When we interviewed Governor Bullock, he went to great lengths to say that keeping Montana’s family owned wood manufacturing businesses in business is a key element of his “Montana Forests in Focus” initiative.

The Forest Service shares Governor Bullock’s concern and his goal. Minus the presence of local, competitive and sustainable larger timber manufacturing infrastructure, the kind of collaborative forest restoration work we all envision is not possible. We are basing this forest’s five-year planning revision on the Governor’s Priority Landscape project on this forest, which ought to tell you that we are serious about moving forward with it.”

Chris Savage, Forest Supervisor
Kootenai National Forest
Libby, Montana, February 5, 2016

Chris Savage is the Forest Supervisor on the 2.2 million acre Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana. Mr. Savage was appointed to his post in May of 2014 by then Regional Forester, Faye Krueger. A hydrologist by profession, Savage worked on four national forests – the Idaho Panhandle, the Tongass, the Boise and the Ashley – before being transferred to Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he served as the agency’s Assistant Director for Watershed, Fish and Aquatic Ecology Programs. In this capacity, he played a major role in developing a public-private partnership involving the Forest Service, the Missoula-based National Forest Foundation and Coca Cola. In this interview, Mr. Savage answers questions concerning the Kootenai’s long collaborative history and its surprising forest restoration possibilities…

Evergreen: Mr. Savage, You’ve landed a job on one of the prettiest but most complex and contentious national forests in the United States. How are you liking it?

Savage. So far, so good. I’ve been on the job here in Libby for almost two years, and I’m really enjoying it. We have a great staff, and we are privileged to live in a very nice community. It’s a lot different than Washington, D.C., I assure you.

Evergreen: Let’s get right to it. When former Regional Forester, Faye Krueger, hired you, she said that one of the things that drew her to you was your experience with forest collaboration and salmon habitat restoration on the Tongass National Forest’s Petersburg Ranger District. The Tongass has been a political lightning rod for years, much like the Kootenai. How do the two posts compare?

Savage: The Tongass is more than eight times the size of the Kootenai, so in that sense the two forests don’t compare at all. However, both forests do entail a lot of federal land within both county and borough boundaries. On the Tongass, we had almost 90 percent of the land ownership within the borough and here in Lincoln County it is close to 80 percent. I take that seriously because we need to have a strong collaborative effort with local governments, our public and our stakeholder groups because our decisions and actions can effect a lot of people.

Evergreen: Of the Kootenai’s 2.2 million acres, how much is off limits for reasons having to do with wilderness roadless designations or threatened and endangered species habitat.

Savage: About 40 percent is off limits, leaving about 1.4 million acres for forest restoration work of one kind or another.

Evergreen: We were very surprised to learn last week that the entire Kootenai National Forest was designated by Governor Steve Bullock as a Priority Landscape Area under the 2014 Farm Bill. That certainly gives you a large canvas on which to plan projects, doesn’t it.

Savage: It’s pretty exciting. I’m not sure there is any other such designation in the nation. I know there aren’t in Montana.

Evergreen: I can name several forest collaboratives in Idaho and northeast Washington that are limited to small acreage projects that would kill for such an enormous opportunity.

Savage: We’re very grateful for the opportunity to see what we can get done in concert with collaborative stakeholders here on the Kootenai.

Evergreen: How will you start?

Savage: First, we restructured our five-year vegetation management plan to look for additional opportunities, or where to incorporate the new Farm Bill authorities into some upcoming projects. Then we shared our plan with both industry leaders and our stakeholder coalition to solicit feedback and comment so that we can be successful in meeting the intent of the new authorities.

Evergreen: The project description in Governor Bullock’s Montana Forests in Focus information kit caught our eye. Allow us to read from it for your further comment. “The forest-wide environmental decision will help to support a 10-year consistent supply of timber. It will be additive to the forest’s existing program of work. Commercial products and non-saw products will be produced over the 10-year period.” Is this doable given all the habitat related regulations that are always on your plate?

Savage: We think so. Our focus is to start at 400,000 acres on previously harvested forestland. NEPA analysis began about a year ago. We expect to have a singed Record of decision by the end of this year. Bear in mind that these are acres for which we already have a good deal of documentation, so we don’t have to start from scratch with harvest layout, logging systems and road designs.

Evergreen: The Governor’s Forests in Focus Initiative contributed $100,000 to the completion of the new EIS. Did the Forest Service also commit money?

Savage: We did, about $125,000.

Evergreen: As we read from the Governor’s handbook, the primary goal here is to add long missing certainty to the Kootenai National Forest’s 10-year harvest schedule, and not simply to replace existing projects with new ones.

Savage: That is our goal.

Evergreen: Libby was once the lumber capital of Montana and home to the world’s largest lumber and plywood manufacturing complex. The last owner of what was left of that manufacturing complex was the Oregon-based Stimson Lumber Company. They shut down after their log supply agreement with Plum Creek Timber Company expired, in part because the Forest Service could not commit to the 14 million board feet of federal timber Stimson needed annually to continue operating here.  Now Libby, a town that had a continuously operating sawmill for more than a century, has almost nothing. How might your agreement with the State of Montana alter this playing field?

Savage: I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t tell you what might happen after our Record of Decision is final, but I can tell you that our goal is to get more work done on the ground on the designated 400,000 acres. We want to show that we have a NEPA decision that presents the opportunity for us to produce commercial and non-commercial products over a 10-year period. How much of each I cannot say until we have a signed Record of Decision.

Evergreen: We would expect that existing mills within economic hauling distance would add processing capacity long before someone would actually build a new mill. Would you agree?

Savage: Opinions are mixed as to whether Libby could support another mill. It’s revealing that back in the 1980s, when this forest was producing 200 million board feet a year, no one seemed interested in building a new mill. Everyone agrees that we need to find new markets for our non-saw log production. Niche market manufacturers that can use our Port Authority. The two we have seem to do well. And frankly, this potential was a big motivator for us to complete our Young Growth EIS.

Evergreen: When we interviewed Governor Bullock, he went to great lengths to say that keeping Montana’s family owned wood manufacturing businesses in business is a key element of his Montana Forests in Focus initiative.

Savage: The Forest Service shares Governor Bullock’s concern and his goal. Minus the presence of local, competitive and sustainable larger timber manufacturing infrastructure, the kind of collaborative forest restoration work we all envision is not possible. We are basing this forest’s five-year planning revision on the Governor’s Priority Landscape project on this forest, which ought to tell you that we are serious about moving forward with it.

Evergreen: We’ve been fly-fishing the Kootenai River for 30 years, so we have a good grounding in the social, cultural, environmental and economic connections between the Kootenai National Forest and its numerous stakeholders and stakeholder communities. With so many diverse interest groups, you have a very full plate and a great opportunity to address some very diverse stakeholder goals.

Savage: We do for sure. Our all-volunteer collaborative has repeatedly impressed me with its work ethic and its willingness to think creatively. They recently completed a very solid set of silvicultural guidelines for us. Really good stuff that we’re syncing with our own regulatory guidance. We’re 85 percent there. This is where the real work gets done on the ground.

Evergreen: Those who continue to toil in the collaborative trenches in northwest Montana spent years getting to where they are today. You are the benefactor of many less than successful attempts to make headway. We’d speculate that they would be much further ahead today had Congress taken notice of their tireless work.

Savage: I know some of the history you reference. My staff and I are very grateful for their diligence and patience. From my own experience, I know that collaboration isn’t always easy. There are setbacks, but I think we are on the right path here.

Evergreen: Adequate staff and funding are perennial reality checks where collaboration and on the ground success are concerned. How are you doing staff and funding-wise?

Savage: Fire borrowing is a big problem for us, as it is for every national forest in the west. Taking money out of our administrative and forest restoration budgets in order to pay the fire bills cost this forest $600,000 in 2015.

Evergreen: Meaning that $600,000 in restoration-related contracts had to be terminated because the money was transferred to the fire budget?

Savage: That’s correct. These were contracts that most likely would have gone to local or regional contractors. One was a $250,000 watershed restoration thinning contract that had been let locally. But the larger picture is that fire borrowing has forced us to reduce our non-fire staff by 30 percent over the last 10 years. It’s counterproductive given our preventive forest restoration goals.

Evergreen: Fire borrowing would explain the disparity between your 80 million board foot annual sale quantity in your new forest plan and the 40-45 million board feet that you are actually able to produce from a forest that grows, what, 250 million board feet annually? You simply don’t have the time, staff or budget to handle your normal workload.

Savage: It would explain the difference.

Evergreen: Years ago, one of Region 1’s old fire bosses told us it is a lot easier and less expensive to thin overstocked forests before they burn than it is to pick up the pieces after a fire.

Savage: He was right.

Evergreen: We heard somewhere a few years back that more timber dies annually on the Kootenai National Forest than is needed to supply the annual needs of every family-owned mill in Montana.

Savage: I doubt it. The Kootenai has very good soils and gets more rainfall that the rest of Montana’s national forests. My sense is that we are more like the Idaho Panhandle National Forest than we are any of the more drought stressed national forest in Montana.

Evergreen: We recently asked a colleague who works in the regional office in Missoula if he could estimate the number of acres in Region 1 that are well-roaded that might fall under the watchful eye of collaborators advocating for forest restoration projects.

Savage: What is your criteria?

Evergreen: Very straightforward: Less than a 40 percent slope, minimizing the possibility of erosion, and acres first harvested after 1970, the year the National Environmental Policy Act was ratified, insuring that the area harvested has already gone through the NEPA approval process at least once. To our great surprise, about one million acres in the Northern Region met our criteria. Do you think this estimate is accurate, or even close?

Savage: Based on my years in the region, I would have guessed that the estimate would be even higher.

Evergreen: From what we know, the average logger with mechanical harvesting equipment can thin about 500 acres annually. Hypothetically, if you were going to do all of this forest restoration work in Region 1 in one year – which is impossible – you would need 2,000 small logging contractors working. Yet there are not 200 such contractors in northern Idaho and western Montana. How do we do this?

Savage: Given our longer and more expensive wildfire seasons and the rapid decline we are observing in some stands, we probably won’t be able to treat all of the acres before they die or burn, or both, but we need to give it our best shot.