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Forest Restoration Collaboratives Growing In Popularity; Critics Speak Out

Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership

This week, people from rural communities in the four Northwest states met in Coeur d’Alene to trade stories and strategy. These people are trying to solve disagreements in their towns about managing federal forests, about rural economies, about access to public lands. In many cases, the participants have fought long battles. What they have in common is they’ve committed to problem-solving models as a way of bridging their differences.

“It’s  important because it’s bringing people together. They’re talking to each other and beginning a network of people who can solve problems, because Washington certainly can’t these days,” said John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University and one of the conveners of this conference.

“What they essentially do is come to agreement on how to do things like protect watersheds, get some trees off the forest that help the economy, but it’s done in the name of restoration, not in getting the cut out. Road issues. Now, they can’t make policy, but they can create a network of people. The Forest Service can attempt to adopt what they’ve got and then you’ve got political cover,” Freemuth said.

Freemuth says Idaho is one of the leaders in the western collaborative movement, with eight or nine active groups. In north Idaho, the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative convenes in Boundary County. The Panhandle Forest Collaborative focuses on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. There’s also a Shoshone-Benewah Forest Collaborative.

In Washington, there’s a group that focuses on the Colville National Forest. One of its members is Mike Petersen, the director of the Lands Council in Spokane.

“It really started when Duane Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers and Tim Coleman, Kettle Range group, and myself were having a discussion about what we each needed or wanted," Petersen said. "He said, ‘If we could get four thousand acres of some kind of logging every year and you could get a hundred thousand acres of wilderness, could we work on that?’ And that kind of started it.”

The Colville group is sometimes cited by elected officials for its success in bringing people with different interests together. That’s not to say everything is kumbaya when collaboratives convene, says Will Whelan. He works for the Nature Conservancy in Boise and is a member of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership.

“The people sitting at these collaborative tables don’t necessarily agree with each other and actually some of them do have a history of being in court on opposite sides," Whelan said. "But what they’ve found is, by focusing on things they can agree on, they can actually get a lot done.

"What they most often agree on projects that help the ecological condition of the forests, that tend to be a little closer to town and areas that already have roads, that focus on using the proceeds of timber sales to help restore streams and repair roads. By thinking about how they can serve each others’ interests, they actually come up with well-rounded projects,” he said.

About a year or so ago, a group called the National Forest Foundation studied why people participate in these collaboratives. The foundation says it’s a non-profit group that works with the Forest Service to promote community stewardship of federal forests. Members of two of the Idaho groups were surveyed. Among the results — not surprising — people participate if they think it can help them achieve their goals. And that was true for Bill Higgins from the Idaho Forest Group, who is part of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. His goal has been to secure more trees from the national forests for his company’s sawmills.

“When we started in the Clearwater 10 years ago, the timber program was about 30 million board feet annually," Higgins said. "I’m very thankful to say that our five-year program on the Nez Clear (Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest) looks to average about 120 million feet over the next five years. So that’s essentially a quadrupling of what we were doing 10 years ago.”

As Higgins and others were sharing stories, members of several conservation groups, including Janet Torline from the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, were about three blocks away. They were preparing for their own event.

“We have come together as regional activists that have concerns about the collaborative process,” Torline said.

Among those concerns: the Forest Service is using these collaboratives as a way to circumvent its normal public process as it develops projects. Torline says the collaboratives are often by invitation only. And when conservation groups do join, they sometimes find that the groups aren’t serving their needs.

Karen Colter is the director of the Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project in eastern Oregon. She says she’s been involved in four collaborative processes around her region.

“The vision statement that we helped create said that the collaborative group would work towards common ground among all participants. It would include a diverse range of the full range of so-called stakeholders. That it would operate on the basis of full consensus, that environmental protective sidebars would be established. That they’d be working toward ecologically-sound restoration with economics only a byproduct," Colter said.

"And all of that basically went out the window.”

She says the group was stacked with Forest Service and timber industry representatives. The meetings were a significant drive away and becoming more of a burden to attend. The groups didn’t have enough people to staff them. There wasn’t enough of a benefit, so they dropped out. That was a common complaint, incidentally, in the National Forest Foundation study.

Beyond that, critics of collaboration, such as Janet Torline, look at the projects that come from these processes and say the environment usually loses.
“The unfortunate part that happens in a lot of these projects is they’re touted as restoration, but when you look at the funding and where the money’s applied, there’s a tiny percentage that’s actually going to true restoration, like decommissioning roads and eliminating fish barriers,” Torline said.

Their mantra is “follow the money.” Mike Bader, who represents the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force in northwestern Montana, says his state’s senator, Jon Tester, has proposed a bill that would give collaborative groups a much greater standing in helping to shape Forest Service projects. He believes timber companies are sometimes given preferential treatment in logging projects, and says collaborators, including conservation groups, are getting federal grants to fund their work.

“We just think they (citizen collaborative groups) have gotten an inordinate amount of power and influence that is balkanizing the national forest system. What happens is that every collaborative has their own way of doing things and getting around the rules and, pretty soon, the whole national forest is a management mishmash," Bader said.

This discussion about collaborations has split traditional allies in the conservation community. Those in the anti-camp shake their heads at the organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Idaho Conservation League for signing onto a process they think will be damaging to the forests.

Back at the collaboration conference, I asked Mike Petersen of the Lands Council, “Your predecessors as head of your organization, I’m guessing are probably not pleased about the direction that you’re taking in this. Is that correct? And what do you think about that?”

“I actually had a friend, well, a colleague of mine go, ‘Mike, you’ve changed.’ And I went, ‘You haven’t changed.’ There’s people stuck in the same old rhetoric," Petersen said. "I would ask those people, wow, on the Colville, we protect all the old growth, we have all these projects protecting fishery habitat. The old growth’s still standing. The roadless areas, not only they haven’t entered them, but everyone in the collaborative, including the timber industry, supports protecting those roadless areas. Things have changed.”

Whether that change is for the better is in the eye of the beholder.

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