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. 

One thing that's clear is there is always a lot of distrust and not all the collaboratives will succeed. (Even when the groups work together, getting timber actually harvested can be very slow going, as this recent story in the La Grande (Ore.) Observer attests.)

The Capital Press story takes its deepest look at a successful collaborative in Harney County in Eastern Oregon. In May, ranchers represented by the county's Soil & Water Conservation District signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect habitat for the sage grouse. In return, the ranchers "gain 30 years of protection from additional regulation and restriction, even if the sage grouse is added to the endangered species list in 2015, as many expect."

Often, successful collaboratives have local landowners eager for stable regulations and an uptick in production, and government leaders equipped with the threat of a "regulatory hammer," as one expert describes it, but also ready to reach an agreement that will avoid further legal trouble. “When everyone stands to lose, then they will collaborate,” James Skillen, a professor at Calvin College in Michigan, told the Capital Press

Even when all these factors are in place, success often comes down to the personalities involved.

(The local economic) reality led to some unexpected collaboration on the county’s sage grouse plan, including working with federal officials who “looked like the enemy,” (said Harney County Judge Steve Grasty.)

That would include Paul Henson, Oregon supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who cheerfully acknowledges he had to overcome ranchers’ first impression of him: He’s a native New Yorker with a long ponytail and round-frame glasses. But (Marty) Suter-Goold of the (Harney County) Soil and Water Conservation District said Henson won over locals with his open manner and “really brought a breath of fresh air to our process.”

It also helped that one of the USFWS biologists, Angela Sitz, is from the area and knew many of the ranchers involved in the sage grouse discussions. “She bought us a lot at that county courthouse,” said USFWS spokeswoman Elizabeth Materna.

Another key — repeated time and again when private landowners collaborate with government agency — is the presence of a local, trusted intermediary such as a soil and water conservation district. In the Harney County case, the district showed federal agencies it had the technical expertise to develop ranch habitat plans while assuring landowners would “feel comfortable letting us on their land,” Suter-Goold said.

Also cited in the Capital Press story is an agreement forged in 2009 by Port Blakey Companies, which is based in Seattle but has operations around the world. Port Blakely reached a "safe harbor" agreement with state and local leaders (which we recapped here) to protect and manage 45,000 acres of timberland in Washington's Lewis and Skamania counties to maximize habitat for the spotted owl.

Under the agreement, Port Blakely thins the timber to encourage bigger tree growth, shelters owl prey with brushy areas and downed logs, and leaves or even creates snags — dead, standing trees that will provide food and habitat for bugs, birds, small mammals and perhaps owls. In return, Port Blakely will be protected from additional restrictions for 60 years, even if spotted owls are eventually classified as endangered.

“I would be open to jump into another one in a heartbeat,” said Court Stanley, Port Blakely’s president of forestry. “Regulatory certainty is really important. The tree we’re planting today, we know we can harvest in 50 or 60 years.

“We never went into it thinking it would fail,” Stanley said. “We were committed to do it and knew we had the right partners in the agencies to get it done.”