“I don’t just represent Avista in our Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. I represent the community at large; Kettle Falls, Colville, our smaller towns, all of us who live, work and play here. This is our home. It is where we raise our families and build friendships that will last a lifetime. It took me awhile to grasp the real significance of this whole idea. But now I have, and I can tell you that all of us who are members of this coalition share a deep sense of obligation to do what is right economically, environmentally and socially. We are striving to build a healthy and thriving community through a collaborative process that has us honoring and reaching for the different values that each of us brings to the table.”

Ron Gray, Fuels Manager
Kettle Falls Generating Station, Avista Utilities
Vice President, Northeast Washington Forest Coalition
Kettle Falls, Washington

Ron Gray is vice president of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition, a forest collaborative group based in Kettle Falls, Washington. Mr. Gray is also fuels manager for Avista Utilities 50 megawatt, all biomass power plant at Kettle Falls. The facility is located at Kettle Falls, 80 miles north of Spokane, Avista’s corporate headquarters.

The Kettle Falls facility makes up two percent of Avista’s diverse energy mix that provides safe, reliable power to the company’s 359,000 customers. But it is a vitally important two percent because it provides a market for 235,000 bone dry tons of woody biomass created annually by forestry and lumber manufacturing operations in northeast Washington and southern British Columbia.

Mr. Gray, an Oregon native, has been Avista’s Kettle Falls fuels manager since 1999. He worked for International Paper’s Gardiner, Oregon forestry and paper mill operations for 25 years before IP liquidated its Oregon operations.

Evergreen: Ron, if memory serves me correctly, we first met when you were working for International Paper at Gardiner, Oregon. We were putting the pieces of Evergreen Magazine together in Medford, and you arranged a nice paper donation from IP. Isn’t that right?

Gray: I had forgotten about that, but you are correct. IP did donate quite a bit of magazine paper to your early Evergreen efforts. It was a different time and a different world.

Evergreen: It certainly was. Who would have thought that IP would ever leave Oregon?

Gray: The liquidation of the company’s Oregon assets shocked a lot of people. The Gardiner mill had been built in 1964 and, at one time, employed 300 people.

Evergreen: We recently drove through Gardiner. There is nothing left that even hits of what a bustling community it was for decades.

Gray: When a community loses its largest employer, things change pretty quickly.

Evergreen: So how did you get from Gardiner to Kettle Falls?

Gray: I was very fortunate. When the mill shut down a friend suggested that I apply for the Kettle Falls fuel manager’s job. I did and was hired. The good news is that I was only out of a job for two weeks. The bad news was that my wife had to stay with her teaching job in Reedsport for two years. But it beat accepting an IP transfer to the Southeast. We both wanted to stay in the Pacific Northwest.

Evergreen: I presume your job as fuel manager is about the same as that of a chip buyer for a paper mill.

Gray: It is, though when you are purchasing biomass, you don’t have to be as discriminating as you do when you are buying chips for paper. Quality is less important here than it was in Gardiner.

Evergreen: The Kettle Falls plant is a 50 megawatt facility. That’s not small.

Gray: No, it isn’t. When the facility was completed, it was the largest stand-alone biomass plant in the United States owned by a utility.

Evergreen: How many tons of biomass does the Kettle Falls facility burn annually?

Gray: About 240,000 bone dry tons, or about 15,000 truckloads. Supplying the facility is challenging. At times, we reach out more than 200 miles to find sufficient hog fuel. That takes us into northern Idaho, western Montana, southern British Columbia and central Washington.

Evergreen: So that readers will understand, biomass is essentially wood waste.

Gray: That’s correct. Sawmill residues that can’t be manufactured into a higher value product or wood waste collected from logging operations. There is also tremendous potential in very small diameter trees that are removed from forest restoration projects. They’re too small for lumber but work well for us.

Evergreen: The electric forests.

Gray: In a manner of speaking, yes. As you well know, we have hundreds of thousands of acres of very small trees that need to be removed from forests that simply hold too many trees to sustain themselves.

Evergreen: Which brings us to your participation in the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition.

Gray: I joined the coalition at the request of Duane Vaagen, who was instrumental in its founding. But please understand that I didn’t join because Avista saw an opportunity to increase its biomass supply. I joined because forest collaboration is the first hopeful sign I’ve seen in 30 years for peacefully resolving the long standing dispute between our wood products industry and the conservation community.

Evergreen: We certainly agree, but we’re curious about what you see that has you believing that collaboration is the solution to the decades if disputes between conservationists and lumbermen?

Gray: The short answer to your question is that we have been successful in ironing out our differences with project appellants and litigants at the local level. As a result, not one lawsuit has moved forward in the courts. Much of the credit on this front goes to the Lands Council and its executive director, Mike Petersen, who is also a key member of our group.

Evergreen: And the longer answer?

Gray: We’ve spent years developing an honest appreciation for one another’s different values. You no doubt know from your many interviews that successful collaboratives are born of trust and trust takes a long time to develop.

Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed – conservationists and lumbermen alike – has said the same thing. But they’ve also said that collaboration won’t work if conservationists and lumbermen are the only ones at the table.

Gray: That’s correct. We still struggle with finding sufficient people to represent all of the stakeholder groups we know are present in northeast Washington.

Evergreen: Who isn’t at the table with you?

Gray: Some in the community who can’t meet during the day, others who don’t see the value, and maybe some who think we’re meeting in secret with the enemy to hammer out some kind of backdoor deal. Nothing could be further from the truth. A vocal minority in our ranching community doesn’t have a lot of faith in our collaborative, which is a shame because our group has tried to reach to these folks and come up with workable solutions. Stevens and Pend Oreille County Commissioners have generally been supportive, not so much in Ferry County.. As a result, we’re still in the weeds doing more detail work on projects that is probably necessary, but it is all part of reaching out to other stakeholders so that they will know they are welcome in our group.

Evergreen: We don’t see ranching resistance in northern Idaho, but there are people who simply believe that the federal government should turn the clock back 20 years and move on from there. I don’t think we’ll ever again see a federal timber sale program on the same scale as the one we saw for 30 years following the end of World War II.

Gray: I agree. What we will see going forward is an emphasis on non-commodity forest values with timber as a byproduct of the necessity of managing forests in ways that protect non-commodity values such as water and clean air.

Evergreen: This is a whole new world for us, and we presume it is for you too.

Gray: Boy, is it ever. When I was a young man still going to the community college In Eugene, I crossed swords with the groups that were protesting timber sales and mining projects in the Cascades. I was pro timber, in part because my father and grandfather had both worked in sawmills. Come forward some 30 years and it turns out that one of those Eugene protestors was Tim Coleman, who now lives in Republic, Washington and runs the Kettle Range Conservation Group, which is a member of our coalition. So here we are today – Tim and I – both advocating for the same forest values. Pretty amazing.

Evergreen: You must both be pretty good listeners.

Gray: We have developed an appreciation for one another’s values. In my case, that has meant that I’ve come to see wilderness as something very special. While I was still in Oregon, I developed a real love for the Three Sisters area in central Oregon, but I didn’t do much listening until I joined our coalition.

Evergreen: Simply sitting and talking.

Gray: You can’t bring so many different points of view to the table and expect a result without a lot of sitting and talking. As you suggested a moment ago, good listening skills are a must.

Evergreen: We’re fascinated by your group’s desire to see the Colville National Forest partitioned into third, with one-third for wilderness, one-third for backcountry and forest restoration and one-third for active timber management. How did you come to such an agreement?

Gray: We simply took what the forest offered us. The Colville is a bit different than the Idaho Panhandle or even the Kootenai National Forest. The landscapes and forest types lend themselves to the idea that the Colville could actually be divided into thirds.

Evergreen: Are you making any big picture progress in that direction?

Gray: Some, but not enough. As I said earlier, we’re still down in the weeds, dealing with details that are better left to other experts, but we need to be where we are to demonstrate that we’re dotting our “I’s” and crossing our “T’s” in our projects. But as others have no doubt already told you, the time required to do what we do would be better spent working on much larger scales.

Evergreen: From what we already know of your coalition, it looks like the real heavy lifting has been done by Duane Vaagen and Mike Petersen. So we have a lumberman and a guy who used to make his living suing the Forest Service.

Gray: I can’t say enough good things about the job Mike Petersen has done since he convinced the Lands Council board of directors to embrace collaboration. Mike is a very solid citizen and a remarkably skilled thinker. He knows a great deal about forestry and environmental law and has done a great job of helping us resolve disputes within our own group. Mike and The Lands Council also work with Avista on water issues surrounding the Spokane River so we knew going into the coalition we had a good partner

Evergreen: As we understand it, Mike, Duane and Tim Coleman were the driving forces behind the coalition in its formative years.

Gray: They certainly were. Duane is unique among lumbermen I have known. No one else could have pulled this together. He is a very creative thinker, and he has certainly put his money where his mouth is. The Vaagen Brothers Colville and Usk mills are perfectly configured for the restoration work that needs to be done on this forest. As Duane has said many times, we can thin this forest forever because the tree species we have here are ideally suited to that kind of silviculture. And with each new thinning, forest quality improves.

Evergreen: So how to you see yourself in this mix of personalities and values?

Gray: I don’t just represent Avista in our Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. I represent the community at large; Kettle Falls, Colville, our smaller towns, all of us who live, work and play here.

This is our home. It is where we raise our families and build friendships that will last a lifetime. It took me awhile to grasp the real significance of this whole idea. But now I have, and I can tell you that all of us who are members of this coalition share a deep sense of obligation to do what is right economically, environmentally and socially.

We are striving to build a healthy and thriving community through a collaborative process that has us honoring and reaching for the different values that each of us brings to the table.

Evergreen: You’re very passionate about this, aren’t you?

Gray: Yes, in my own quiet way. We have a chance to do something here that’s pretty grand. The last thing I ever want to hear from one of our critics is ‘I told you so.’ They’re expecting us to fail. But failure isn’t an option for our collaborative, or any other collaborative for that matter. Most of the rural towns that Avista serves – from Kettle Falls, Washington to Klamath Falls, Oregon – are heavily dependent on nearby national forests that are the sum and substance of their lifestyle and a source of employment and enjoyment for just about everyone who lives in one of these tight-knit communities.

Evergreen: And so the grand experiment in forest collaboration goes on.

Gray: As I said earlier, forest collaboratives embody the first hopeful sign that I’ve seen in 30 years. There is a light at the end of our long tunnel and I‘m pretty sure it isn’t the locomotive this time.