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Frustration boils over as Congress stalls on timber and wildfire reform

2014-08-01 Ashley Bach

The wildfires raging across the West are spurring calls for congressional action to change the way that wildfires are funded, but they are also raising a lot of complaints about congressional inaction. When community leaders call on Congress to pass one of the bills that would free up more money to fight wildfires, they are also making their pleas with more than a hint of exasperation.

As we wrote last week, there are two wildfire funding proposals in Congress:

-- A bill supported by President Obama and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), among others, that would treat wildfires as natural disasters and free up more firefighting money and preserve money for thinning and other fire reduction activity.

-- A bill from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others that would also free up more money to fight forest fires, but in addition, it would require the Forest Service to focus on thinning 7.5 million acres and give the timber industry a bigger role in the process.

Northwest wildfires spur call for improved forest management

2014-07-24 Ashley Bach

The wildfire season in the Northwest this summer is unprecedented. Eighteen large fires have burned 900,000 acres in Washington and Oregon, including the largest single wildfire in Washington state history. The Carlton Complex Fire has raged across north-central Washington since July 14, burning more than 250,000 acres and destroying 300 homes. The fire, burning for 11 days, is still only 55 percent contained and threatens an additional 1,100 homes.

The human impacts of the Carlton Complex Fire are wide reaching, like the man who died from a stroke while trying to protect his home, much of the city of Pateros being burned to the ground and fruit farms being destroyed. 

The fires also rage as Congress is considering two different bills that would increase the amount of money the U.S. Forest Service has to fight wildfires.

Tall wood buildings are imminent in the U.S.

2014-07-17 Ashley Bach

The momentum behind the rise of tall wood buildings around the world is impossible to stop. The positive developments just keep coming. A Yale University study showing the massive environmental benefits behind wood construction. The U.S. federal government spending $1 million to train architects and developers about the benefits of large wood buildings, and another $1 million on a design competition to "demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability" of using wood for high-rise construction.

Tall wood buildings going up around Europe and Canada. One of the world's leading architecture firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, saying that even larger wood buildings - hundreds of feet tall - are technically possible, environmentally friendly and financially competitive. The Pacific Northwest becoming a potential hub for wood buildings in the U.S., with an Idaho timber company becoming the first to sell cross-laminated timber (the key component in large wood buildings) in America.

But what hasn't happened until now is the construction of a tall, modern wood building in the United States. 

Forest collaboratives need willing partners and mutual goals

2014-07-11 Ashley Bach

We've written a lot over the years about forest collaboratives, in which local and federal leaders, along with timber companies and conservation groups, band together to reach common solutions. In an age of lawsuits and federal forest mismanagement, these collaboratives could be the future of forestry.

When even the New York Times op-ed page calls for more active management of our country's wilderness, it's clear that the time is ripe for the disparate groups that care about the state of our forests to start collaborating.  

The Capital Press this week has a great story exploring the challenges and benefits of several collaboratives in Washington and Oregon. 

Calling out frivolous lawsuits in the forests

2014-07-02 Ashley Bach

Just about every week comes news of a lawsuit from an environmental group trying to stop a timber project. If you watch the news closely, it can appear like some environmental groups have never met a forestry project that they didn't want to challenge in court. 

The situation has become so ridiculous that many environmental groups themselves have said, "There has got to be another way" and are now working with timber companies and local, federal and tribal leaders on forest collaboratives across the West to get sustainable timber projects going. 

But there are still groups that seem to think that serving as a roadblock is a virtue onto itself, without any regard for the value in a project.

Breaking down the myths about forest management

2014-06-27 Ashley Bach

For people who don't understand how sustainable forestry works, it can be easy to issue wide proclamations like "Don't cut down any trees!" or "Don't print that email!" When you have no idea timber can be harvested sustainably and help improve forest health or how much timber contributes to our world, perhaps it's inevitable that you would fall back on empty platitudes that don't have any connection to how forests actually interact with humanity. 

We wrote last fall about a speech from James McDonald, the sustainability manager for International Paper, that debunked the myths that lead to people thinking they have to avoid printing emails or buying paper products. 

Now enter Bill Cook, a district forester for the Michigan State University Extension. Cook wrote a column this month entitled, "It's OK to cut trees!" Cook says that wood is better for the environment than concrete, steel or oil, boosts the economy in rural communities and when harvested sustainably, makes forests healthier.

Obama's wildfire funding plan stirs debate and party tension

2014-06-20 Ashley Bach

A proposal by President Obama to change the way wildfire fighting is funded has received bipartisan support in Congress from Western lawmakers, support from many Western governors and support from many editorial boards. 

According to the Twin Falls (Idaho) News-Times, Obama's plan would "treat and fund the increasing number of catastrophic fires around the country as natural disasters, ultimately freeing up money to focus on prevention of such disasters. Often these catastrophic fires require more money than is available, leaving the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to pull funding from other areas, including fire fuel reduction programs."

So why isn't Obama's plan law already? Instead of being approved by federal lawmakers, the proposal is stirring debate about federal forest policy and riling up tension in an already bitterly divided Congress.

Pacific Northwest sawmills get some uplifting news

2014-06-13 Ashley Bach

Sawmills are an integral part of their local communities. In many cases, employees have worked there for decades, with different generations of the same families taking jobs at the local mill. The mills are also an important driver of the critical manufacturing sector in the Pacific Northwest, even while high-tech companies often get the headlines.

Which is why it's so heartwarming to hear news of a potential new sawmill opening in Washington and a longtime sawmill reopening in Oregon.

Sierra Pacific Industries, based in Northern California, is the second-largest lumber producer in the country, with 1.9 million acres of timberland in Washington and California. In Washington, the company already has mills in Aberdeen, on the coast; in Burlington, north of Seattle; and Centralia, about halfway between Seattle and Portland.

Now the company could be coming to the Tacoma area.

Forest homeowners are first line of defense for wildfires

2014-06-06 Ashley Bach

The increase in wildfires -- and the cost of fighting them -- in the U.S. is well documented. What hurts the most is federal leaders (and many states) aren't devoting enough money to forest restoration to make the forests healthier and more resistant to large fires. 

What's sometimes lost in the shuffle is the role of homeowners who have decided to build in forests, or what is called the "wildland-urban interface." Officials would let a lot of fires burn if they weren't close to people's homes.

Among the 50 states, Washington ranks fourth for the number of homes at high or extreme risk for wildfires. 

Reaction to Oso landslide: "When the mountain fell, the people rose up."

2014-05-30 Ashley Bach

Since the Oso landslide in March, the Everett Herald has covered the story with expertise, sensitivity and a compassion that can come only from a paper with connections to the local community. 

The paper did well again today with a special slate of stories on the disaster, including recollections from first responders, a list of people and groups that pitched in after the slide and an outlook for the Stillaguamish Valley in the months ahead.

But the most extraordinary piece of journalism in today's special section is called "The Rising," a harrowing and heartfelt look at how the residents of the surrounding Darrrington community banded together in the days after the slide. In beat-by-beat detail, the team of Herald reporters describes how neighbors, many of them connected to the forestry industry, rescued survivors and then in the weeks ahead, devoted everything they had to the recovery of victims. 

Effort to kill barred owls gets into full swing in the West

2014-05-23 Ashley Bach

It's been nearly a year now since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave final approval to a four-year project to kill barred owls in an attempt to help the endangered spotted owl.

The project, which officially started last fall, will remove 3,600 barred owls from four sites in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. That includes 630 owls removed from the Washington site, located on 220,400 acres, mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service, near Cle Elum.

We haven't heard much about the project since it began but some reports are trickling in. A San Francisco TV station recently followed along while wildlife officials hunted barred owls near the California-Oregon border. What's clear from the story is that even the people doing the killing are torn up about it.

Community leaders celebrate the life and legacy of Billy Frank Jr.

2014-05-15 Ashley Bach

There were so many people at Billy Frank Jr.'s memorial service this week that some of the crowd of 6,000 people had to sit in an adjacent ballroom or in outdoor tents and watch the service on big-screen TVs. A long list of dignitaries across the political spectrum spoke in his honor.

Just like the turnout for his memorial, Billy Frank Jr. was massive. Not only as a man, but in his impact on the environment, tribal rights, civil rights, Washington state history and in the lives of countless people from all walks of life.

Billy Frank Jr. worked for cooperation and environmental protection

2014-05-06 Ashley Bach

Billy Frank Jr.'s public life may have started with the "Fish Wars" of the 1960s and '70s, when he and other Native Americans asserted their fish treaty rights on rivers around Puget Sound. But Frank soon became much more than that: one of the country's most prominent civil rights leaders, a state and national environmental advocate and the head of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for more than 30 years.

When Frank died this week at the age of 83, President Obama was among the many public leaders to eulogize him. 

Rolling Stones keyboardist embodies the importance of working forests

2014-05-02 Ashley Bach

Many advocates of working forests may not know that they have a friend in the Rolling Stones. It's not as if one of the biggest bands in the world is a place most foresters would look to for an ally, but they probably haven't met Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell. 

Leavell, also famous for playing with the Allman Brothers, and his wife inherited a Georgia forest in the early 1970s that now spans 2,800 acres, and he's since become one of the highest profile advocates for working forests in the country. Just this week, USA Today and the New York Times wrote profiles on him, which provides an excellent vehicle to communicate the importance of sustainable forestry.

President Obama praises spirit of the Oso community

2014-04-23 Ashley Bach

When President Obama visited the site of the Oso landslide this week, he saw the American spirit at its best. About 900 people, many of them local volunteers, have helped in the search and recovery effort since the March 22 slide.

Obama gave his public remarks in the Oso firehouse, standing under a banner that read "Oso Strong," next to a red Snohomish County fire truck.

"We'll be here as long as it takes because while very few Americans had heard of Oso before the disaster struck, we've all be inspired by the incredible way that the community has come together and shown the love and support that they have for each other in ways large and small,” he said.

The rise of wood building helps sustainable forestry

2014-04-18 Ashley Bach

One of the best things about all the recognition that wood building has received in recent months is that decision-makers are beginning to realize the value of sustainable forestry.

Yale University and University of Washington just released a study showing that "using more wood and less steel and concrete in building and bridge construction would substantially reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption."

To highlight the benefit of wood constuction is to also recognize the ability of sustainable forestry to improve the environment and make forests healthier.

Scientists study the origin of the Oso landslide

2014-04-11 Ashley Bach

Nearly three weeks after the Oso landslide, scientists are still studying what caused a massive hillside to break away, travel over the Stillaguamish River and spread out over a mile – all in just 60 seconds.

A team from the U.S. Geological Survey is leading the effort to understand what happened. Richard Iverson, a hydrologist at the USGS’s office in Vancouver and one of the world’s leading landslide experts, told the Seattle Times that the slide was caused by “a combination of unusually wet weather, erosion at the toe of the slide and local geology.”

According to the Times, Iverson believes the sandy soil collapsed and “probably compressed the sodden soil, which would have increased water pressure between soil grains and turned the mass to soup.”

The “mass of mud, rocks and trees was traveling about 60 mph when it slammed into the (Stillaguamish River).”

Darrington, forestry industry gather together after Oso landslide

2014-04-03 Ashley Bach

The city of Darrington and the forestry industry are so intertwined that they are practically one and the same. The mascot for the Darrington Middle and High School is the Loggers. The school’s gym, which also serves as part of the Darrington Community Center, “tells you a lot about this town,” said KING 5’s Chris Daniels in a recent story. “All wood, all local lumber. Built by loggers, for loggers.”

Signs around town say, “Logger Power/Git Er Done.” The largest employer in the town of 1,300 people is the Hampton sawmill, which has 130 employees and is responsible for another 170 jobs through mill-related businesses. Even Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin owns a logging company.

So it was no surprise when the timber community banded tightly together in the wake of the March 22 landslide in nearby Oso that killed at least 30 people. For nearly two weeks, loggers have searched the slide, bringing their heavy equipment to clear the mud and debris, opening their homes to the affected families, working long hours to help their own.

Overcrowded forests are hurting drought-stricken communities

2014-03-28 Ashley Bach

Smart forest management is a need that gets more important every year. Because our country's federal forests aren't being actively restored and managed, they are dying from insects, disease and massive wildfires.

These forests are dangerous to their neighbors - so overcrowded that they're a tinderbox for increasingly destructive wildfires, and fire or not, filled with disease-riddled trees that could fall down at any moment. 

According to experts, these unhealthy and overcrowded forests are also sucking too much water out of the ground and hurting drought-stricken areas. The Modesto Bee reports that forests in the Sierra Nevada mountains are taking too much groundwater from Central California, which is in its third year of drought.

Wood skyscrapers begin to gain traction in the U.S. - and the Northwest

2014-03-21 Ashley Bach

What a big week for the future of tall wood buildings. It was three years ago that the U.S. government announced it would promote wood as a green building material, and it has spent more than $2 million on emerging wood technologies through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory.

Using wood for construction is one thing, but using wood for tall buildings, even skyscrapers? It's an method that's been used in Europe since the 1990s, and in the last year or two, the idea has started to take hold in the United States. The USDA just announced this week that it will spend $1 million to train architects, engineers and developers in the benefits of large wood buildings, and another $1 million on a design competition to "demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability" of using wood for high-rise construction.

The Northwest may end up becoming an epicenter of the new trend. Seattle architectural expert Joseph Mayo spoke recently at the Washington Forest Protection Association's annual meeting about how Washington, with its world-leading positions in timber, manufacturing and technology, can be a new center for the use of wood in the construction of large buildings. Mayo has also talked to the city of Seattle about changing building codes to make the construction of large buildings easier.