“Conservationists who have joined collaboratives – and that includes me – fear that talk of arbitration could easily morph into talk about watering down the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the legal foundation on which all successful collaborations rest. You cannot saw this branch off the legal tree and expect that diverse forest stakeholder collaboratives built on trust and mutual respect will continue to prosper as citizen, project-based tools for resolving disagreements over how our national forests should be managed.”

Tim Coleman, Executive Director
Kettle Range Conservation Group
Republic, Washington

Tim Coleman is the Executive Director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group [KRCG}, a Republic, Washington organization that devotes its time and energies to protecting wildlife and sensitive species habitats in the Kettle Range in Northeast Washington. Although forest collaboration is not specifically part of KRCG’s mission, the organization is a member of the collaborative Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. Mr. Coleman is an Iowa native, but he has lived in the West for some 30 years.

Before enlisting in the Navy, he studied electrical engineering at Lane Community College in Eugene, where he periodically attended Earth First meetings and was an active participant in anti-clearcutting protests in the North Santiam Canyon east of Salem, and the Bull Run Watershed southeast of Portland.

While in the Navy, he became friends with Mike Petersen, Executive Director of the Lands Council in Spokane. Both were cryptographers in Japan, and, as such, held Top Secret security clearances. Their friendship and shared love of hiking eventually led them to eastern Washington.

Today, Mr. Coleman and his wife live in the woods near Republic in a house they built themselves. To the surprise of many who know him to be a passionate and sometimes tense conservationist, he, purchased a band mill two years ago so that he could process small diameter trees he is thinning from forests on his property. He describes the work as “fun and good therapy.”

In this interview, he discusses his views on conservation, forest restoration, wilderness and the declining health of national forests east of the Cascades in Washington State.

Evergreen: Mr. Coleman, we’ve not met before, though others give you high marks for your conservation work. Tell us about yourself.

Coleman: I grew up in rural Iowa and graduated from Dowling High School, a Catholic college prep school in Des Moines in 1972. Then I headed west. My brother was a state trooper in Oregon, and I had visited him while on Navy leave. I fell in love with the Pacific Northwest, then I fell in love with a girl from Eugene. The rest is pretty much history.

Evergreen: During your Lane Community College years, were you active in the conservation community?

Coleman: I was – various local bike path projects, wilderness advocacy, land uses planning, national forest planning, Earth First events and protests against clear-cutting in the North Santiam Canyon and the Bull Run Watershed.

Evergreen: Those were heady and hectic days for all of us who were trying to influence the outcome of the federal forest planning process in western Oregon. We’ve advocated for active, science-based forest management for 30 years, but I don’t think we made much progress until the forest collaboratives began to gain some traction about two years ago.

Coleman: Knowing that you’ve interviewed Mike Petersen [Lands Council Executive Director] a couple of times, you know that none of us feels like we’ve made as much progress as we had hoped to make.

Evergreen: How do you measure progress within the Kettle Range Conservation Group?

Coleman: Species habitat conservation and more designated Wilderness acres are the two big goals.

Evergreen: How has the meaning of the word “conservation” changed in the years since you were at Lane Community College?

Coleman: We’ve transitioned from the conservation of single resources or species –  like the northern spotted owl – to the conservation of ecosystems.

Evergreen: So transitioning from trying to protect spotted owls and their habitat to the more broad-based conservation of old growth ecosystems by placing them in reserves where no management activity is permitted?

Coleman: That’s correct, though our group’s focus is more specific and more project oriented. Protecting wolves and their habitat is a major effort with us, as is more designated Wilderness in the Kettle Range here in Northeast Washington.

Evergreen: How does a young man from rural Iowa find his way to Republic, Washington?

Coleman: I drove through Republic on my way back to Portland after a mountain climbing journey in the Canadian Rockies. I liked the feel of Republic, and its close proximity to woods and solitude.

Evergreen: Did you start the Kettle Range Conservation Group?

Coleman: No, the group was formed in 1976 to advocate for Wilderness status for the Kettle River Range Mountains. I didn’t join until 1982. I became President in 1989, and then Executive Director in 1993, the year before we opened our office in Republic. Until ’94, we were an all-volunteer group.

Evergreen: So your group has been advocating for Wilderness status for the Kettle River Range Mountains for 40 years. That’s some determination.

Coleman: It is. Wilderness designation is still very controversial, but we have pretty much convinced the Forest Service not to construct roads into these unroaded and undeveloped areas,

Evergreen: You are a member of the collaborative Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and so is your group. Has your engagement been worthwhile?

Coleman: It has. Our missions are different, but that hasn’t been a problem. NEWFC is a collaborative group and we aren’t, but we have circles of overlapping interest including forest restoration, wildlands preservation, recreation and sustainable human communities.

Evergreen: NEWFC’s collaborative work has yielded 35 completed projects, which is quite an accomplishment, through our interviews with other NEWFC members suggests some frustration with the small size of projects and the fact that it takes a long time to navigate the Forest Service’s regulatory maze. Would you agree that the mere continuing existence of such a diverse group of stakeholders is its own success story?

Coleman: It is, though as you have learned from other members, the group is still trying to overcome bureaucratic problems that are not of its making. As to size, it is worth noting that designated  Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act projects span most of Ferry County.

Evergreen: What would you say are the keys to collaborative project success?

Coleman: As you have noted, NEWFC’s membership brings together some very diverse stakeholder interests, ranging from Wilderness designation to lumber production. Success has turned on our focus on common interests versus the varying official positions of our stakeholder groups. Building trust and necessary listening skills takes a long time given the quite different values held by our members.

Evergreen: What’s the hardest part?

Coleman: Unequal results. For example, streamlining the timber sale process versus inaction on the preservation side. Balance is a nice theme, but it does exist in reality.

Evergreen: Do you regard the Forest Service as an honest dealer?

Coleman: Depends on what you mean by honest. One on one, there is a high level of honesty. But the whole idea of managing for the greatest good – the Forest Service motto – that’s all a big time failure.

Evergreen: How so?

Coleman: Historically, much too much emphasis on timber production and too little emphasis on protecting and managing non-commodity aspects of our national forests. These forests belong to all Americans, not just those who have been economically dependent on timber production. We are in the mess we are in today partly because we didn’t pay attention to what the changing forest landscape was telling us.

Evergreen: We’d certainly agree with you as it concerns the failure to act on  early warnings by foresters who work working in the Inter-mountain region in the 1950s. Even then, they were urging a transition to selection harvesting and the use of prescribed fire to reduce the risks posed by larger, more infrequent wildfires that were the precursors to the horrific wildfire we are now witnessing – all of which leads to our next question. How would you rate the Vaagen’s as lumbermen operating in the current and often chaotic environment?

Coleman: Excellent small business, well managed with a successful and sustainable business model. Honest dealers and very progressive thinkers in terms of their investments in technologies that allow them to manufacture high quality wood products from small diameter trees – the trees on which forest collaborative groups are focused.

Evergreen: Is what we call “forest restoration:” even possible without wood processing infrastructure?

Coleman: Our region’s forests have survived through enormous change since the last glacial ice retreated about 10,000 years ago. So forests don’t need us for anything. But we need them for many things and many reasons. Wood processing infrastructure is vital to most of the rural west’s economy, but there is much more to forest restoration than just lumber and wood chips. To suggest otherwise is to say that wilderness cannot exist without human intervention, an argument frequently made by restoration’s opponents.

Evergreen: So you regard wood processing infrastructure as a tool, but not one that is essential to the survival of forests.

Coleman: The region’s forests will survive and evolve without human intervention. Infrastructure simply provides a means for offsetting some of the costs associated with repairing the damage done by earlier misguided forest management policies and practices, but there is a limit to how much a forest ecosystem can be taxed by such things as roads, clear-cutting, noxious weeds, cattle grazing, and the intentional exclusion of natural fire. The spread of highly flammable cheat grass across the landscape is a good example.

Evergreen: You have your own small band saw now, set in concrete on your property. You built a weather shed over it – with lumber you milled from logs you cut from your property – and you’ve build a lumber storage shed as well. Some might say this isn’t consistent with the Coleman image?

Coleman: They don’t know me as well as they think. I see value in milling wind-thrown and bug-killed trees from the forests where I live. Why make firewood when you can make higher value lumber, and why leave downed timber to rot when it can be put to good use?

Evergreen: So you’re not opposed to logging?

Coleman: Not as long as it is done appropriately and sustainably. As for me personally, I appreciate the value of appropriate micro-technologies and production methods, like our band mill, that can be efficiently used to make building materials.

Evergreen: Cross-laminated timbers [CLT] are currently all the rage in Seattle because they can be used to build taller wooden builders. A cynic might say that the city’s residents have just discovered wood, despite the fact that lumber manufacturing has been a major Puget Sound industry for more than 150 years. What do you make of this remarkable turn of events?

Coleman: CLT is more efficient and more environmentally friendly than concrete and steel. I say go for it. It’s appropriate technology with a smaller carbon footprint.

Evergreen: We like the fact that CLT can be manufactured from the very trees that we need to remove from overstocked national forests. Do you agree?

Coleman: “Overstocked” is a loaded term. I do agree that CLT and other wood products show a promising future wherever wood is sourced from, not just forests that end up holding too many trees because of misguided management policies and practices.

Evergreen: Your Kettle Range group is advocating for designating a new Wilderness area on the Colville National Forest. Tell us about your proposal and how we might help you with it?

Coleman: Wilderness management is often misrepresented by political interests, and even the Forest Service. The 1964 Wilderness Act says that Wilderness is “for the use and enjoyment of the American people … to provide for the protection of these areas [and] the preservation of their wilderness character.” It’s pretty altruistic stuff in our fast-paced modern-day world, but I will argue that it is needed now more than ever for the solitude and opportunity for self-discovery it provides.

Wilderness-suitable lands are fixed on the landscape by the official definition of being unroaded and undeveloped. Roughly 80 percent of the Colville National Forest is, by definition, not suitable for Wilderness designation because it is already easily accessed by roads. The majority of undeveloped roadless areas that are suitable for Wilderness designation are located in steep, rugged terrain in the Kettle River and Selkirk Mountains.

Critics say that Wilderness designation means no more use, no fishing, no berry picking, no hunting and no access. None of this is true. What is true is that forest management is not a permitted use. Nor is motorized travel. But those uses are permitted on the other 80 percent of the Colville. Our group advocates for official Wilderness designation of the 20 percent that meets the suitability criteria.

Evergreen: Pending the outcome of appeals, it looks to us like the A-to-Z forest restoration project, which is located only minutes from downtown Colville, will soon be approved by the Forest Service. Do you support it?

Coleman: I appreciate the effort and especially the challenges that Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company faced in funding the project’s environmental analysis. It has been a learning process for all of us who are members of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. I think this is the fourth project we’ve been involved in that has looked into ways to improve forest restoration efficiencies. The impact analysis work done by the Forest Service and, in the case of A-to-Z, Cramer Fish Sciences has been very good.

Evergreen: We’re starting to heave a bit about “equality of permanence,” a concept which, as we understand it, would mean that acres designated for active management would get a permanent and legal designation no different than a Wilderness designation. Is this your understanding and do you support the concept?

Coleman: Well, if anything in nature can be said to be permanent. There is certainly value in administrative zoning of forests management areas, be it lands designated for active management or areas managed to preserve wilderness characteristics until an official congressional designation can be made. I believe Duane Vaagen has said he would support a one-third, one-third, one-third zoning allocation on the Colville National Forest. That would be one-third reserved for active timber management, one third reserved for Wilderness and one third reserved for a light-on-the-land management approach.

Evergreen: We are also hearing more about the idea that arbitration ought to replace litigation. You bring your best idea for managing a particular area and we’ll bring ours and we’ll let a panel of arbitration judges decide whose idea is best. No more litigation. What are your thoughts?

Coleman: Arbitration is the latest neo liberal conservative strategy for speeding things up even when doing so will actually cause economic harm. Forced arbitration is the new legal strategy for every business from cell phone services to banks. It basically says that if you are harmed by your service provider, you and your provider must submit to an arbitration proceeding overseen by an independent third party judge who really isn’t independent at all because arbitration judges rely on business referrals for their livelihoods.

Evergreen: What you are suggesting is that selecting independent arbitrators is a practical impossibility.

Coleman:  It is my opinion that an arbitrator who rules in favor of the citizen won’t be in business very long because no business will hire him. So the deck is stacked against the citizen.

Evergreen: What if the arbitrators were paid by the federal government, not the business – and the business in this case is the U.S. Forest Service, which has prepared a management plan that sine citizen does not like?

Coleman: Arbitration sidesteps citizen rights to legal due process, and it preempts a more thorough legal analysis by judges that are elected by the citizens or selected by their elected representatives. Look at the results of appeals and litigation on the Colville National Forest over the last 14 years, and I think you will have to agree that the system of checks and balances has been well served without hurting our timber industry.

Evergreen: That has not been the case in western Montana.

Coleman: I don’t live in western Montana and can’t speak with any authority on what happens there.

Evergreen: Would it be a misrepresentation to say that you see the possibility that arbitration could actually upend collaboration?

Coleman: No misrepresentation at all. Conservationists who have joined collaboratives – and that includes me – fear that talk of arbitration could easily morph into talk about watering down the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the legal foundation on which all successful collaborations rest. You cannot saw this branch off the legal tree and expect that diverse forest stakeholder collaboratives built on trust and mutual respect will continue to prosper as citizen, project-based tools for resolving disagreements over how our national forests should be managed.

Evergreen: So how do we protect the years of work done by collaborative groups from litigators?

Coleman: We don’t. Their credibility in court rests on their own accumulating record of accomplishment and the citizen trust and good will their good work spawns. I’m no historian, but I think this has been pretty much the legacy of the American experience.