“We are witnessing an “all hands on deck” mindset and an urgency that has not been seen in the Pacific Northwest for a very long time. Strong partnerships are forming between federal and state resource management agencies, county governments, community leaders, conservationists, recreation interests and lumbermen, all in pursuit of a common and cohesive vision that, at the implementation level where we work, is already producing new and very exciting economic, environmental and social benefits.”

Dylan Kruse, Policy Director
Sustainable Northwest
Portland, Oregon

Dylan Kruse is Policy Director for Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based conservation group specializing in organizing and managing grass roots collaboratives that work programmatically in forest, water, range land and energy conservation and development. Founded in 1994, the non-profit Strives to identify common ground among rural and urban stakeholders. It currently assists 33 collaborative forest restoration projects in Oregon and Washington.

Mr. Kruse is responsible for Sustainable Northwest’s state and federal legislative activity, which has him on the political front lines, advocating for funding for programs designed to increase the pace and scale of federal lands forest restoration in the two states. He also co-chairs the Oregon Forest Biomass Working Group, holds a board seat with the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, and is a member of the steering committee for the National Rural Assembly. In his “spare” time, he coordinates the Western Juniper Alliance, a 50-member partnership engaged in rangeland restoration and development of sustainable markets for Western Juniper, a tree species that, because of its hardness and characteristic twist, is very difficult to process using conventional sawing methods.

Mr. Kruse is a Lewis and Clark College graduate, and holds a degree in International Affairs. In this interview, he answers questions concerning Sustainable Northwest’s forestry programs.

Evergreen: Mr. Kruse, judging from your job description, you are a very busy young man.

Kruse: I am, indeed, but it’s a very exciting time to be in the collaboration and restoration business.

Evergreen: How so?

Kruse: Many reasons, but none more important than the fact that the cultural lines that for years distanced rural communities from our urban centers are being erased, which is to say that people living in places like Portland and Seattle have become more productively engaged in helping revitalize rural communities than perhaps they’ve ever been.

Evergreen: To what do you attribute this sea change – and after 30 years in the forest education business, we think we know a sea change when we see one.

Kruse: It is a sea change for sure. I attribute it to the hard work of forest, rangeland, water and energy collaborative groups that represent the varied interests or rural and urban stakeholders in search of common ground, common understanding and a common path forward..

Evergreen: Developing lines of communication that help mute conflicting ideologies.

Kruse: Exactly. Most Americans now live two, three or four generations removed from their rural heritage. They don’t have the hands on experience with nature that people living in rural areas continue to pass from one generation to the next. The collaboratives are helping to restore those lost connections by giving people in urban areas the opportunity to sit at the same discussion tables with their rural neighbors. As I said a moment ago, it’s an exciting time for us.

Evergreen: Your literature – which is both impressive and informative – suggests that Sustainable Northwest works at the convergence of the economic and environmental policy making. Are we correct?

Kruse: You are correct. In fact, we don’t engage in projects or programs that don’t have economic and environmental components.

Evergreen: So, in a matter of speaking, you search for market solutions to environmental problems.

Kruse: That’s true, though I would add that our role is to help diverse groups of local stakeholders identify market solutions to environmental problems.

Evergreen: Over the last 18 months, we’ve done somewhere between 20 and 30 interviews with members of various collaborative groups in Idaho, Montana and northeast Washington. Again and again, we heard how important it is to build mutual trust and respect, and how long it takes for common misconceptions to be replaced by more accurate perceptions of one another’s values.

Kruse: There is no short-cutting the time it takes to build trust and respect among stakeholders that for years were at odds – often publicly – with one another. It took real courage for Mike Petersen, who runs the Lands Council in Spokane, and Duane Vaagen, who owns Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, at Colville, to actually start a conversation with one another. That’s example-setting leadership.

Evergreen: We’ve interviewed both Mike and Duane, and think they’ve both done a marvelous job with the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. We once asked Mike why the Lands Council ditched its litigation strategy in favor of collaboration and he said simply, “We weren’t getting our needs met.”

Kruse: We think the litigators are slowly marginalizing themselves. Their voices are being replaced by more realistic and reasonable voices that are coming together around some common themes that the public recognizes and supports.

Evergreen: And what might those themes be?

Kruse: Well, at the risk of oversimplification, no one likes to see a forest burn to the ground, especially when it might have been prevented by a good restoration program. More broadly, the polling data I’ve seen suggests the public places a premium on clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and year-round recreation opportunity. We see all of these values as market opportunities for rural economies that have suffered with the loss of traditional timber revenue sources.

Evergreen: Borrowing your words, what constitutes a good restoration program?

Kruse: As you no doubt know, national forests east of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington hold far too many small diameter trees for the carrying capacity of the land. The collaboratives we are assisting are working with the Forest Service on the design and implementation of thinning and fuels reduction projects that create jobs while reducing the risk of wildfire.

Evergreen: One of the first editions of Evergreen we published, close to 30 years ago, was titled “Gray Ghosts in the Blue Mountains.” We described and photographed collapsing ponderosa and lodgepole pine forests in eastern Oregon. Only recently has the thinning and fuels reduction work you describe finally begun in earnest. A lot of pain and not much gain on economic or environmental fronts until organizations like yours came along..

Kruse:  We can be glad for all of the hard work done by those pioneering souls who came to see collaboration as the only viable alternative to the status quo, which wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.

Evergreen: And now we’re hearing all the urban buzz about cross laminated timber, a value-added engineered wood product that can be manufactured from small diameter trees, and is being used to construct high rise buildings as tall as 14 or 15 stories. Pardon our unintended cynicism, but it is as though people living in Portland and Seattle just discovered wood!

Kruse: It is a prime example of the sea change we were discussing a moment ago. And it has started a whole new conversation about the value and utility of wood. And with this conversation comes a whole new conversation about forestry – except that this time the conversation is not just a rural conversation. It is a conversation with urban stakeholders who hold tremendous sway over the entire national forest policy making process.

Evergreen: How can it be this simple? We have been showcasing the environmental advantages of wood in our magazine for 25 years. And suddenly wood is discovered?

Kruse: Well, your 30-year journey suggests this change has been anything but sudden. Moreover, despite all the positive energy, this new conversation about wood’s great value still has its skeptics. There are worries about sustainability and proper management. No one wants to see a return to the old ways when timber drove most all management activity.

Evergreen: So how do you proceed in a climate where many still worry?

Kruse: By working collaboratively with diverse rural-urban stakeholder groups and by making sure that our science is rock solid.

Evergreen: And you think your science is solid where it concerns Intermountain dry site mixed conifer forests of the kind we find in Washington and Oregon east of the Cascades?

Kruse: We absolutely do. There is a significant and growing body of peer-reviewed science that underscores the importance of thinning and fuels reduction in forests that hold too many trees to sustain themselves.

Evergreen: We certainly agree, but we don’t think the political climate could have been changed had it not been for the emergence of the collaborative groups with whom your group works.

Kruse: They have made all the difference, not just in bringing urban conservation groups to the table but also in re-energizing state and federal agencies responsible for managing and protecting publicly owned natural resources.

Evergreen: The collaboratives we’ve been interviewing share a frustration with the time it takes to design and implement a project. Are you hearing this in your work?

Kruse: Increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration projects is a top priority with us. To understand the level of urgency, you need only look at the fact that more than one million acres burned in the State of Washington last year.

Evergreen: The western states, where federal forestland is concentrated, lead the nation year after year. And according to the Forest Service, some 80 million acres of federal forestland in the West is in Condition Class 2 or 3, meaning it is ready to burn or soon will be. Collaboratives face a mighty task.

Kruse: They certainly do, and there is no way they can restore all of the acres that need restoring, but we can certainly do much better than we are at the moment.

Evergreen: Infrastructure – wood processing technologies and people power – seem to us to be the biggest limiting factors. Do you agree?

Kruse: I agree, but want to add that Sustainable Northwest is doing everything possible to retain the infrastructure currently present and to attract new technologies that can process biomass. There are some very exciting bioenergy technologies in the pipeline.

Evergreen: We agree, but serial litigators make the capital markets very nervous. It costs about $100 million to construct a new small diameter sawmill. Who in his or her right mind is going to risk this much money in our still uncertain political climate?

Kruse: We believe the political climate has improved substantially in recent years. The fact that so much money is being invested in new wood fiber processing technologies suggests to us that investors do see a more certain political climate going forward. For us, the real key lies in designing long-term durable solutions that have strong and diverse local support and are beneficial to all parties involved.

Evergreen: You would think that the kind of rural-urban engagement and support you describe would provide the political cover that Congress has been seeking since the old forest wars ended.

Kruse: We certainly have strong bi-partisan leadership and support for collaboration here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a priceless asset for policy guys like me whose job it is be able to tell a credible story about the social and environmental benefits of forest collaboration and restoration.

Evergreen: We think the story you describe is the best forestry story we’ve found in the 30-year history of the Evergreen Foundation.

Kruse: I’m not at all surprised to hear you say that.

Evergreen: How important is local knowledge in crafting the durable, long term solutions you describe?

Kruse: It’s invaluable. The suggestion that local people lack the knowledge, motives or intellect needed to make the right decisions about their forests is just so much nonsense. There is no substitute for local, generational knowledge about forests and the communities within them.

Evergreen: Capacity building.

Kruse: Absolutely, and not just wood processing capacity but community capacity. Collaboration takes a lot of time and effort. It needs a constant infusion of young blood, new ideas, new leadership, new energy and new money. As you say, capacity building.

Evergreen: Sustainability writ large.

Kruse: Very large. We are witnessing an “all hands on deck” mindset and an urgency that has not been seen in the Pacific Northwest for a very long time. Strong partnerships are forming between federal and state resource management agencies, county governments, community leaders, conservationists, recreation interests and lumbermen, all in pursuit of a common and cohesive vision that, at the implementation level where we work, is already producing new and very exciting economic, environmental and social benefits.

Evergreen: Former adversaries, rural and urban, forests and communities, multiple stakeholders, pretty much reading from the same sheet music; and not a moment too soon.

Kruse: And not a moment too soon.