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Forest Collaboration: The Biggest Story in Forestry Since 1945

By: Jim Petersen, Founder and President, The Evergreen Foundation

For 30 years now, I have been writing about and advocating for science-based, active management of federal forests in the western United States.

Until recently, I have felt like I was living in a front line trench – an experience not unlike that which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. spoke of in an 1895 Memorial Day address to the graduating class at Harvard University.

Holmes, who was a Supreme Court Justice from 1902 to 1932, had been a First Lieutenant in the Massachusetts Twentieth during the Civil War, and had been wounded three times in battle. “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war,” he told members of the graduating class. “We have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched with fire.”

I felt the same way during Evergreen’s early years, when we were up to our eyeballs in congressionally mandated public comment periods involving at least a dozen decadal forest plans. Then serial litigators wrecked the entire planning process, and the thousands that we had recruited went home tired, disappointed and disgusted. “Never again,” many said of their time in the trenches.

Who could blame them? Certainly not me; but I soldiered on in hopes of better days ahead.

Better days finally came this spring, more than 25 years after I translated my last federal forest plan into plain English for Evergreen’s 100,000 readers. These days, we rarely publish print editions of our work, but we do maintain what will soon be the most widely visited forestry website in the world.

I attribute our mercurial rise on the worldwide web to what happened this spring when we launched a major investigation into “Forest Collaboration,” a little understood public process invented and blessed by the same Congress that mandated public comment periods when it ratified the National Forest Management Act in 1976.

Before we launched our investigation, the little that I knew about collaboration I had learned from friends and colleagues: Vincent Corrao, who publishes this newsletter and is a member of our Evergreen Foundation Board of Directors; Duane Vaagen, a Colville, Washington lumberman and friend of 20 years; and Scott Atkison, president of the Idaho Forest Group. Scott’s grandfather, Dick Bennett, is an old friend and Evergreen donor.

My journalist’s instincts [I have been a working reporter since 1961] told me this story would best be told through the eyes and words of those who are living it: lumbermen, loggers, conservationists, state and federal forest managers, county commissioners and members of Congress – all of them hell bent on finding an alternative to serial litigation of federal forest plans and projects.

I thus opted for a Question and Answer format that would give those I interviewed the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words. As is my long-standing habit, I also insist that my interviewees proof their words. Accuracy is essential and changes in substance or tone are most welcome. This story is too important to allow the slightest perception of bias to enter.

In my opinion, the evolution of collaboration is easily the most important forestry story to come down the pike since 1945, the year the Democrat controlled government opened the West’s federal forests to large scale timber management.

So what have I learned thus far from those interviewed? Here’s a brief summary:

  • Forest collaboration isn’t “negotiation.”
  • The most successful collaboratives involve the most diverse groups of stakeholders – forest users.
  • Success turns on trust and trust can take years to develop.
  • Those who sit around these tables – and hold very different values – soon find that they have more in common where conservation is concerned than they ever imagined.
  • No one engaged in these collaboratives seems interested in “winning” at the expense of another member’s different values.
  • Real friendships have developed between very unlikely partners, and real learning has occurred in some very unlikely places.
  • Some in the Forest Service have embraced collaboration; others seem to view it as a personal affront to their professional skills, if not their congressional mandate.
  • Many in Congress see collaboration as a breath of fresh air, if not a circuitous route around litigation.
  • Success – collaborative projects that have been implemented – can be measured in acres treated and scaled logs delivered to mills. [The wood is not of poor quality as some skeptics have alleged]
  • Collaboration does indeed have its skeptics – those who say it is too inefficient, costly and time consuming, and that it lacks the same legal authorities litigators cite in their appeals.
  • Those who are members of collaborative groups in Idaho and Northeast Washington, where our investigation is focused, agree with their critics and skeptics. They know that the process is slow and inefficient and they hope Congress can find a way to make the process work the way it should – at the landscape level, so that collaborators could develop, say, a 10-year project spanning a half-million acres, then move on to the next half-million acre 10-year project.
  • Some believe these projects should have 20-year time horizons and involve multiple ownerships.
  • Collaboration is only a tool, albeit a very good one for resolving controversial problems involving the manner in which federal forests will be managed in the future.

My two cents worth: if Congress wants this process to work as it surely can it is going to have to insulate collaborative groups and their projects from serial litigators. Thus, binding arbitration is going to have to replace litigation. Otherwise, collaboration will soon fall victim to the same disruptive forces that 30 years ago doomed pubic involvement in the forest planning process.

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