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Timber, conservation interests find common ground in coalition

Russ Vaagen and Tim Coleman





Russell Vaagen of Vaagen Bros. Lumber and Tim Coleman of Kettle Range Conservation Group find their way last week with the help of a map of the Burnt Valley Stewardship Project in the Colville National Forest. (Holly Pickett/The Spokesman-Review )

James Hagengruber
Staff writer

CHEWELAH, Wash. – An environmentalist and a sawmill owner took a walk in the woods.

It sounds like the start of a joke, or maybe the setting of a horror movie with lots of chain-saw action.

But things got even more peculiar on a cool morning earlier this month as the two walked and talked their way through a recently logged portion of the Colville National Forest about 50 miles north of Spokane. The sawmill operator mentioned the need to stay out of certain portions of the forest while the environmentalist applauded the logging work that had just been completed.

"We're just scratching the surface of what needs to be done," said Tim Coleman, wilderness campaign director for Conservation Northwest. "There's easily a couple of hundred thousand acres that need treatment."

The two are part of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, an unlikely alliance that's beginning to shake up the forests of northeast Washington. The group's members range from Ponderay Newsprint and Vaagen Bros. Lumber to The Lands Council and Conservation Northwest.

They all agree that certain portions of the federal forest need to be thinned. Coalition members still disagree strongly about issues like wilderness protection or whether it's a good idea to build new roads for logging, but by focusing on the tens of thousands of acres of common ground, there will still be more than enough timber for the mills without entering the tracts most important to environmentalists, said Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber of Colville.

"We've got so much work to do elsewhere, why even discuss that other stuff?" he said.

The group has been meeting regularly for nearly three years to discuss logging and forest thinning projects proposed for Colville National Forest. With help from the group, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to jump-start several large projects that had been stalled by appeals or lawsuits, including a massive fuels reduction project in the South Deep watershed. Environmentalists had fought the project because it called for building up to 20 miles of road and would log important habitat for rare wildlife and fish.

About 500,000 acres of northeast Washington burned in wildfires 70 years ago. The forest is again thick with timber. Colville National Forrest Supervisor Rick Brazell said he wants to do everything he can to make sure a devastating wildfire doesn't burn through communities on his watch. He said he was more than happy to work with the forestry coalition if it meant reducing the backlog of projects in the forest.

"We went to them and said, 'Guys, give us your proposal.' I'm more than willing to make adjustments," Brazell said. "I'm not going to fight over little logging units. I'm not into building new roads anyway."

The South Deep project is now moving forward, as are nearly 20 other projects on the "to do" list of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. Group members complain their only limitation is the Forest Service – the agency has been hamstrung by budget cuts and struggles to conduct all the environmental analysis.

"To have environmental groups saying you're not doing it fast enough, that's kind of weird," Brazell said. "In my 25 plus years in the agency, I've never been in a place where folks are wanting to solve problems like this."

Coalition members credit Brazell for his willingness to try new approaches for forest management, all with the goal of protecting communities from fire, preserving ancient forests and protecting timber jobs. Earlier this month, Brazell accepted an invitation to attend a gala event in Spokane hosted by an environmentalist group. He was skeptical at first – feeling a bit like a mouse being invited to a cat convention. But it was no joke. He was actually applauded.

"It was just strange," he said.

With several small and medium-scale projects already under its belt, the group is planning to pressure the federal government to give the Colville National Forest an extra $1 million to help plan what could be one of the largest fuels reduction projects in the nation, said Jim Doran, the coalition's coordinator. "It will be restoration work on a scale not seen in Western states," said Doran, an attorney from Twisp, Wash.

The success of the coalition has attracted national attention. Doran was invited last year to share his experiences at a special White House conference. A meeting is being held in Coeur d'Alene on Monday to help launch a similar group for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, a major battleground forest between environmentalists and the timber industry. But a leading conservation group already says it wants nothing to do with the effort.

"The Idaho Panhandle National Forests have never indicated that they are willing to change from their position of focusing solely on getting the cut out," said Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. "KEA is not willing to spend the time unless the Forest Service is going to show a gesture of good faith."

Russ Vaagen, whose family has run a sawmill for three generations in Colville, hopes the era of mistrust and litigation has ended for federal forests in northeast Washington. Not only do communities need protection from wildfire, but the 130 employees of his family's business need to have a dependable source of logs. Everybody can agree on that, he said, while walking through portions of 980 acres of recently thinned forest in the Burnt Valley near Chewelah.

"Management of the land should not be a political discussion," Vaagen said. "It's about what's best for the land."

Tim Coleman, the wilderness campaign coordinator for Kettle Range Conservation Group, couldn't agree more. Coleman said he has appealed more than 100 national forest timber sales in the past, but he would much rather spend his time working with his neighbors to make sure healthy forests are around for another generation.

"Each of us shares similar values," said Coleman of Republic, Wash. "I've learned to trust that Russ (Vaagen) and his dad care as much about the forest as I do."