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Rivals learn to share public land

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

By JOEL CONNELLY
P-I COLUMNIST

BUTTE, Mont. -- Conflicts over land use in other countries often leave a landscape of burned villages, hundreds of dead and thousands of refugees on the move.

In the United States, we should perhaps feel lucky that land "wars" result only in bureaucratic gridlock.

Still, people do get burned and neglected forests become tinderboxes ready to erupt.

The picture around the American West isn't pretty. User groups -- predominantly conservationists and timber producers -- have fought one another to exhaustion over public lands.

"It's been a long time since you got your way; it's been a long time since we got our way," Sherm Anderson, owner of Sun Mountain lumber in Deer Lodge, Mont., told the annual meeting of the Montana Wilderness
Association.

In the past 15 years, Congress hasn't designated a single new wilderness in the Big Sky State. Still, Anderson has watched the shutdown of 22 fairly substantial sawmills. "It hurts people; it hurts communities, he said.

A year ago, at yet another hearing on national forest management, John Gatchell, conservation director for the wilderness group, approached Anderson. Both men found themselves frustrated at a draft management plan for the state's largest national forest.

The land needed rehabilitation and restoration. Anderson needed a reliable timber supply. Gatchell wanted permanent protection for prime recreation lands and key wildlife habitat.

The conversation led to negotiations. Negotiations led to what Gatchell calls "a partnership between old adversaries."

Under a wide-ranging proposed deal, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest would get 573,000 acres of new designated wilderness.

But an additional 713,000 acres, in a 3.3 million-acre national forest, would be deemed suitable for logging.

The Beaverhead Strategy has won backing from conservation groups, wildlife organizations, timber companies and leading public officials.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Johnson calls it a "historic effort." Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer dubs it "unprecedented and visionary."

And, says Bruce Ramsey, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest supervisor, "It represents to us a way out of gridlock."

It may also be a model for other places in the West, including a national forest in northeast Washington.

A group called the Northeast Washington (NEW) Forestry Coalition has been quietly working to find common ground -- or a division of ground -- in the Colville National Forest.

The forest is a fought-over place. Towns such as Republic have experienced emotional hearings. President George H.W. Bush visited a Colville mill in 1992 to call for weakening the Endangered Species Act.

Nothing has been resolved. Less than 30,000 acres of the Colville National Forest is designated as wilderness. With constant appeals of timber sales, the annual timber cut has fallen to just a few million board feet.

The NEW Forestry Coalition is pretty broad. It includes owners of the Vaagen Bros. Timber Co., who welcomed the first President Bush in 1992, as well as Conservation Northwest director Mitch Friedman, once arrested while protesting an Okanogan National Forest timber sale.

The coalition has worked to protect homes and communities from fire, preserve habitat for wildlife and promote timber projects that do not log old-growth forests.

How do you fuel the logging part of such deals?

In a recent speech to national forest managers, Friedman advocated thinning second growth timber on slopes in the western Cascades and thinning dry interior forests to reduce fire risk and improve ecological health.

Using such a strategy, he estimated that 80 million board feet could be cut in the Colville National Forest each year, enough to supply local mills.

Gridlock in national forests is costly -- to all of us. Fighting fires devours about 45 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's budget. Recreation in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is sustained by volunteer labor.

In recent years, great fires have swept forests in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, in the eastern Cascades of Washington and the Siskiyous of southern Oregon.

As Ramsey joked here last weekend, "Remember, no good deed goes unpunished."

Even the most sensitive forest deals nowadays are controversial. I expect to hear today from one activist friend, who'll say that the Montana Wilderness Association invited me over to give a talk and took me in.

My friend is loath to give anything to the timber industry and disbelieves that the Bush administration could be party to any fair deal.

At the other extreme, property rights activists along with some off-road vehicle users and snowmobilers stand ready to raise hell at any restriction of access to public lands.

But negotiation has been vital in past agreements, and needs to be reintroduced to a polarized West.

Editorializing on the Beaverhead Strategy, the Missoulian newspaper argued that it's time to say no to the naysayers:

"(The plan) should not be left to wither by an entrenched forest Opposition Industry, an inertia-driven government bureaucracy, elected practitioners of political polarization, and an overly complacent public."