has risen to about 60 million board feet of mostly small-diameter timber, with a goal of 80 million.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called the coalition a model for timber communities nationwide. Last week, at a gathering in Spokane, coalition members unveiled a 20-minute documentary celebrating their efforts.
[See the video on Click HERE ]

Compromise doesn’t draw attention like a president pounding his fist or a caravan of logging trucks. In 2003, I reported on a Montana boot camp for radical environmentalists – the kind who chain themselves to trees. Prepare to spend days attached to your tree, “because when you’re back in the woods, it can take a long time for the media to get there,” one leader told new recruits.

Many of those Montana boot camp attendees said they’d never met anyone who worked with a chain saw, and didn’t care to. And in the nearby town of Darby, loggers said they felt no need to compromise with tree-huggers, since the national political pendulum seemed to be swinging in their favor. “Environmentalists are starting to lose,” said one man in work boots.

Up in Republic, some people have learned that when a system is set up to create losers, it’ll eventually be them. They’re trying to stop the pendulum.

Millwood writer Dan Hansen is a former Spokesman-Review reporter and editor.