Embracing Forest Collaboration

Posted: May 12, 2015

“The lesson in ‘Playing God’ is that there is no such thing as leaving nature alone. People are part of Creation. We do not have the option of choosing not to be stewards of the land. We must master the art and science of good stewardship. Many environmentalists do not understand that the only way to preserve nature is to manage nature.”
– 
Alston Chase, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Macalester College. Author, “Playing God in Yellowstone” and “In a Dark Wood”. Evergreen Magazine, September 1990

Montana ForestGlen Bailey is a Bonner County Commissioner. Bonner County, in the Idaho Panhandle, is named for Edwin Bonner, a turn-of-the-century ferry operator on Pend Oreille Lake. Sandpoint, the county seat, was for nearly a century the epicenter of Idaho’s sprawling timber industry.

Minnesota’s Humbird Lumber Company once operated the largest sawmill in the world at lake’s edge, a five-minute walk from downtown Sandpoint. Today, a large condominium complex sits on the old mill site. Its presence underscores the fact that Bonner County also has a thriving tourism industry with anchors in skiing, boating and world-class lake fishing.

Mr. Bailey has been a county commissioner for two years. He moved his family to Sandpoint after he retired from the United States Air Force. He was an air tanker navigator for more than 20 years.

Evergreen: Mr. Bailey, how is it that a career tanker navigator and squadron commender ends up being a Bonner County Commissioner and the county’s interface with the U.S. Forest Service?

Bailey: That’s a great question. In some ways, the Air Force and the Forest Service are similar. Neither is a business in the classic sense, but both perform important public services. Both organizations also have symbiotic relationships with the private sector. I like working in that interface. As for being a county commissioner, the opportunity was there and I took it. I enjoy the challenge.

Evergreen: We’ll hazard a guess that you understand the Byzantine nature of the Forest Service better than many of your commissioner colleagues.

Bailey: If you mean that I understand that decisions don’t get made as quickly as they do in the private sector, yes, I do understand it better than many others. That’s both a problem and an opportunity.

Evergreen: How so?

Bailey: On the problem side, Idaho’s national forests are plagued by insects and diseases that threaten our safety as well as the economic foundations for both our timber industry and our tourist sector. These two industries have prospered side by side for decades. We need to do all we can to restore the health of our forests and maintain the beauty that keeps our tourists coming back.

Evergreen: How about on the opportunity side?

Bailey: The forest collaboration process appears to have opened the door to resolution to many of the conflicts that have risen over the last 30 years concerning the manner in which national forests were managed in the decades following the end of World War II. Bear in mind that I am a relative newcomer to the forestry related issues that have undermined our timber economy, but you don’t have to be a forester or an economist to see that litigation related to the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act has hurt us.

Evergreen: And you see forest collaboration as a way to alleviate the pain?

Bailey: I certainly do, though, in this case, pain is a relative term. We’ve certainly experienced a tremendous downsizing in wood processing in Bonner County, but we have a pretty robust tourist sector, so our pain hasn’t been nearly as great as what is being experienced in Shoshone and Benewah counties. Shoshone has lost all but one of its mines and mines are big timber consumers. Benewah doesn’t have much of anything except the mills at St. Maries.

Evergreen: As a newcomer, what’s been the most painful aspect of the loss of so much wood processing infrastructure in your county?

Bailey: Apart from the loss of jobs, I’d say it is the loss of economic opportunity for our kids. Thirty years ago, a youngster with a high school diploma could get a good paying job with a promising career in any of several wood processing businesses in Bonner County. Today, the Idaho Forest Group and Stimson Lumber are the only big mills left, so we have this urgent need to deal with our forest health problem head on. We can’t do this if we don’t have a thriving logging and wood processing industry and the common sense know-how to do it right.

Bailey: I’d describe it as a coming together of old adversaries who are looking for solutions to common problems. Congress has blessed these forums in a number of ways, including the 2014 Farm Bill which authorized states to identify and prioritize forest restoration projects in terms of urgency, suitability and accessibility.

Evergreen: You mention old adversaries. We assume you mean warring factions in the timber and environmental industries.

Bailey: That’s correct, but in my opinion the real genius in these collaboratives is that they are open to all forest stakeholders: hunters, fishermen, wilderness advocates, snow mobilers, hikers, campers, local businesses; anyone who wants to participate. In my opinion, the best collaboratives – those that stand the best chance for long term success – are the ones that attract the most diverse groups of stakeholders. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.

Evergreen: What’s the common ground in the collaboratives you know about?

Bailey: Protecting forests. Removing diseased trees from forests that pose a safety and environmental risk while providing logs for our mills and protecting the ecological and aesthetic values – clean air and clean water and year-round recreation opportunity – that are a priority for other stakeholders.

Evergreen: Are you personally involved in any of these collaborative efforts you describe?

Bailey: I am a member of the Idaho Panhandle Forest Collaborative. We have several very exciting opportunities in various stages of completion or startup: Jasper Mountain, near Priest River, Bottom Canyon, which is mainly in Kootenai County and Buckskin Saddle Wheel, which we share with Shoshone County.

Evergreen: Are there conservation groups you’d care to name who you think have been particularly helpful in advancing the cause of collaboration?

Bailey: The Lands Council in Spokane, for years a litigator, has been an excellent partner. So has the Idaho Conservation League. There is also a Friends of Scotsman’ Peak group that we really appreciate. Please understand that these relationships did not just fall out of the sky. They took time and effort to develop. We all want something here. Mills want logs, conservationists want more wilderness and counties want to be economically vibrant again. Others want more of the things they value. Fortunately, Idaho is a big place. It is possible for all of us to get our diverse needs met if we pull together on the same rope.

Evergreen: Apart from work done on the ground – tree thinning for starters – what does forest collaboration look like to you from 30,000 feet?

Bailey: What the collaboratives are really doing is helping the Forest Service get its work done. I’ve heard it said that collaboration is giving the Forest Service some much needed political cover, meaning that the consensus decisions of diverse groups of stakeholders have made it politically more difficult for organizations that refuse to participate to later sue the Forest Service. I suppose this is true in some sense, but what I see longer term that is truly beneficial is a closer working relationship between the Forest Service and the public referenced in the agency’s mission statement: “Caring for the land, serving the people.” That’s a good thing.

Evergreen: So strength in numbers in these collaboratives matters?

Bailey: Numbers matter to the extent that they can bring greater diversity to collaboration itself. The key is balanced representation from the widest possible group of stakeholder interests.

Evergreen: It seems to take a long time for collaboratives to produce measurable results, logs delivered to mills for example.

Bailey: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a successful collaborative be built in a day. It takes time for stakeholders to develop mutual trust. Remember, we are dealing with factions that disagreed publicly for years. Old wounds take time to heal, and collaboration is itself a learning experience. But as we gain experience we move faster.

Evergreen: We hear that personalities play a big role in collaborative success or failure.

Bailey: Absolutely, not just the personalities of stakeholders but the personalities of Forest Service personnel. It should come as no surprise to you that not every Forest Service decision maker thinks that collaboration is a good idea. Some seem to regard it as a personal affront, or an indictment of their inability get work done on the ground.

Evergreen: Do you see a big problem or a little problem here?

Bailey: I don’t have enough experience with the Forest Service to know, but I’ve heard stories about some pretty difficult people in the agency. But we are blessed to have Mary Farnsworth as supervisor on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. She’s been very supportive as has her staff. Without their help, there would be no collaborative successes in northern Idaho.

Evergreen: Yet success seems spotty, and here we reference that absence of forest collaboratives in Shoshone and Benewah counties.

Bailey: The northern Idaho success stories are mainly in Bonner and Boundary counties. I assume you watched the YouTube video of the meeting Mary Farnsworth and our former Regional Forester had with the Benewah County Commissioners, so you know that there is a lot of anger over the fact that many in Benewah and Shoshone counties don’t believe the Forest Service is listening to their concerns.

Evergreen: We’ve met twice with Shoshone County’s commissioners and once with Benewah County’s to try to get some sense of the problem as they see it. What’s your take?

Bailey: I understand their fears, but in our experience, Mary is fair-minded and has been an honest dealer. We have our differences of opinion with the Forest Service, but we treat them fairly and expect the same in return. Collaboration is working here and in other Idaho counties south of us.

Evergreen: Would it help speed the forest restoration effort underway in the Panhandle National Forest if all of northern Idaho’s counties were on the same page?

Bailey: I assume you are referring to the absence of forest collaboratives in Shoshone and Benewah counties. The answer is yes, it would help. I understand that Shoshone County may soon revive its old collaborative, which is good news since about half of the Idaho Panhandle National Forest lies within Shoshone County. If all the northern Idaho counties were marching in lockstep, we could tackle the funding problems confronting Mary Farnsworth.

Evergreen: What’s the problem?

Bailey: The problem is that the IPNF budget isn’t large enough to fund all of the work Mary’s staff has on the drawing boards. The personnel shortage doesn’t cut it with us. Congress needs to get serious about adequately funding the restoration work that needs doing. If we can keep our existing wood processing infrastructure in place, most of this work can pay for itself, meaning it won’t cost taxpayers a dime.

Evergreen: And you think presenting a united front to the Forest Service and the Idaho congressional delegation would help get the budget increase Ms. Farnsworth needs?

Bailey: Yes, I do. The current situation, with rumors of counties suing the Forest Service is a distraction. Anything that takes staff away from preparing or managing collaborative projects is a distraction. From experience, I can tell you that the Northern Region office in Missoula is very good at finding extra dollars to do extra work in counties that have collaboratives. Some of that money could be flowing to Shoshone and Benewah counties, as it has our collaboratives. I am absolutely convinced that Congress and the Forest Service want to help counties that are seriously engaged in collaboration.

Evergreen: Is the 40 million board feet currently being harvested annually on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest sufficient to keep your Bonner County mills running long term?

Bailey: Unfortunately, no. Without the harvesting that occurs on private and state timberlands, we would not have the industry we have. Forty million doesn’t even keep up with annual mortality on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, much less allow us to get ahead of the problem.

Evergreen: Critics view collaboration as a compromise in which the only compromising is done by those who favor active forest management. Has this been your experience?

Bailey: Not at all. We get a little goosey when the Forest Service starts drawing big buffer circles around roadless and Wilderness areas, because these buffers tend to hurt our snowmobile and recreational vehicle businesses, but conservationists participating in our Idaho Panhandle collaborative have been strong supporters of active management on suitable acres. Likewise, we have supported their Scotsman Peak Wilderness proposal.

Evergreen: What is the tenor of a typical collaborative meeting?

Bailey: Very workman like. We share a desire to think things through and to look for mutual benefit. Our lumber folks aren’t anti-wilderness and our wilderness folks aren’t anti-industry. We all recognize that litigation hurts our shared forest protection goals and our ability to get work done on the ground.

Evergreen: You’re not much for conspiracy theories, are you?

Bailey: I was in the Air Force for more than 20 years and have probably heard every conspiracy theory ever concocted. In defending our nation and in protecting our forests, we are limited only by our fears. We simply cannot afford to allow our imaginations to run away with us. In our forestry work, we are greatly helped by the fact that conservationists see the same picture we see, see the same threats posed by insects, diseases and uncontrollable wildfire. As collaborators, we share a belief that leaving all of our forests to nature hurts our economy and our environment. That’s a very solid starting point.

Evergreen: So the shared experience drives the learning process.

Bailey: It does indeed. And the more we collaborate with one another, the easier it gets. We’re now meeting monthly with district rangers and their staffs. They are listening to us and showing good will. We return the courtesy and work to hold one another accountable. I think accountability is vital to the success of every collaboration.

Evergreen: Those with whom we’re talking about forest collaboration frequently describe a ticking clock and a sense of urgency to take on bigger projects and move along at a faster pace. Do you also hear the same clock?

Bailey: We all hear it. The scale of the forest health problem in Idaho still dwarfs the scale of our efforts. We need to develop sufficient capacity – not just the Forest Service but also the collaboratives – to work more efficiently on much larger physical scales.

Evergreen: How can Congress help?

Bailey: Obviously, bigger Forest Service budgets earmarked for collaboration and active forest management using all of the available tools. Congress also needs to find a way to honor and protect the work that collaboratives are doing. Most who attend our meetings are unpaid volunteers who devote long years to the effort. The work they are doing in concert with the Forest Service needs to be sheltered from litigation that is devastating the timber economies of the counties in which these national forests are located. . Collaboration opens the door to making our counties whole again.

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