Mitch Friedman is the Founder and Executive Director of Conservation Northwest, a Seattle-based conservation group that grew out of a 1988 monograph he co-authored and edited near the end of his rabble-rousing Earth First era.
Its ambitious title, “Forever Wild: Conserving the Greater North Cascades Ecosystem,” spoke to Friedman’s penchant for big [some might say outrageous] ideas.
Here was an Earth Firster – a not-so-old hippie – hell-bent on applying scientific concepts from the emerging and controversial disciplines of conservation biology to his equally ambitious plans for keeping the North Cascades Ecosystem intact.
“It was my first exposure to Microsoft software,” Friedman says of his first publishing venture. “A friend designed the pages. We photocopied it at Copy Source in Bellingham. What’s that line? ‘Who knew’.”
Who knew indeed. Friedman had been one of the Pacific Northwest’s most quoted tree sitters [arrested a dozen times by his count] until it dawned on him that he was always getting arrested with “the same six hippies.”
“The movement wasn’t moving,” he told Seattle Times columnist, Ron Judd, in a March 2012 interview. “There’s that line that the generals are always fighting the last war. I was one of those generals.”
Friedman’s assessment of his tumultuous years ended with the 1989 formation of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, now Conservation Northwest. He and his colleagues wrote position papers and filed lawsuits to block proposed logging operations, mainly in old growth stands in western Washington’s National Forests. They also updated Friedman’s monograph with “Cascadia Wild: Protecting an International Ecosystem.” This time they printed on an actual press.
“The lawsuits and position papers were all ‘stick’ stuff,” Friedman says of his early 1990’s campaign. “I have a stick and I’m going to beat you over the head with it until I have your attention.”
But “carrots” slowly crept into his organization’s work, a tacit if unstated admission that overcoming gridlock in federal forest policy necessitated compromise, the antithesis of Earth First’s claim that there could be “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth.”
A collaborative model developed by young Ecosystem Alliance staff members was used to help define common ground in a second-growth thinning project on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington. But success came at a high price. Friedman was suddenly a pariah among some colleagues who compared his new organization to France’s World War II Nazi-sympathizing government.
“Not all trees are equal, and not all acreage is equal,” Friedman would explain to critics of his seemingly sudden change of heart. But it had not been sudden. His 1988 monograph had been well-received by others in the conservation community who shared the idea of proactive approaches to protecting ecosystems. And Friedman had, by his own admission, “matured to the point of seeking real world solutions.”
“We needed to find and model ways to keep peace,” Friedman told us in an interview last summer in Seattle. “I formed the Ecosystem Alliance to help provide a platform for advancing the principles of conservation biology. Collaboration turns out to be an effective method for change not just at the project level, but even to improve large scale planning including forest plans.”
Now 53, divorced and remarried, Friedman is the father of two adult daughters he says have helped him “grow up,” not just personally, but as the guiding force behind what has become one of the Pacific Northwest’s most admired and respected conservation groups.
Friedman grew up in suburbs north of Chicago, among friends with whom he shared an active interest in sports. But on life’s weightier topics – nagging questions about what made the world tick – he lived in a world apart. He cannot, for example, remember a time when he did not love animals, wild and domestic.
Childhood canoe trips into Minnesota’s Boundary Waters set him on his conservation pathway, but there were numerous side trips along the way. He pumped gas, ran a forklift in a plastics factory, unloaded UPS trucks, painted houses, stocked shelves, worked as a framing carpenter, cowboyed on a Wyoming cattle ranch and did three or four tours as a fish counter for the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Bering Sea.
After high school, he enrolled at Montana State University, thinking he wanted to learn how to manage wildlife but, somewhere along the way, the real Mitch Friedman found his voice, and he decided he’d rather protect wildlife than manage it, so he headed for the University of Washington, where he earned a degree in Zoology.
In this interview, Friedman discusses Conservation Northwest’s collaborative successes, still bothersome regrets from his Earth First years and his belief that collaboration offers the best hope for resolving still contentious issues concerning the management of the West’s National Forests.
Evergreen: Mr. Friedman, it is my recollection that you and I first met at some sort of spotted owl meeting in Portland in the late 1980s. Do you recall the meeting?
Friedman: Not specifically, but I do remember meeting you somewhere in time. Those were tense times for all of us. So much at stake and seemingly no way to agree on anything about owls or old growth.
Evergreen: And things got much worse before they got better. The Evergreen Foundation was only four years old when the northern spotted owl was listed in June of 1990. Over the ensuing five years we lost all but two of our founding sponsors – all of them smaller, family-owned lumber manufacturers in southern Oregon.
Friedman: I’ve spent years regretting the loss of all those family-owned sawmills. It was never our intent. All we did was enable the survivors to grow larger. I am sorry for the hurt we caused in those little companies and their communities. Now we need those small innovative mills in a way we’ve never needed them before.
Evergreen: We’ll come back to that in a moment, but first I want to ask you about your 2012 interview with Seattle Times columnist, Ron Judd. It is brutally candid on your part, especially your admission that you are an atheist. That’s tough stuff.
Friedman: It is for many, and I even went to Hebrew school, but the whole idea of God never made sense to me. That doesn’t mean that I view people as alone or as a pinnacle; man fits into a larger scheme. Nature is that scheme. But it would be a mistake to see that as a conflation of nature and God.
Evergreen: Were you a teenage hell-raiser?
Friedman: I was defiant, independent as hell, I guess you’d say, I rejected most conventional wisdom, then filled in the blanks for myself. Animals were very important to me, and they still are.
Evergreen: But your persona doesn’t suggest a guy who ever chose animals over people, which is something you implied at in your Seattle Times interview.
Friedman: People have been good to me in my personal and professional life.
Evergreen: Given your tree-sitting days, how is it that you became one of the early and quiet leaders in the forest collaboration movement we see today? That’s a remarkable transformation, to say the least.
Friedman: It took a long time for me to get there in my head. In my wild Earth First days, I was arrested a dozen times, protesting from Yellowstone to Idaho to the Upper Skagit, everything from old growth to owls and grizzly bears. I was in a leadership role because there a leadership vacuum and I filled it. I had some skills for that from being a good athlete. But learning strategy, and developing the wherewithal to see my strategic options, that took time.
Evergreen: You were one of the earliest tree sitters, weren’t you?
Friedman: I was.
Evergreen: We can guess why you did it, but tell us in your own words.
Friedman: Well, apart from my defiant streak, I did it to call public attention to all those beautiful and very old trees we were trying to save from chainsaws.
Evergreen: And it worked.
Friedman: We were far more successful than any of us thought we’d ever be. The Northwest Forest Plan pretty much shut down the logging industry in the National Forests in northwest Washington.
Evergreen: So why didn’t you pack up and go home like Patrick Moore did after he decided Greenpeace had met its goals?
Friedman: Because there was still work to do way beyond old growth, and I thought our movement was stuck. The last few times I was arrested; I was always with the same six hippies. What I soon realized was that we needed an organization that could go the distance with more complex issues that present themselves within the frameworks of conservation biology and ecosystem management.
Evergreen: The things you can’t measure in board feet or acres.
Freidman: That’s correct. Ecosystem function is very difficult to measure in the short term. There is a reason why people like me harp constantly about paying attention to the big pieces.
Evergreen: The more holistic approach that says that timber is a by-product of other impossible-to-measure forest attributes, like biological diversity, not the product as timber was for four decades following World War II. Like man not being the scheme.
Evergreen: We’d think you’d be all in favor of the Forest Service’s new approach, which seems to favor leaving more National Forest acres to nature, yet you’ve been very critical of the agency’s forest planning process. Why?
Friedman: It’s hard to defend something as slow, cumbersome, and Soviet-like as centralized 15-year-year plans. Everything from science to markets to community values seems to evolve faster. So even if I like some outcomes on the ground, government should be more efficient and responsive. Though candidly, now that Trump is President, those cumbersome plans give me some comfort.
Evergreen: We’ve been critical of the process for years, but we get lots of push back from the Forest Service, which is caught in the thrall of its own Washington, D.C. minutia. There are the big conservation groups that have worked for years to consolidate their Beltway power bases.
Friedman: The DC-centered approach favors either more extraction or more process. I’ll admit the latter can be handy in protecting forest types that don’t need management. But if our goal is efficient process to yield functional, resilient landscapes from which we get useful products, clean water, diverse wildlife, and normal fires, we’re further behind every year.
Evergreen: The movement toward more localized collaborative decision-making looks to us like the first serious assault on the Forest Service’s central planning model. Would you agree?
Friedman: Wholeheartedly, at least as an ideal in places where the right people are available. I know of no other way to meaningfully and measurably attack the forest health crisis evidenced by insect and disease-prone stands, less resilient landscapes, and out of character mega-fires. In my view, there’s a healthy tension between national interests, which generally value things like wildness, wildlife, scenery, and carbon storage, and local interests, which can put higher value on jobs and commodities from traditional industries. Some people think it’s the job of Congress to sort that out. I think democracy works better when local processes, which include people representing both the local and national interests, work through the tough issues. If nothing else, such groups can provide guidance to government.
Evergreen: We’ve done close to 40 interviews with collaborative group members over the last three years. The common threads seem to be the trust factor, which can take years to develop, and stakeholder diversity, meaning a broad cross-section of opinion where forest management objectives are concerned.
Friedman: Collaboratives can only be publicly credible if their members include some who represent the values and opinions held by most Americans, and if the group shares a sense of pragmatism.
Evergreen: It’s a good sign that guys like you are sitting at the same table with lumbermen whose business models are aligned with the kinds of forest restoration work that you and other conservationists are advocating.
Friedman: We all have a lot to learn about one another’s hopes, aspirations and values. Where agreements and sideboards allow us to work together, we are morally obliged to do so.
Evergreen: Tell us about those sideboards.
Friedman: The two big ones for me are staying out of significant old growth forests, at least outside fire-prone forest types, and roadless areas. Big trees are also key.
Evergreen: Let’s take those separately. Thousands, if not millions of roadless acres, have high site productivity, meaning they can profitably produce good timber the government could sell from time to time to help cover the cost of forest restoration projects than are money losers.
Friedman: We’re totally open to quality restoration in roadless areas. Preferably non-mechanical, fire only or hand clearing before fire. This said, I’ve had some very interesting discussions with Russ Vaagen about light mechanical thinning equipment that can be used without roads.
Evergreen: You’re referring to Russ Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company and the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition?
Friedman: Yes, I know him through the collaborative. Our conversation was hypothetical and pertained to a roadless area on the Colville National Forest.
Evergreen: We’ve seen thinning done by the light-on-the-land systems Mr. Vaagen was describing to you. Apart from scattered small-diameter stumps cut close to the ground, it’s hard to tell where they’ve been.
Friedman: That’s what I’m told, but I haven’t seen the work.
Evergreen: Where forest restoration is concerned, Is your marker the presence of roads, or is it ecosystem management?
Friedman: Roads are a big part of it. But the other big issue is the landscape. We must work in concert with ecological objectives that are in synch with landscape evaluations put together by scientists like Paul Hessburg.
Evergreen: We interviewed Dr. Hessburg a few months ago, and we certainly agree with your suggestion that his work is first rate. I am fascinated by the fact that so many forest ecologists are talking about managing across multiple ownerships that feature very different management objectives.
Friedman: It’s big stuff, for sure. But we’re already seeing movement in that direction within the scope of Good Neighbor Authorities granted to the Forest Service by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill. A lot of the problems people complain about on federal lands exist across ownerships. I don’t mean just the excessive road networks and lack of big trees. Most young plantations also have a ton of fuel. In Washington State’s historic 2015 fire season, we had fire burn hot through equal acreages of national forest, private/tribal industrial forest, and grassland. Good neighbor policies, using Hessburg type tools, and of course a huge increase in prescribed burning, could do a lot of good across the landscape.
Evergreen: We’re pleased to see Congress grant the Forest Service the authority to partner with state forestry departments to get more forest restoration work done in high risk, high priority areas in National Forests. But we wonder if the Forest Service is really on board.
Friedman: It’s tempting to attribute the problem to a lack of leadership, like some form of D.C. amnesia. But it might just be that the scale of the problem on the ground, the complexity of the politics and laws, and the lack of support – including proper funding from Congress, sucks the life out of the agency. A lot of slow-walking seems to happen.
Evergreen: D.C. amnesia is not a description we’ve heard before, but it fits with our experiences. How do we overcome it?
Friedman: I’m not sure I know. The Forest Service is held hostage by its own bureaucracy and budget woes. I do have some hope that the Hessburg approach can break gridlock and provide a path forward.
Evergreen: How so?
Friedman: Hessburg’s approach provides an overarching goal, which is to restore landscape resilience; a clear benefit, reducing the risk of mega-fires; a tangible approach; and an agreeable time frame for decision-making as to where and how to harvest, which is something pragmatists on both sides appreciate.
Evergreen: And you see this working in some forests now?
Friedman: I see it incorporated into the revised forest plans for the Wenatchee/Okanogan and Colville National Forests. These are big steps forward that don’t happen overnight. But I’m not betting on the fact that Washington, D.C. sees the same the opportunity and will be willing to provide necessary leadership. I’ve spoken and written in favor of a “Marshall Plan” for restoring forests, but it’s hard to see anything like that happening.
Evergreen: We presume you talking about Congress and the permanent government – the bureaucratic snarl – and not just the Forest Service.
Friedman: That’s correct.
Evergreen: We share your skepticism, but let’s come back to this in a moment. I don’t want to lose track of the second half of my earlier question about roadless areas and old growth. Idaho’s collaborative groups share your concern for conserving old growth, but where forest restoration is concerned, they don’t seem to be hung up on tree diameter limits.
Friedman: Forest restoration has a lot to do with structure. Diameter limits are the best proxy for big, old trees that have the structure we want – size, gnarly limbs, canopies and cavities for nests. It’s not that this is the only kind of habitat that matters, but it is the kind that’s in biggest deficit in most places.
Evergreen: That seems to be the prevailing view among collaboratives we are working with in Montana, Idaho and Washington. Let’s go back to the Forest Service’s bureaucracy and budget woes. Any ideas on how we fix this?
Friedman: We might not be able to fix the budget and legal issues from the local level, but we can address the political side. If collaboratives can agree on needed actions, finding paths forward, that will help.
Evergreen: And fix this bloody fire-borrowing mess. How stupid is it that the Forest Service is required to pay its annual billion-dollar-plus firefighting costs from its forest restoration budget? We favor handing the Forest Service’s firefighting operation to FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. How about you?
Friedman: That would certainly free up Forest Service personnel to do the restoration work necessary to reduce the risk of wildfire, so yes, your idea makes sense. Sending agency personnel out to fight fires costs them three or four months a year in lost productivity.
Evergreen: Give us your view from 30,000 feet. What worries conservationist Mitch Friedman?
Friedman: Carbon sequestration for one. We desperately need a viable and unsubsidized carbon market that rewards landowners for hanging on to their trees for more than 30 years.
Evergreen: Thirty years being the age where most industrial timberland owners in the Pacific Northwest clearcut and start over again.
Friedman: That’s right. And it’s a race to the bottom of the forestry food chain that isn’t good for any wildlife species. I want to see a race to the top. I want to see landowners holding on to their timber for 80 to 140 years before harvest.
Evergreen: Do you have any idea how astonishing it is to hear an old tree sitter say what you just said?
Friedman: Probably no more astonishing than the fact that you and I are having an enjoyable conversation, but to your point, we’ve all come a long way in our thinking.
Evergreen: We have indeed. I recently wrote a long letter in support of Wilderness designation for the Scotchman Peaks area in north Idaho. It fits perfectly within the purpose and intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Friedman: While we’re busy confessing, I worry about the loss of logging know-how and markets for big trees. We can’t ask landowners to hold their trees for 140 years if we know that when we get there, no one will be left who knows how to cut, load, and mill that tree or perhaps how to use or market its CVG wood.
Evergreen: We’re very concerned about the loss of logging and wood processing infrastructure and know-how. Idaho, western Montana and, to a lesser extent, eastern Oregon and Washington, are the last pockets left in the entire Intermountain West, from Mexico to Canada.
Friedman: I know. I’m hoping the surge of interest in cross-laminated timbers and mass-timber, made from smaller diameter trees, doesn’t encourage more lousy forestry on private timberland. What we need is better quality forestry and more loggers engaged in doing the thinning and stand-tending work that needs doing.
Evergreen: All true, but attracting new investment capital to ventures tied to National Forest thinning is next to impossible. Even The Nature Conservancy has come up empty-handed in its effort to find a partner to help build a new hi-tech sawmill in central Washington.
Friedman: When I think about our great success in re-establishing connectivity between the North and South Cascades, I’m a glass-half- full guy. I’m also a glass-half-full guy when I think about the wonderful work the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition is doing on the Colville National Forest. But when I think about the lack of private capital investment in wood processing infrastructure aligned with our National Forests, I again become a glass-half-empty guy.
Evergreen: You’ve become a big fan of the small, family-owned mills, haven’t you?
Friedman: I absolutely have. These are second, third and fourth generation family-owned businesses that are deeply rooted in their communities. They aren’t leaving town in the middle of the night. There are courageous and innovative problem solvers who are willing to risk great sums of money in technologies that match up very nicely with the kinds of restoration work we need to do to restore natural resiliency in our National Forests. Minus their support, there isn’t a collaborative in the Northwest that would have ever gotten off the ground.
Evergreen: Yet for all the great work our forest collaboratives are doing, there is still a distrust of the Forest Service and the economic burdens posed by litigation. The Forest Service is probably fixable, but private capital is not going to flow toward projects that can be killed by federal judges. My memory is long enough to remember when western Oregon tree farmers were knowingly harvesting their timber too early because they were afraid a judge would later stop them from harvesting at all
Friedman: I said earlier that I had hoped we would transition from Soviet-style planning to collaboration. Instead, we veered into litigation. Litigation has an essential role, but taken too far, it does society a terrible disservice. Sadly, I can imagine the new regime in D.C. causing it to get much worse.
Evergreen: Earlier in our interview, you said you regretted the loss of so many family-owned sawmills lost in the wake of the spotted owl listing. Tell us more about that.
Friedman: Our most tribal instincts – yours and mine – too often undermine our ability to use the problem-solving skills locked inside our enormous brains. We aren’t good at managing our own emotions. Our misconceptions and misperceptions about one another prevent us from getting out of our own way. We are blessed with an incredible capacity to do good work, and cursed by astonishing human shortcomings.
Evergreen: And yet forest collaboration, with its many confounding crossroads, seems to be one of the few corners in our troubled society where real problem-solving progress is being made. Would you agree?
Friedman: I do agree, but we are living in precarious and uncertain times. Donald Trump’s election underscores deep cultural divides that crisscross our country that must somehow be bridged. I’d like to think that restoring natural resiliency in our National Forests could become a rallying point for all Americans.