Vaagen Brothers becomes national model for collaboration


Vaagen Brothers Lumber is located in the small town of Colville in Northeast Washington, but its profile in the forestry industry now reaches far and wide. Vaagen Brothers was instrumental in spurring a spirit of collaboration between parties that don’t always get along, both timber companies and environmental groups, along with federal, state and local leaders.

Vaagen helped bring all the disparate groups together to form the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, which U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called “a model for timber communities nationwide.” More than just about anything, the partnership helped increase the timber harvest without costly litigation because all the groups were at the table from the beginning.

The collaboration helped pave the way for Vaagen Brothers to ink a 10-year contract to harvest timber on 55,000 acres of the Colville National Forest in a pilot project that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said is “designed to restore the forest, reduce the risk of forest fires and strengthen our rural economy.”

The innovation led to Vaagen Brothers deservedly being honored this week by the Forest Resources Association (FRC), a Washington, D.C., trade group., with the 2015 National Outstanding Forestry Activist Award.

The Colville company’s commitment to working with other interest groups was a notable success, according to the FRC:

Vaagen’s unwavering support for the (Northeast Washington Forestry) Coalition — in funds, personnel, travel, and participation in meetings with local, state and federal public officials — and collaboration with all Coalition members has resulted in the annual harvest on the Colville’s rising from 18 million board feet to 60 million. Vaagen Brothers has demonstrated the potential of “restoration forestry” on federal lands to stakeholders outside of the Coalition to showcase sound forestry practices and management, reduced wildfire risk, and increased wildlife habitat for Rocky Mountain elk, among other species. The result is, no stewardship projects were litigated or appealed to the point of stopping much-need forestry work since the Coalition’s inception.

The head of Vaagen Brothers, Duane Vaagen, noted at the award ceremony that his company’s actions came out of necessity, but he and his employees also came to an understanding with what would normally be their rivals: environmental groups.

“Belonging to all these coalitions and sometimes even starting them takes a lot of time and also a lot of travel,” (Vaagen said). “What I want to let you know is, this collaboration in the Northwest is very necessary. We have no other way.” Speaking of the green groups he worked with, he added, “They want solutions, too. We went to DC with them. We came up with a project.”

Vaagen, in an op-ed last month in The Hill, a D.C. political newspaper, said his company, for all its success, still exists on a precarious slope with uncertain long-term harvest prospects. This will be true until the federal government revamps the way it manages his forests, he wrote.

Today collaboration is seen as the model for developing ecologically-sound forest projects.  Our community has used it successfully to treat 55,000 acres on the Colville National Forest.  But even collaborative projects are hampered by costly litigation and agency analysis paralysis that slow the pace and scale of management.  While we haven’t seen lawsuits challenging projects on the Colville, our forest operates under the same broken system that decades of lawsuits, court-imposed requirements, and agency bureaucracy have created. It has also increased the costs of preparing and implementing projects, and the resulting spike in wildfire suppression costs has taken the agency away from its core mission of managing forests for the greatest good.

Our communities need Congress to take action on a solution that addresses these barriers for responsible forest management.  Otherwise we’ll continue to see an endless cycle of unhealthy forests and communities.