Forest Collaboration & Climate Change: Jim Doran
In this interview, Jim Doran discusses the potential of forest collaboration in combating climate change.
17 MINUTE READ
“No one – with the possible exception of Evergreen Magazine - has told the 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 hope to create the 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.”
Jim Doran, environmental lawyer, forest activist, former mayor of Twisp, Washington, co-founder of the Colville Community Forestry Coalition, now the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition; Bellingham, Washington
Jim Doran is a renaissance man for sure. Lawyer, hunter, writer 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. We have been corresponding with Mr. Doran via email for at least 10 years, but we had never met face to face until lumberman, Duane Vaagen, invited us to sit down in his Colville, Washington 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: Mr. Doran, tell us a bit about your life in the conservationist community. What drew you to its values as opposed to those of lumbermen who also consider themselves to be conservationists?
Doran: I’m not certain the conservationist label fits me, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. When I was mayor of Twisp, a small town in central Washington’s Methow Valley, speculative developers unveiled their plans for large ski and golf resort at Early Winters. I had been to Aspen and Jackson Hole, and had seen what happens to small towns when affluence displaces the locals. The likely destruction of our small community and its friendly attitude was enough to get me involved with the Methow Valley Citizen’s Council, which opposed the size of the Early Winters proposal. We were successful.
Shortly after the Early Winters success, the Tyee Fire burned 350,000 acres above Lake Chelan. But several hundred acres adjacent didn’t burn, and I started asking why. The answer was because those forested acres had been thinned.
Evergreen: We have been big thinning advocates for nearly 30 years.
Doran: And that is what led me to my earliest contacts with you. A light went on in my head following the Tyee Fire. In my mind’s eye, I could see forests that had been thinned, and were more resistant to fire, and I could see thousands of men and women doing good work in the woods. There remains a huge and urgent need to thin overstocked forests that are succumbing to insects, diseases and fire.
Evergreen: And you have since been on the front lines in the development of at least two forest collaboratives that we know about.
Doran: With the occasional hiatus, that’s true. The focal points of my work have been in forest restoration and fuels reduction. I can speak “environmental” and I can speak “logger.” The two languages are very similar in surprising ways.
Evergreen: What did you mean when you said the conservationist label fit you very well?
Doran: The term implies a lot of values and assumptions that don’t hold true with me. Being what I would call a “true conservationist” begins when you fall in love with a place. You can’t really do this if you live in a distance city. I think that people who actually live and work in a place they love make the best decisions where land and place are concerned.
Evergreen: By this you mean that people living in a particular community– the locals if you will – are better able to balance environmental and economic considerations than people who don’t live there.
Doran: That’s correct. We have the most at stake, and we have local knowledge, which is a vastly underrated asset when it comes to making difficult choices about how land should be protected and managed for future generations. The collaboratives you reference are actually in the business of building new value systems that facilitate decision making based on local knowledge, science and forestry methods that help reduce the risk of stand-replacing wildfires.
Evergreen: You are a lawyer by profession. Was there a time when you were appealing or litigating Forest Service projects and, if yes, on what basis?
Doran: I have not been involved directly with suing the Forest Service or any other agencies. My approach has been more of a mediator and facilitator to solve the problem rather than litigate the issues. Again, collaboration.
Evergreen: You’re considered a pioneer in forest collaboration in the Pacific Northwest. Tells us what attracted you to it – and why you found the concept to be something worth pursuing.
Jim Doran: As the mayor of Twisp, it was my job to “take care of the town”. I was involved in economic development and several other community efforts to bring living wages to our region. The economic, social and environmental benefits that flow from forest thinning, restoration and wood processing are easily quantified.
Evergreen: Yet another point we have made again and again.
Doran: You have indeed, but these benefits are best understood by those who experience them. My “ah ha” moment came when I realized that we had to work collaboratively on the issues that are preventing federal land management agencies from moving forward with the thinning and forest restoration work that needs doing. It is a very compelling story once you grasp its significance. People really like the idea of restoring forests and creating good jobs while doing it. But to be successful you have to have wood processing facilities – mills – that can handle small diameter trees. Without these mills, forest restoration is not possible.
Evergreen: Would we be correct in assuming that you see forest collaboration as a more productive option than litigation and, if yes, why?
Doran: Yes, absolutely. Litigation is expensive, time consuming and always less than satisfactory to the clients. Even so, I will confess that I recently considered suing the Forest Service for negligent resource management, but my better angels prevailed and I’ve decided to jump to the obvious answer and see if we can’t get more action out of the federal government on the forest restoration front. We shall see. We shall see.
Evergreen: Duane Vaagen, who we interviewed recently, holds you in high regard. What were the circumstances of your first meeting with him?
Doran: I was funded through a grant to produce the “Small Diameter Wood Initiative” in 1999. We did a wonderful job of getting the community involved. Environmentalists and loggers sat down at the same table in the same room at the same time for the first time in 40 years.
Evergreen: What made your effort to find peace different from other failed efforts?
Doran: I insisted that we focus on what would be good for forests, not what would be good for your very different political positions.
Evergreen: And the result?
Doran: We published a report summarizing our findings and recommendations and I mailed a copy of the report to Duane, who I had never met.
Evergreen: Why Mr. Vaagen?
Doran: Because the Vaagen Brothers mill at Colville was the only mill around that I knew was capable of handling small diameter trees that needed to be removed from our local forests. They were a natural fit in our plans.
Evergreen: What was Mr. Vaagen’s reaction?
Doran: He invited me to visit his mill, which is its own dazzling experience if you’ve never been inside a mill that processes trees no bigger around than your forearm.
Evergreen: What year was this?
Doran: 2000. Shortly thereafter, and with Duane’s support and encouragement, we formed up the Colville Community Forestry Coalition, which was later renamed the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. The coalition has several very successful projects under its belt. Getting work done on the ground is a very satisfying experience.
Evergreen: Do you consider getting to know Mr. Vaagen to be a watershed moment in your life as a conservationist?
Doran: Well, again, I don’t consider myself a conservationist because I don’t like the labels. But, yes, meeting Duane and working with him has been a watershed moment in my life. In my opinion, we have created the most successful problem solving coalition in the nation.
Evergreen: How so?
Doran: We created a model for addressing on-the-ground forest restoration on public lands. I did most of the legwork, but Duane gets all of the credit for giving me the opportunity to accomplish something very significant with a very interesting group of loggers and environmentalists and interested citizens. I went on to form two other forestry coalitions, so again, yes, the formation of the Colville collaboration was a watershed moment. We proved what was possible by replicating our success on the Colville. The coalition is still producing great results.
Evergreen: So what you saw in your mind’s eye following the Tyee Fire turned out to be much more than the wild imaginings of a small town mayor.
Doran: I suppose so, but it never would have happened without Duane’s energy and influence.
Evergreen: Did getting to know Mr. Vaagen – exchanging ideas with him and touring his sawmilling complex at Colville, Washington – give you what you needed to really sink your teeth into forest collaboration and restoration work?
Doran: The proximity of a small diameter sawmill is key to successful forest restoration work. The Vaagen Brothers mill uses only small trees that are by-products of forest restoration and fuels reduction work. They are the good guys. The mill continues to give collaborators the ability to create projects that yield lumber and value added products made from small diameter trees. Without the mill, the financial equation doesn’t work, meaning the taxpayers are stuck with a bill they can’t afford to pay.
Evergreen: Lumbermen have been telling us for years that they will only make the necessary capital investments in small diameter wood processing technologies if the log supply is certain, meaning it is not continually disrupted by litigants.
Doran: The “reliable supply” component became one of the critical goals of the forest coalition. In the early going, the question we asked ourselves was, “Why isn’t there a reliable supply of material for the mill?” And the answer is that the deadlock between the environmentalists and lumbermen and the Forest Service was undermining the restoration work that needed to get done.
Evergreen: Having discovered the obvious, what did you do?
Doran: We convened the most diverse group of stakeholders we could assemble and went to work on a strategy for breaking the deadlock. At its core, this is – as you have said many times - a simple story. Thinning in overstocked forests enhances ecological values and provides good jobs in the process which supports an economically viable community. Duane was already committed to this paradigm when we met. His commitment to this new vision is what impressed me the most about him. It has given me the confidence that we can continue to design forest restoration projects that minimize the threat of appeals and litigation.
Evergreen: Somewhere in the course of you getting to know Mr. Vaagen, he asked you to help him set up the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. Did you sense that he was trying to ride on your conservationist coattails, or was he serious about setting up a real collaborative?
Doran: I don’t think Duane knew much about me before he read the Small Diameter Wood Initiative Report. I was the mayor of Twisp then, so I had some credibility in the political world. I had also been involved with the environmental community, so I was able to bridge the gap between factions. I think he appreciated that. He was serious about forest collaboration then, and he is still serious about it. Ours was a symbiotic relationship from the beginning.
Evergreen: Did you have free rein in your work or did Mr. Vaagen guide your work?
Doran: Duane agreed with the principles of the proposal to create the Coalition and sent a few of his employees to the meetings, but he did not steer the project. I brought the concepts to the initial participants and then it developed as a group effort with my help as facilitator.
Evergreen: What was the reaction among your fellow conservationist when they learned you were working with Mr. Vaagen in developing the Northeast Washington collaborative?
Doran: They were very glad to hear of the proposal because the environmentalists were invited in to participate. That had not happened before. There was some suspicion of the “mill owner” at first but once people started working together that faded away.
Evergreen: What were your goals and objectives?
Doran: The group has a set of goals and objectives that I cannot recite off hand. However, the basic goal was to get actual acres treated for forest health and fuels reduction with the by-product (the small trees) used by the mill to add value to the projects.
Evergreen: Would you judge the collaborative to be a success?
Doran: Absolutely. More than 30 projects have been done through the collaborative process and over 200,000 project acres treated. There is no question about it; this coalition has been the most successful in the country.
Evergreen: What separates success from failure in establishing and operating a forest collaborative?
Doran: Openness and honesty is the key. If any of the participants plays games with the process, it will collapse. I have seen it happen. All of the participants have to be genuinely interested in problem solving. We “front-loaded” the group in Colville with those kinds of individuals.
Evergreen: Have you been involved in the formation of other collaboratives?
Doran: Yes. I worked with some folks to form up the Idaho Panhandle Forest Coalition and also the Payette Forest Coalition.
Evergreen: Same basic goals and objectives?
Doran: Yes. In fact, when they heard of the successes of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, they we eager to follow the same process.
Evergreen: You suffered quite a personal loss this summer in one of Washington State’s largest wildfires, all of it chronicled in a lively exchange on our website. Tell us about your loss and how you intend to put the pieces of your ranch back together again.
Doran: We were fortunate that the wind changed directions before the major forest stands on the ranch burned. We lost some trees but it was mostly a sage brush and bunch grass fire. We were lucky. We do have some erosion issues that need to be addressed and a lot of fence building to do. We will have limited grazing on about half of the ranch so that will impact the management. We’re not sure just how well the recovery of the brush and grass will go because it was a pretty intense fire.
Evergreen: Wasn’t this wildfire in an area where a forest collaborative had previously developed a project?
Doran: Two years ago the fires burnt thousands of acres that had been part of a collaborative effort fourteen years ago but that the Forest Service never got around to actually implementing. I bit my tongue for a year. When the ranch burnt this year it was too much for me to ignore and I decided to get back into the forest restoration story again.
Evergreen: Do you believe the Forest Service is serious about helping forest collaboratives or simply paying lip service for political purposes?
Doran: That’s a good question. I think it depends on which Forest Service personnel we work with. My experience is that if the Forest Supervisor supports the collaboration, then it can be very successful. By and large there is a certain level of bureaucracy in the Forest Service that is very hard to deal with.
Evergreen: Every collaborator we’ve interviewed since last April expresses frustration with the slowness of the process and the minimal size of available projects. Do you share their frustration?
Doran: Yes, to some degree. You have to remember that we came out of the “timber wars” by using this collaborative process. It can take years, for the participants to come to trust each other, but once trust is in place, it doesn’t take as long to develop good projects.
Evergreen: To say nothing of the inherent problems the Forest Service brings to the table.
Doran: That’s true. A lot of the delay is caused by the Forest Service’s inability to direct their attention and personnel and funding to the process. Also, Forest Service personnel get distracted by the wild fires each year and that disrupts the collaboration process. I have seen collaborated projects get delayed for years, only to subsequently burn before thinning work can begin. The problem is always explained as a lack of Forest Service funding and a lack of personnel to get the permitting and planning done.
Evergreen: How do collaborative groups get over this hump?
Doran: There is no getting around the “trust building” that comes through authentic collaboration. The time spent on that pays dividends later as more and more projects go through the collaboration process.
Evergreen: But there are still capacity and funding problems inside the Forest Service.
Doran: Right you are, but some interesting solutions are being tested, one being the “A to Z Project” in an overstocked and well roaded area on the Colville National Forest about 12 miles from Colville. With the Forest Service’s blessing, Duane funded the planning and permitting work, which was completed by a private consultant. Although the process was very transparent – with no input from Duane - it caused a lot of heartburn among a few litigants, but I’m sure it will all work out as planned.
Evergreen: Do you think the A to Z idea has legs?
Doran: I do, though I would hope that the public at large will become the primary funders, not lumbermen like Duane. I think he displayed a lot of courage and innovation in funding A to Z, but in my mind’s eye – there’s that old mind’s eye thing again – I see publics and companies in cities like Seattle getting behind these collaborative ventures. What better way to get connected to forests we all love>?
Evergreen: How would you insulate collaboratives from serial litigators – or would you?
Doran: A person or organization that has not participated in the collaboration process should not have “standing” to object to or appeal a project. That is not the way the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] has been interpreted so the litigation from afar continues. The other approach that I have heard discussed would require appellant to post a significant bond to pay for the attorneys’ fees if the appeal is denied. That way the appellant has something to lose. That should help slow or perhaps even stop frivolous litigation.
Evergreen: We see a direct connection between the changing climate and subsequent insect and disease infestations and inevitable wildfires. Do you see the same connection?
Doran: Yes and even more than that. The release of carbon from forest fires is enormous. That only contributes more to climate change which then causes more forest disease and wildfires. It is a dark downward spiral. But we are not helpless and a focus on forest restoration may be the single most effective way to counter climate change. Forests and wood products sink carbon. Wildfires release an enormous amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
Evergreen: Forests and wood products would seem to be better places to sequester carbon than our lungs. Why isn’t this storyline gaining much traction with the news media?
Doran: No one – with the possible exception of Evergreen Magazine - has told that 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 hope to create the 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.
Evergreen: Do you think the news media has a built-in bias against anything that veers close to active forest management, even if the work is a collaborative product?
Doran: I wouldn’t go that far. They just don’t go very deeply into any issue. I think the news media just wants the high profile and flamboyant stories. Wildfire and firefighter deaths make good copy. I have fed the local newspapers many forest restoration and collaboration press releases and they have published all of them. It is a good story. I think the global warming issue and carbon sequestration through forest restoration story will be interesting enough for urban newspapers, at least in the west. The facts and figures about the release of carbon are astonishing. Once people hear those facts I would think they will want to do something about it by supporting forest restoration. We shall see.
Evergreen: We see two top priorities associated with reducing the wildfire risks posed by insect and disease epidemics: fixing the manner in which the Forest Service’s fire budget is funded and protecting and growing the wood processing infrastructure necessary to make forest restoration possible. Do you agree with our assessment, and if you do, how do we get there?
Doran: My focus has been on getting the forest restoration and fuels reduction work done on the National Forests. It’s our land and it should be managed properly. We hit bottle necks or “choke points” all along the way with the Forest Service. We need to address those choke points if we are going to see any significant change in the way the Forest Service does or doesn’t get restoration projects done.
The Forest Service fire budget keeps growing and the fire prevention (forest restoration and fuels reduction) budget keeps shrinking. If you look at it objectively, it seems that the job of the US Forest Service is to burn down the National Forests as quickly as possible. That’s where 62% of their budget is focused. The fear is that the fire budget will eat up the restoration budget and then we will seriously be committed to burning down the National Forests.
The program of forest restoration and fuels reduction, and hence carbon sequestration, requires that there be some way to use the small trees and add value to them. The mill is the key. But no capitalist is going to fund a several million dollar mill unless the “reliable supply” is there. That brings us back to the need for authentic collaboration. It is a beautiful circle; good for the ecosystems, the community and the economy.
Evergreen: What might The Evergreen Foundation do to advance the causes of forest collaboration and restoration forestry?
Doran: Help us tell the story about how we can address global warming right here by restoring forests and reducing fuel loads in the forests which then sequesters carbon into healthy growing trees. Also we need to promote the use of wood products for many more things than we do now. In Finland, for instance, they make the electrical distribution towers out of laminated wood.
It would also be good for the Evergreen Foundation to disseminate more of the success stories of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition and other regional collaboratives and tell the good stories where they happen with the Forest Service. It is not all bad news. The more people hear about the details we have been discussing here, the more they will support the efforts. It’s a great story.