Embracing Forest Collaboration: Bruce And Chas Vincent
In this interview, Bruce and Chas Vincent discusses the family's generational commitment to forest collaboration.
15 MINUTE READ
Chas Vincent: If there are no capital investments in wood processing, the years of hard work our collaborative’s have invested in forest restoration planning and sustainability will be lost. Without injunctive relief, there can be no certainty in our active management plans.
Bruce Vincent: “The Forest Service’s sole management objective on the Kootenai National Forest over the last 25 years has been to avoid losing court battles to serial litigators who oppose management in any form. We are losing our forest as a direct result of management inaction.
Litigation is not a management strategy. It is a prescription for environmental disaster, which is what we are courting in every national forest in the western United States, including the Kootenai.
If the Forest Service’s management goals and our collaborative conclusions are paralyzed by litigants and the courts, the concerned public has a right to ask: ‘Who is empowered to care for our forests?’ From where we sit on the Kootenai, the unfortunate answer is, ‘No one.’
This leads to a second and still unanswered question: ‘How do we empower our local resolution process?’ We’ve been collaborating locally – and pretty successfully - on the Kootenai National Forest for 25 years with very little to show for thousands of hours of hard work.”
“I am afriad that until we get injunctive relief from serial litigators, and political relief from the Washington D.C. groups that oppose local and regional collaboratives - for fear of losing their own power - we who live in these forests are nowhere, the Forest Service is nowhere and our forests will continue to die and burn in larger and more destructive forest fires.”
Bruce Vincent, Founder - Provider Pals President - Communities for a Great Northwest Evergreen Foundation - Secretary/Treasurer Libby, Montana
Chas Vincent Montana State Senator [District 1]
Bruce Vincent is one of the nation’s most sought-after motivational speakers. He is the son and grandson of loggers, the founder of Provider Pals, the most successful teen cultural exchange program ever devised and the recipient of the inaugural Presidential Preserve America Award, presented to him by President George W. Bush and First Lady, Laura Bush, in 2004.
Mr. Vincent is co-founder of Communities for a Great Northwest, one of the earliest forest collaborative groups formed in the nation. He is also a partner in Environomics, a consulting firm he co-founded with Tammy Johnson in 1992. He is a long time member of the Evergreen Foundation Board of Directors, and holds degrees in Civil Engineering and Business from Gonzaga University.
Chas Vincent, Bruce Vincent’s eldest son, is a Montana State Senator [District 1] and an Environomics Associate. He is also involved in Provider Pals. Chas attended Oregon State University - College of Forestry, and holds degrees in Political Science and Communications from the University of Montana.
We are interviewing Bruce Vincent and his son Chas, together to illustrate the family’s generational commitment to forest collaboration and, in their words, ‘injunctive relief’ from serial litigators who continue to kill science-based forest restoration projects developed by the Forest Service and collaborative groups throughout the western United States.
Evergreen: Mr. Vincent, if memory serves us correctly, we met you in the spring of 1988, about the time you were forming Communities for a Great Northwest, which we are told, was one of the first forest collaborative groups formed in the western United States.
Bruce Vincent: That would be about right, but we didn’t call them collaboratives then, and CGNW was the third group we helped start, not the first.
Evergreen: What were the first two groups?
Bruce Vincent: In 1987, we formed the Coalition for Balanced Environmental Planning and the Grizzly Bear Community Involvement Team, both here in Libby.
Evergreen: But these groups weren’t like the forest collaboratives we see in the West today?
Bruce Vincent: They were the same in the sense that we sought membership among stakeholders representing the widest possible sets of values in our northwest Montana communities, but I think it was former Forest Service Chief, Dale Bosworth, who was our Northern Region Regional Forester from 1997 to 2001, who first used the word ‘collaborate’ to describe what we were doing.
Evergreen: And what were you doing?
Bruce Vincent: I’ve often called them “tabletop sessions.” It’s the same drill you see in all successful collaboratives. You do a lot of sitting and listening and head scratching. You swap ideas and you share your values and beliefs with others at the table. Eventually, you are able to reduce your ideas to paper, and so you produce lots of vision documents that describe consensus – your shared goals and objectives for your forest, in our case, the Kootenai.
One of our collaboratives even produced a vision document for the 1993 Clinton Forest Summit. It took us nine months of sitting around a table, but we got it done and it was endorsed by more than 500,000 people who signed petitions supporting what we’d done.
Evergreen: We still have the videos from the 1993 summit. You no doubt know that the 1994 Clinton Forest Plan has never been implemented, and now it’s up for review and revision.
Bruce Vincent: It would be good to see some local forest collaboratives get invited to the table to help sort through the management options that will be considered.
Evergreen: Speaking of local collaboratives how many have you helped start in northwest Montana?
Bruce Vincent: I think over a dozen, but I’d have to check to be sure.
Evergreen: Why so many?
Bruce Vincent: The different groups were responses to different problems we were facing on the Kootenai National Forest. We have sought solutions to management problems associated with more threatened and endangered species than occur on most national forests, most notably grizzly bears, bull trout and, most recently, the Canadian lynx.
Evergreen: With respect to grizzlies, lynx and trout, you are thus required to deal with multiple federal resource management agencies and conflicting regulations, all tied to the federal Endangered Species Act, the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Bruce Vincent: That’s correct, and it is why I believe that the final solution on the Kootenai National Forest may rest in a set of principles and forest management guidelines that our newest collaborative has developed. The hope is that these principles and guidelines will yield congressional support and approval for the injunctive relief we need to move forward with a series of restoration projects.
Evergreen: What’s the name of your newest group?
Bruce Vincent: The Common Ground Committee. It’s actually a sub-group of several earlier collaboratives whose members are still active and looking for innovative ways to empower collaborative results. It’s black box stuff having to do with identifying areas that can be reserved for active forest management with specific guidelines and motorized recreation opportunities, and areas that should be officially designated as wilderness with a capital “W.”
Evergreen: Sounds like the same idea that the collaboratives in Idaho and northeast Washington are trying to advance.
Bruce Vincent: It is, but our threatened and endangered species designations make the Kootenai National Forest a far more complex and controversial forest than either the Colville or Idaho Panhandle National Forests. This is why we are the biggest targets for the Wild West Institute, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Evergreen: Serial litigants?
Bruce Vincent: That’s certainly the case with the Wild West Institute and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, but I am told that the Center for Biological Diversity is doing some collaborating in the Southwest. That’s a good thing, but we have been unsuccessful in getting groups to join our collaborative if their business models are based on litigation and collecting taxpayer-paid fees from the Forest Service. What they collect from Kootenai litigation comes right out of the Kootenai National Forest’s annual budget. So we are crippled twice – a lost project and lost dollars for future projects.
Evergreen: Give us some sense for stakeholder diversity in your collaboratives. It’s hard to believe there could be much difference of opinion in an area that is as timber dependent as northwest Montana.
Bruce Vincent: You would be surprised at the diversity of opinion found in our rural communities. Mike Petersen, who you’ve interviewed twice, represents the Lands Council in our group. The Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, who you have also interviewed, are members. So is the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which advocates for wilderness and grizzly bear habitat enhancement. And so is Headwaters Montana, which advocates for wilderness, as does the Cabinet Resource Group.
Evergreen: It sounds like you have your conservation bases pretty well covered.
Bruce Vincent: We think so, but that hasn’t prevented serial litigants from appealing restoration projects the Forest Service proposes for the Kootenai. We have one of the best NEPA teams in the entire Forest Service stationed here, but decisions regarding management of the Kootenai National Forest are still made by Ninth Circuit Court judges in San Francisco.
We have proven time and again that we can find local resolution to our issues, but time and again our voice in the discussion about the future of the Kootenai National Forest has been trumped by distant litigants. This is very frustrating given the fact that we are the ones who live and work here, and we are the ones who are suffering the consequences of a rapidly deteriorating forest that is losing its capacity to provide habitat for many species.
Evergreen: Chas, Tell us about the overarching guidelines and forest management principles your collaborative has developed. We get the impression that you see these as a hopeful sign.
Chas Vincent: We do see reason for hope. The Common Ground Committee, which Dad referenced, is actually a sub-committee of our Kootenai Forest Stakeholder Coalition, which was formed after we lost the last two sawmills we had in Lincoln County. Now our closest wood processors are in Bonners Ferry, Idaho and Columbia Falls, Montana.
Evergreen: Am I correct in my recollection that Libby once had one of the largest sawmill and plywood manufacturing complexes in the world?
Chas Vincent: It did. The old J. Neils Lumber Company, which came here from Minnesota in 1914, sold to St. Regis Paper Company in the 1950s; St. Regis then merged with Champion International in 1984; then Champion sold to Plum Creek in 1993; Plum Creek kept the Champion lands – some 200,000 acres – but sold the mills to the Stimson Lumber Company, which shut down everything here in 2002. Now we have nothing to show for a century of sustainable forestry except the old mill site. It’s amazing to think that Lincoln County once boasted the highest paying jobs in Montana. Now we’re at the bottom.
Evergreen: What happened?
Chas Vincent: Stimson had a 10-year wood supply agreement with Plum Creek. When the agreement expired, the Forest Service was unable to come up with enough annual sale volume to keep the mill here in Libby in business, so Stimson shut it down. The whole community worked its tail off looking for enough volume to keep the mill open.
Evergreen: How much volume was needed to keep Stimson from leaving?
Chas Vincent: We closed the supply gap to about 14 million board feet, but that was as close as we got. You probably already know that enough timber dies on the Kootenai National Forest every year to supply the log needs of all of Montana’s family-owned sawmills, including the old Stimson mill.
Evergreen: We know. Were your collaborators also helping with the Stimson situation?
Chas Vincent: They were all on board. If you don’t have viable markets for timber that forest restoration project yield, you have no way of proceeding. The death knell came when Owens and Hurst shut down its mill at Eureka. That was our last close-in mill and it was perfectly configured for the small diameter trees that our restoration projects produce.
Evergreen: Where are your closest mills now?
Chas Vincent: Bonners Ferry, Idaho, which is 52 miles west of Libby and Columbia Falls, Montana, which is about 105 miles southeast of here. Distance is a killer when you are moving small, low value logs. What we need is another sawmill in Libby, but we aren’t going to get one as long as the Kootenai National Forest is managed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Evergreen: Tell us about the guidelines and management principles Common Ground has developed.
Chas Vincent: Our guidelines and principles are all based on ecosystem management practices that restore natural resiliency in forests. Dr. Chad Oliver, who is the director of Yale University’s Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry, first described the principles and practices we have embraced when he was at the University of Washington, maybe 20 years ago. Our goal is to increase biological diversity by altering structural diversity in ways that create habitat niches for early seral species – songbirds, deer, elk, rodents and sun loving plant and tree species that have lost their places in our forest.
Evergreen: You describe a problem we are seeing all over the West, the downstream result of forest canopy closure, and the need for disturbance – natural or human – that creates openings in which early seral species can again prosper.
Chas Vincent: That’s pretty much it – except that we have so much dead and dying timber on the Kootenai that prescribed fire can’t be safely applied without first thinning our overstocked stands.
Evergreen: And any wildfires you experience will be difficult to stop. We drove up to Yaak, Montana about a month ago – my first trip there in nearly 30 years – and I was stunned by the growth. There are walls of trees where there were once beautiful valley views.
Bruce Vincent: We live in fear of a wildfire large enough to wipe out Libby. It nearly happened in the early 1990s. The Forest Service was so certain our town would burn that it brought in fire trucks from Ohio on the Burlington Northern Railroad, and National Guard troops were deployed to help evacuate our citizens.
Evergreen: And now something like half the Forest Service’s annual budget is diverted to fighting wildfires. Tough to find the money for forest restoration when all you are doing is chasing wildfires.
Bruce Vincent: It’s impossible. The nation needs to handle wildfire budgeting and response the same way that it handles hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and tornadoes. Firefighting costs should not be subtracted from the Forest Service’s management and restoration budgets.
Evergreen: Chas, do Common Ground’s principles and guidelines also discuss official wilderness designation?
Chas Vincent: We support all forms of recreation, including Wilderness. The Kootenai is a 2.2 million acre national forest. There are enough acres here to accommodate every value and desire. That’s never been an issue here. As Dad said, the issue here is who is empowered to care for our forest, and the answer at the moment is no one.
The Kootenai National Forest has a great silviculture-NEPA team, but they spend most of their time preparing for the lawsuits they know are coming, which leaves little time for field work on landscapes that urgently need attention.
When it comes to winning lawsuits, our silviculture-NEPA team is also the most successful such team in the Region, so it’s the amount and pace of litigation, compounded by Forest Service budget uncertainty, that prevents the Kootenai National Forest from getting the care it needs.
Evergreen: And presumably your collaborative groups agree that these treatments are needed to increase biological diversity.
Chas Vincent: That’s correct. Our guidelines and principles enumerate a set of desired future conditions, including increasing amounts of old growth, that are not possible unless we are allowed to identify some high priority areas in which different stand level treatments can be applied. No species on the Kootenai will benefit in the long term if we stand idly by and watch this forest continue to fall apart.
We have three habitat types here: warm/dry forests, mesic or warm/moist forests and subalpine forests. Each one of these needs a different approach, which is why it is so important for Congress to bless the injunctive relief Dad references. We need the freedom and the time to design, implement and monitor large scale projects in each of these habitat types.
Evergreen: And if Congress does not see fit to grant what you say you need?
Chas Vincent: Then we will lose much of the Kootenai as we currently know it, as well as the opportunity to manage if for all of the values it affords. Nature doesn’t care about human need, or the lynx, or bull trout or grizzly bears. We either manage this forest for the things we want and need, or we lose them.
Evergreen: So is the public going to see a bunch of checkerboarded clearcuts on the Kootenai.
Chas Vincent: Not if our group’s principles and guidelines are followed. We envision regeneration units 10-15 acres in size that conform to the landscape and historic wildfire patterns. No squares or rectangles. The harvest units would also be scattered in irregular patterns across the landscape, again to mimic historic wildfire patterns, which means we’ll retain an average of 30 percent of the trees in every regeneration unit. You’ll also see us retain or create snags for cavity nesting birds and mammals.
Evergreen: Your guidelines reference restoring western white pine and whitebark pine. Idaho’s collaboratives share this goal with you.
Chas Vincent: Both whitebark and western white pine are keystone species in our part of the world, meaning that many other species depend on their presence. Fire exclusion, blister rust and mountain pine beetles have devastated the two pines, but they fit very nicely in our climate change scenario, so we hope to use prescribed fire and thinning to create openings in which whitebark and western white pine can again thrive.
Evergreen: How about old growth retention – always a hot button with conservationists?
Chas Vincent: We don’t envision harvesting any old growth, though from time to time, it will be necessary to remove diseased trees and increase opportunities for natural regeneration. Elsewhere, we expect to retain 100 to 300-acre stands of trees that will eventually display all of the structural and biological features of classic old growth forests.
Evergreen: Can your collaborative’s plans be implemented if you aren’t able to recruit a mill to the Libby area that can create viable product markets for Kootenai timber?
Chas Vincent: A look at Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming will tell you that it is not possible to sustain a long-term forest restoration project if you don’t have a close, well-established primary breakdown mill that can process logs and wood byproducts. The other mills in the vicinity of the Kootenai National Forest play - and will continue to play - a key role in helping manage the Kootenai, but to insure our long term success, we need a mill here.
Evergreen: That has been our experience in our travels throughout the West over the last 30 years. And there will be no mill here until you have certainty of supply.
Chas Vincent: As Dad and I have both said, our collaborative needs injunctive relief.
Evergreen: What sort of annual timber harvest can you sustain here under the guidelines and principles your collaborative group has laid out?
Chas Vincent: Depending on the Forest Service’s annual budget, somewhere between 70 and 90 million board feet annually. That would bring us a nice-size family mill. Counting loggers, truck drivers, millworkers and retail employees, probably 300-400 jobs a year that we don’t have now.
Evergreen: Jobs restoring a forest that is in big trouble.
Chas Vincent: It is what keeps our collaborative together.
Evergreen: Gentlemen, what is the take home message here?
Bruce Vincent: The Forest Service’s sole management objective on the Kootenai National Forest over the last 25 years has been to avoid losing court battles to serial litigators who oppose management in any form. We are losing our forest as a direct result of management inaction.
‘Stop doing that’ has been the litigants’ mantra for 30 years. It is not a management strategy. It is a prescription for environmental disaster, which is what we are courting in every national forest in the western United States, including the Kootenai.
If the Forest Service’s management goals and our collaborative conclusions are paralyzed by litigants and the courts, the concerned public has a right to ask the question we have posed in this interview; and the question is: ‘Who is empowered to care for our forests?’ From where we sit on the Kootenai, the unfortunate answer is, ‘No one.’
This leads to a second unanswered question, which is ‘How do we empower our local resolution process? We’ve been collaborating locally – and pretty successfully - on the Kootenai National Forest for 25 years with very little to show for thousands of hours of hard work.
I am afraid that until we get injunctive relief from serial litigators, and political relief from the Washington D.C. groups that oppose local and regional collaboratives - for fear of losing their own power - we who live in these forests are nowhere, the Forest Service is nowhere and our forests will continue to die and burn in larger and more destructive forest fires.
Chas Vincent: Dad is right. Without injunctive relief, there can be no certainty in our active management plans, no logs as byproducts of those plans, and no investments in new wood processing facilities.
If there no capital investments in wood processing, the years of hard work our collaborative’s have invested in forest restoration planning and sustainability will be lost.