There is something unethical about allowing a person or a group that refused to participate in the collaborative planning of the project to file an appeal on the project. The essence of collaboration means that you work through the issues within a project and help solve the problems. Bring a solution, not litigation. There needs to be something, maybe as simple as an appeal bond requirement, to encourage organizations and people to authentically participate in the process. We at the local level have a lot of skin in the game; it is our community that is threatened by wildfire and it is our hard work that came up with the project that met everyone’s agreement. There is something morally and ethically out of balance with the way it is happening now, where someone who does not participate in the process gets to ruin it for those who did. This has to be dealt with.
Environmental Lawyer, Forest Activist, Former Mayor of Twisp, Washington,
Co-founder of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition – Formerly The Colville Community Forestry Coalition
Jim Doran is a renaissance man for sure. Lawyer, hunter, writer politician, and conversationalist extraordinaire, he is a committed conservationist – though he is quick to shun the label, which he considers value laden in a way that makes him uncomfortable.
When we first interviewed Mr. Doran in the fall of 2015, we found him to be one of the most thoughtful environmental leaders we’ve ever met. We met again recently in Colville, Washington. Herein, we share our conversation with him in Part 1 of our in-depth look at forest conditions in national forests in Washington’s national forests east of the Cascades.
We have been corresponding with Mr. Doran via email for at least 10 years, but we had never met until lumberman, Duane Vaagen, invited us to sit down in his Colville office to discuss our common interests in what might be done to arrest the fiery deaths of the West’s great national forests. It soon became clear to both of us that we have been on more or less the same trail for more than 20 years.
Evergreen: Jim, it’s been nearly a year since we first talked with you about forest conditions east of the Cascades in the State of Washington. Our focus then was on the role forest collaboration was playing in the restoration of national forests that are dying and burning in stand-replacing wildfires. You, of course, helped pioneer the collaborative model used by so many groups today, so we’re wondering if you can tell us what’s happening this year that adds up to reasons for hope that more national forest acres can be restored before they are lost to insects, diseases and inevitable wildfire.
Doran: Lloyd McGee, the former log buyer for Vaagen Bros. Lumber and the former President of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and currently an employee of The Nature Conservancy, has been able to get a project going in Chelan County on Forest Service lands near Lake Wenatchee. He has taken the concept from the “A to Z Project” model on the Colville National Forest and is applying it to a landscape scaled project in Chelan County on USFS land. The “Big Meadow” and “Lower Chiwawa” projects near Lake Wenatchee include wildland urban interface zones and total about 76,000 acres combined.
The reason that this is fairly exciting is that The Nature Conservancy, a very well respected stakeholder, is bringing the funding to the table to get the NEPA analysis completed. Private qualified contractors will be hired to do the analysis, similar to the “A to Z Project”, but the contract administrator and funding for the work will be provided by The Nature Conservancy. Two points are relevant. First, neither the Forest Service nor the State of Washington are coming up with the necessary funding for this work, so this model allows for the project to go forward. Second, this puts the conservation community in a situation where they are proving their commitment to a fuels reduction and forest health project that will indeed require cutting a significant number of trees. This is the psychological step that is needed in order to address the problems in the public forests. This gives me hope.
Evergreen: In 2005, you wrote a timely but futuristic essay titled, “Collaboration: Western Rural Revolution. Can you summarize its main points and tell us what’s changed over the last 11 years?
Doran: The first premise is that there is common ground in our desire for healthy and functioning ecosystems and for vibrant communities. This crosses all social boundaries and includes loggers, foresters, environmentalists, farmers and ranchers, recreation groups; virtually all national forest stakeholders in a particular area. The second premise is that blame isn’t going to solve anything. We know what restoration forestry is so let’s get busy or it will all burn down. Similarly there was a verbalized commitment to “problem solving” and “no fighting”. The function of the collaboration process is to create a new language of cooperation between the formerly antagonistic factions. First, we would take “old growth” off the table; there are plenty of stands to be restored while leaving the old growth alone. Second, we would not support extensive new road systems. The west has been overly-roaded already. I remember re-iterating these “rules of collaboration” at the start of every meeting.
Evergreen: We’d guess that the collaborative process you describe works best when and where local input – local knowledge if you will – is strong and well respected by the Forest Service.
Doran: That’s correct. An interesting aspect of what I called “community forestry” is that, in many instances, local people understand the lay of the land, the composition of the forest and how to treat it better than the transient land managers. The locals often are the ones who can solve the problems with innovation. The effort began with getting the Forest Service to pay attention to the local knowledge. What we arrived at over time was an Agreement Matrix. Essentially it gave the message to the Forest Service that “If you do it this way, we won’t appeal.” This was a new way of doing business for the formerly closed shop Forest Service. I have to credit former Colville National Forest Supervisor, Rick Brazell, for embracing this concept.
Evergreen: The Forest Service response to collaboration has been mixed, hasn’t it?
Doran: It has, and that’s unfortunate. We built support for collaboration based on congressionally mandated Stewardship Authorities plus the publicly offered support of the Chief of the Forest Service. Both required “community collaboration” on Forest Service projects. We believed that this empowered us to have a legitimate voice in the process and not simply the “thank you for your comments” approach that was the historical interaction between the community and the agency. This was a significant shift in power. We used it and literally defined community collaboration as we went forward, and fortunately had a positive response from the Colville National Forest. Incidentally, I brought this same approach to the Coeur d’Alene Nation Forest and the Payette National Forest in Idaho. They received this well and went forward with local citizen collaboration.
Evergreen: Collaboratives that have followed in your footsteps describe a lot of boots on the ground stuff. Was it that way when you were getting started.
Doran: Yes – and project specific with not a lot of academic or theoretical input. We would go out on the ground and discuss the plans and with the cooperative attitude of the Forest Service, adjustments were made and now thirty 35 projects have been completed on the Colville. What developed after the first couple of successful projects was a camaraderie amongst the participants. Success breeds success.
Evergreen: You are widely credited with having helped pioneer the collaborative forest restoration model used throughout the western United States today. When we talked about this model last year, you said that building trust between participating environmentalists and lumbermen was the key to success. Has anything happened over the last year that changes your perspective; and what might be done to strengthen your model?
Doran: Many are due credit for helping pioneer the collaborative outreach. I learned a lot from other communities back in the 90s that were wrestling with these same issues. I like to say that I don’t think I ever had a creative breakthrough idea in my life, but I certainly recognize the good work of others when I see it. And I enjoy building on those ideas.
As to what can be done to strengthen the model, budget limitations are always issues when it comes to getting the work done. The new model – using private funding for NEPA work when public funds are not available – could well be the breakthrough moment we’ve been waiting for. We did make some headway in making retained receipts available for NEPA work, but the idea has not been enthusiastically supported by policy makers in the National Forest, so the funding issue remains the single biggest obstacle to success once a project goes through collaboration.
Evergreen: Two steps forward and one back.
Doran: So it seems. To my dismay, collaborative projects that took us years to agree upon many times have burned up before the actual on the ground restoration work begins. It takes the Forest Service several years and several hundreds of thousands of dollars to do the project NEPA work. When a project area burns before the fuels reduction work begins, the time and money investments are lost, to say nothing of the natural resources and ecosystems. When you add to this the fact that the US Forest Service budget is now 60% spent on fire suppression and rehabilitation, it becomes obvious that the emphasis is on burning down the forests. If you step back from all of this and take an objective view of the facts, you will see that it appears to be the job of the United Stated Forest Service to burn down the western National Forests as fast as possible. That’s where the commitment is. We had a timber products economy in the rural west for decades. Now we have a fire suppression economy. Follow the money, as they say.
Evergreen: The bottom line here being that the nation’s investment in forest restoration work in western national forests is insufficient when compared with the enormity, urgency and complexity of the problem we are facing.
Doran: Very true. More public investment and more private investment is needed. But we also need to solve the appeals issue that arises whenever a discontented non-participatory and usually grumpy soul decides to undermine all the collaborative work of many people – sometimes their own cohorts – just to prove that they can appeal any project that is ever presented. The uncertainty these legal appeals breed has made it very difficult to attract the kinds of long term capital investments needed to support collaborative forest restoration work. There has to be a longterm reliable supply of material or no significant capital investments will be made.
Evergreen: We’ve heard this frustration expressed in every collaborative interview we’ve done over the last two years, and it leads directly to our next question. What’s the buzz today in your forestry social circles? What are your colleagues discussing?
Doran: We talk about how the forests that we are concerned about seem to be disappearing through wildfire each year. This entire situation will remedy itself eventually if we do not act with a responsibility to repair the management mistakes and do the deferred maintenance that extends back many decades. I do not know what it will take to wake people up. The Forest Service did a good job of creating mistrust back in the seventies and eighties. Most people still do not trust the Forest Service. This is a journey of trust building through communication and collaboration and participation in the solution. I am not sure that it can be done but I have been willing to try. It is truly disappointing when the very landscape that we all took field trips on and came up with the agreed upon prescription burns before the Forest Service can get through the NEPA and planning process.
Evergreen: Yet another frequently expressed frustration, but on a more hopeful note, is that there seems to be lots of urban excitement about cross laminated timbers [CLT], which can be used to construct high rise buildings up to 12 stories tall. What’s driving this conversation in social circles that was, historically speaking, more attuned to forest preservation than management?
Doran: I cannot say for sure but I think it is the same light bulb that went on in some heads when they learned that Vaagen Bros. Lumber, for example, only wants trees up to eight inches diameter and that they use every piece of fiber that doesn’t go into the wood products for heat and electricity. I saw jaws drop at the University of Oregon when we put on that presentation a few years ago. Now, when informed people hear about CLT they get engaged in the story of sustainability in a real world application. More people should go to Finland and look at how they use wood fiber there for such things as high tension electrical transmission towers. Wood has many amazing properties about it. The US is way behind the curve when it comes to sustainable wood products.
Evergreen: Apart from the fact that wood is the only renewable structural building material on earth, we like the fact that CLT is a high tech product can be manufactured from small diameter trees that are the focal point of collaborative restoration work underway in this region’s at risk national forests. Are we reaching too far in our hope that CLT is the value-added product that can speak to the frustrations of collaborative groups that want to treat more national forest acres annually?
Doran: You might be reaching past one of the problems that we have to address or none of this will fly. Yes, of course, sustainable wood products that can be made from small diameter trees removed for forest health and fuels reduction is a wonderful plan. However, we got way behind the curve by inappropriate management decisions for over half a century. I am talking about the “deferred maintenance” issue. Natural economy says that if you take out a great value from the natural systems, you will have to re-invest back into the systems or they will collapse. We have not yet reached the understanding in the management of our forest that we will have to spend more money restoring them than the value that we can now extract. The use of small diameter material on innovative products, such a CLT, helps reduce the deficit. However, there is still a need for $15 to $25 per ton of removed materials to make the economic equation work. This is the “public re-investment” that we have talked about.
Evergreen: There is a great deal of bi-partisan congressional support for the collaborative process. And the story seems to be gaining some traction with the news media. Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, has also voiced his strong support, as have State Foresters across the West. Yet the Forest Service seems to be digging in its heels on plan revisions on the Colville National Forest, where you did a lot of your early collaborative work. Why on earth would a Forest Supervisor – in this case Rodney Smolden – throw cold water on the recommendations of collaborative groups when he knows there is such strong national level support?
Doran: Rodney is a good man. He encouraged me back in the days when we were first building the collaborative model on the Colville National Forest. I am not sure what is going on. It is a political year and that might have something to do with it.
Evergreen: We intend to re-interview Mr. Smolden to give him an opportunity to explain. Meanwhile, some very good ideas advanced by the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition seem to have been ignored without explanation. Your thoughts please.
Doran: Again, it might be the political season with the expectations of serious changes one way or the other. Everyone seems to be biding their time…..while Rome burns.
You have to also remember that the nature of the Forest Service is a risk averse bureaucracy. My old friend Gregg Knott used to say that, “We are good people caught in a bad system.” I think that is true. It isn’t any one individual but the nature of the bureaucracy to not want to change the way things are being done. It is risky to change. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to get the Colville National Forest old guard to even begin collaboration. It took Supervisor Brazell’s orders and then there was still some resistance. I think the nature of the beast is for it to revert back to its closed-shop hierarchal way of doing business. Why don’t you ask Rodney Smolden what the problem is and see how he responds.
Evergreen: We intend to give Mr. Smolden every opportunity to explain himself, but I want to go back to your earlier frustration with the project appeals process. When we visited last fall, you said you did not believe a person or group that had not participated in the collaborative process should be permitted to object to or appeal a project. Now we have the Alliance for the Wild Rockies – a group that refuses to collaborate – suing the Forest Service to prevent implementation of the A-To-Z Project on the Colville National Forest. AWR alleges collusion between Cramer Fish Sciences, which prepared the project’s Environmental Assessment at Forest Service direction, and Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, which paid for the work but had a hand’s off agreement with the Forest Service and Cramer. What are we to make of this?
Doran: There is something unethical about allowing a person or a group that refused to participate in the collaborative planning of the project to file an appeal on the project. The essence of collaboration means that you work through the issues within a project and help solve the problems. Bring a solution, not litigation. There needs to be something, maybe as simple as an appeal bond requirement, to encourage organizations and people to authentically participate in the process. We at the local level have a lot of skin in the game; it is our community that is threatened by wildfire and it is our hard work that came up with the project that met everyone’s agreement. There is something morally and ethically out of balance with the way it is happening now, where someone who does not participate in the process gets to ruin it for those who did. This has to be dealt with.
I realize that there is a tension between the civil rights of the public and the need to get this work done before all the natural resources are damaged. It is time for a presidential Executive Order to apply a standard or threshold for appeals or at least a requirement for an appeals bond. The “A to Z Project” is a classic example of a disgruntled environmental organization appealing the project when their own constituents approved it. The environmental community is caught in an ethical dilemma. How can they say that they are for ecosystem restoration and then appeal a bona fide collaborative project in order to maintain their image as the watch-dog organization so that funders will pay their personal salaries?
Evergreen: The Vaagen Brothers sawmills at Colville and Usk are currently the only mills east of the Washington Cascades that are capable of efficiently processing small diameter trees. But we are hearing rumors about possible capital investments in a new mill near Wenatchee in Central Washington, where there are no small diameter processing facilities. Even the Nature Conservancy is said to be in the hunt for a joint venture partner. And we regularly field telephone calls from venture capitalists interested in biofuel investments in Central Washington. What are you hearing, if anything, and what are we to conclude about such an unusual mix of possible investors?
Doran: It is an old saw: Without the reliable longterm (at least 10 years) supply of the raw material (small diameter logs or even slash) there will be no significant investment into the infrastructure. Without the infrastructure the financial return from the sale of the raw material is lost because there is no one there to buy it, and the vicious cycle goes round. Once again, if there was a serious public reinvestment into the work on the ground or in the transportation of the materials – it works out to about $15 to $25 per ton however you cut it – then the equation would work and someone could afford to buy the project and deliver the material to a mill of some sort. It is first the collaboration to reach agreement on the projects and then it is the need for re-investment into the forest that could make this wonderful opportunity a reality. Lots of jobs, environmental restoration and taxes for the counties. Besides that, it will change the ethic towards taking care of the place.
Evergreen: Speaking of rumors, we recently wrote about a rarely discussed concept called “equality of permanence,” which says – in so many words – you get your acre of officially designated Wilderness and, in exchange, I get my acres of actively managed federal forest land. What are you hearing about this concept and is it a way to avoid economically and environmentally costly litigation?
Doran: I am not aware of this recent version of wilderness for active management quid pro quo. I am afraid that even the best of intentions along these lines will be foiled because of the inertia against new Wilderness in Washington. This topic gets people riled up and destroys the collaborative spirit and sets us back. If the proposed wilderness is being protected, de facto, by authentic collaboration, then there is no need to push for the official political designation. Additionally, if management areas are being actively managed and restoration zones are being actively restored, then there will be no pressure to violate any protection that the proposed wilderness is already experiencing. I think it is an ideological fight, not a productive effort.
Evergreen: How about arbitration as a substitute for litigation. You bring the arbitration judges your best idea for managing a particular federal tract of land, and we’ll bring them our best idea, and whatever the judges decide is a done deal. No more litigation. Is this a viable idea?
Doran: This reminds me of my term for the legal cause of action called “Negligent Resource Management” that I coined back in 2003. I gave a talk on this subject at the Small Log Conference in Coeur d’Alene. It would be the mother of lawsuits brought against the US Forest Service for mismanagement of the western National Forests. I think the facts and science would prove that the Forest Service is not doing a responsible job; they have been negligent. The result would be years of litigation that would eventually produce a Court’s hearing, with all sides participating, about what could be done to restore and protect our public forests. Then the Courts would adopt one of the plans or amalgamate them and order the agency, the Forest Service, to comply. It would be similar to the Northwest Forest Plan and the Salmon Recovery Plans. But in this case it would result in an order directing the Forest Service to treat acres for fuels reduction and for forest restoration. On the heels of such an order, and Court ordered funding for the work, the infrastructure would develop because of the reliable longterm supply created by the Court order.
The public interest environmental law community has not matured to the point where it will undertake such a suit against the Forest Service. They are generally still stuck in the “don’t cut any trees” syndrome. Maybe one day we could get the courts to order the Forest Service to do their job but it would be a long hard road to get there. Nevertheless, what you suggest on an individual project level would certainly build up the body of precedent, how some judges have ruled, that might be useful in similar cases. This would certainly be easier than the mother of lawsuits for negligent resource management.
Evergreen: Many people think that what ails the Forest Service today can only be remedied by strong leadership and management skills from a Chief brought in from outside the federal government – say a very successful high tech executive on loan to the Forest Service. What’s your opinion?
Doran: Someone with the vision is needed. I would love to see Rick Brazell acting as the Chief of the Forest Service. He gets it. However, the legislative authorities are not there for all of this, so any leader has their hands tied to a certain degree. What we could use would be presidential Executive Orders, similar to the Obama Immigration Executive Orders, that would give the Chief the authority to do what needs to be done. (I am not going to list them all here, as they are scattered throughout my answers.) Funding from Congress for the reinvestment into the forest landscape is also a need. The Nature Conservancy model, as being tried near Lake Wenatchee, is one part of that solution. However, it will take public funds to inject the needed $15 to $25 per ton of material removed in order to make this viable. It all comes back to the collaboration for the design of the project and the funding for the NEPA and implementation.
Evergreen: In the category of deja vu all over again, we’d appreciate your lawyerly evaluation of a prediction made in 1980 by Sally Fairfax, a University of California Berkeley forest scientist.
“Far from achieving a rational decision-making process, RPA [the Resource Planning Act] and NFMA [the National Forest Management Act] may well result in stalemate and indecision as the Forest Service turns from managing land to simply overseeing a convoluted, ever more complex set of congressionally mandated procedures. The tradition of land stewardship, if indeed it survived the 1950s and 1960s, may have died in the 1970s. RPA and NFMA take the initiative from experienced land managers – those revered people on the ground, the folks who have lived with the land and their mistakes long enough to have developed wisdom and a capacity for judgment – and gives it to lawyers, computers, economists and politically active special interest groups seeking to protect and enhance their own diverse positions. This shift in initiative will result from the layers of legally binding procedure that RPA and NFMA foist on top of an already complex and overly rigid planning process. Constant procedural tinkering does not, I fear, lead to efficiency or simplicity. Rather it promises a proliferation of steps, sub-steps, appendices and diverticulae that makes the Forest Service susceptible to the ultimate lawyer’s malaise: the reification of process over substance.”
Doran: Well said, though disheartening. It has in fact occurred. The hope is that community collaboration will help move the Forest Service past its bureaucratic paralysis. There is an often forgotten clause in the “stewardship authorities” that requires the Forest Service to use community collaboration. I believe that this shifts some of the power to the citizens who participate in the collaborative process. In other words, the Forest Service is required to listen to collaborative groups, not just pat them on the head and go merrily along in a different direction The Northeast Washington Forest Coalition was successful on the Colville National Forest precisely because we had strong Forest Service support. The only problem with the successes that we created on the Colville is that you want to see it happen elsewhere and become frustrated when it doesn’t.
Evergreen: Last fall, you surprised us by saying that you thought that the thinning and forest restoration the collaboratives are doing was helping to sequester carbon in wood products that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere during big wildfires. Has anything happened in the interim that causes you to want to change your opinion on such a controversial subject?
Doran: I was extremely disappointed in the scientific community’s negative response to the concept that it would be better to restore a forest than to see it burn down in a wildfire. You would think that this makes sense. However, in the preliminary scientific reports, well-meaning scientists got so bogged down in detail that the result was incongruous. They were – in my opinion – blinded by their own science. They put in so many variables and factors with so many equations that the entire reality of the situation got lost. Also troubling, they seem to have been unwilling to admit that by implementing fuels reduction and forest health prescriptions that reduce the risk of wildfire, we can actually reduce carbon emissions. I find this incredulous and lacking courage. So, yes, I am somewhat discouraged about both the success of future forest restoration projects and about controlling carbon emissions in the western states from forest fires. The pessimism spawned by this embarrassing conclusion results in the phrase, “Help fight climate change; burn down a forest.” We need to look at this again.
Evergreen: We have told the carbon story – which is the story of the environmental advantages of wood use writ large – many, many times over the years.
Doran: No one – with the possible exception of Evergreen Magazine – has told this story very well. It is time to make a clear connection between forest restoration and carbon sequestration so the public can see the opportunity to do something very positive in the face of climate change and the loss of beautiful forests to catastrophic wildfire. I would like to see a program that tells this story and presents the public with an opportunity to address global warming and climate change right here in the Pacific Northwest by contributing funds to implement urgently needed collaborative forest restoration projects right here. Sure, the Amazon needs protecting, but what about our own National Forests?
Evergreen: Thanks Jim; always good to visit with you.
Click here to read our lively initial interview with Mr. Doran.