Forest collaborative comes to Olympic Peninsula

2013-12-06 Ashley Bach

Forest collaboratives - coalitions of timber and environmental interests, along with local, state and federal leaders - are all the rage right now. We've written about them here in the Northwest many times (like here and here), and while the projects have been far from perfect, they have undoubtedly been successful in at least getting all the parties at the same table. Getting timber and environmental interests to sit down together is an accomplishment in itself.

Here is what Vicki Christiansen, Associate Deputy Chief in State & Private Forestry for the U.S. Forest Service, and Scott Ketchum, General Manager, Northern Inland Division for Hancock Forest Management, had to say in a panel at the Washington Forest Protection Association Annual Meeting last year.

These "collaboratives," which have formed all over Washington and other Western states, need to be intensely focused on local concerns. "It's not a program - it has to be about a place," Christiansen said.

The collaboratives are impressive, Ketchum said, because "they're changing the conversation. They're not fighting the timber wars of the last 25 years." But they also have serious challenges. For instance, there are so many collaboratives now that they compete for a limited pool of federal funds. Many of the groups do not meet their wilderness or harvest targets.

But that doesn't mean the groups should go away. There could be changes on the federal level to allow more funding, and the various stakeholders that comprise these collaboratives are still learning to work together, the panelists said.

In Washington, there are collaboratives in Colville National Forest in the southeast part of the state, in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwest Washington as well as in Yakima and Kittitas Counties in Central Washington. But the big news this week is that Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, has convened a collaborative on the Olympic Peninsula. This brings the concept to Northwest Washington and to the Peninsula, which is always brimming with timber issues.

Timber groups like the American Forest Resource Council, Merrill & Ring and Simpson Lumber Co., as well as others, are on board. Conservation groups like the Olympic Forest Coalition, Olympic Park Associates and Washington Wild are also part of the collaborative.

What's unclear is how the new Olympic Peninsula Collaborative will affect the Wild Olympics plan currently before Congress. Many of the members of the new collaborative, including some timber interests, supported the amended version of the Wild Olympics plan that would have made 126,000 acres of Olympic National Forest off-limits to logging and named 19 rivers and seven tributaries as wild and scenic.

But that bill has pretty much died since being introduced in Congress in June 2012 by Sen. Patty Murray and former Rep. Norm Dicks.

The environmental groups that are part of the new collaborative say they still support the Wild Olympics plan, but Rep. Kilmer, Dicks' successor, has not come out in favor of the proposal and may be waiting to see what the collaborative comes up with. Some timber interests also still oppose the Wild Olympics plan before Congress.

(Rep. Kilmer) says the (new collaborative) brings the groups around shared goals and attempts to avoid previous bitter disputes between the timber industry and environmentalists over the use of Northwest forests.

“I’ve always said that we don’t have to choose between economic development and environmental protection,” said Kilmer, who grew up in Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula.

The collaborative will look for ways to increase timber harvests and provide economic benefits to communities through restoration thinning and other timber treatment while also improving forest habitats and environmental conditions. Members said it’s still early to say what the specific projects would entail, but they’re optimistic about having an open-minded discussion.

“We have basically opened the doors to talk,” said Connie Gallant with the conservation group Olympic Forest Coalition. “We do not want to see a return to those (forest) wars by any means.”

Here is how Matt Comisky, Washington Manager of the American Forest Resource Council, described the new venture:

“The current approach to managing the Olympic National Forest is not meeting the economic, social, and ecological needs of the forest or communities on the Peninsula.  Common sense solutions to create jobs through increased active, sustainable timber management on the Olympic National Forest is urgently needed to address chronic local unemployment and poverty rates that are among the highest in the state and nearly double those of the Seattle area.

The volume of timber currently harvested from the Olympic National Forest is less than 10 percent of historic levels, only 13 percent of the volume of timber that dies each year, and a mere 3 percent of the annual forest growth.  Our industry looks forward to working with Congressman Kilmer and other partners to promote more balanced, innovative approaches to timber management that provide a sustainable future for our industry and the local communities as part of continued discussions about the future of the Olympic National Forest.”