Vaagen Brothers demonstrate collaboration


Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville, Wash., has won national awards for its commitment to forest collaboration. Duane Vaagen and his sons Russ and Kurtis are true innovators in finding ways to bring timber groups, environmentalists and local, state, tribal and federal officials together in the pursuit of common goals.

The collaborative that Vaagen Brothers helped create, the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, was called “a model for timber communities nationwide” by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. For the most part, the collaborative has been able to avoid the litigation that has stymied so many timber projects across the West.

More recently the collaborative has been waiting to start timber projects in the Mill Creek Watershed on the Colville National Forest after some environmental groups, who declined to be part of the collaborative, objected to the projects. The Forest Service says it plans to restart the projects after further environmental review.

James Schroeder, Washington director of forest conservation and partnerships for The Nature Conservancy, had an op-ed today in the Spokane Spokesman-Review in support of the Mill Creek projects.

Proactive management is needed to restore the health of the forest in the Mill Creek Watershed, but the Forest Service lacks the funding to implement a comprehensive restoration plan for this watershed.

That’s where the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, of which The Nature Conservancy is a member, comes in. NEWFC is an alliance of timber companies, conservationists, business owners, tribes and forest professionals. Since 2002, NEWFC has been working together to find common ground and move the region forward with new solutions to forest management problems.

NEWFC is supporting two “A to Z” projects in the Mill Creek watershed that combined, will develop a comprehensive restoration plan for 50,000 acres, with active treatments on about 20 percent of that land.

These are complete forest restoration projects that include forest thinning and controlled burning to reduce forest fuels, restore streams and riparian zones, repair roads and close some roads harmful to fisheries and water quality, and restore wildlife habitat. No old growth trees will be cut.

To solve the funding problem, these “A to Z” projects will use funds and personnel provided by a private contractor to plan and implement these forest restoration projects.

The Forest Service retains all decision-making and is accountable for the outcome of the project, but the savings generated by using contractors allows the Forest Service to implement more projects and ultimately treat many more acres. The private contractor will recover their investment through the sale of forest products that are a by-product of the ecological restoration work.

The contractor, in this case Vaagen Brothers Lumber, is willing to invest the money in planning and implementing the restoration work, paying for road repairs and stream improvements, as well as the timber harvest, because otherwise they’d never be able to harvest.

In an interview earlier this year with Evergreen Magazine, Kurtis Vaagen said forest collaborartives should be the antidote to the kind of legal battles that some environmental groups still try to wage.

Evergreen: Can collaboration replace litigation?

Vaagen: Collaboration should replace litigation but up to this point it hasn’t taken the power away from serial litigators who put their own extreme agendas before forest stewardship. With the support of the participating environmental networks and participating timber representatives, collaboration creates a transparent process that allows forest stakeholder groups find practical, on the ground solutions to environmental problems. It beats wasting money on litigation at a time when wildfires are destroying millions of acres of precious forestland every year.

The interview with Vaagen was also illuminating in disclosing that Vaagen Brothers is the largest private employer in Northeast Washington, which shows the company’s incredible contributions to the region.

Evergreen: Economically speaking, Vaagen Brothers is easily the largest private employer in NE Washington. How does that feel to you?

Vaagen: There are a number of large employers in our area really. We are fortunate to live in an area that has so much to offer both economically and socially. We are very proud to provide jobs for our community and employ one of the best crews in the industry. Our area has one of the healthiest infrastructures in our industry which allows us to treat the forest appropriately. I think the Colville National Forest should be rewarded for this but in many instances they are not.