Rodney Smoldon is the Forest Supervisor on the 1.1 million-acre Colville National Forest in northeast Washington. From his office in Colville, he commands a staff of approximately 135 permanent employees and an additional 100 summer employees. His annual budget is about $12 million.
Mr. Smoldon is a Colville native, an unusual circumstance in a Forest Service that rarely places its employees in their home towns. He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 1985 and holds a degree in Recreation and Wilderness Management.
He has worked for the Forest Service for nearly 31 years, mostly in California and Washington. As a District Ranger on northern California’s Plumas National Forest, he was well acquainted with the Quincy Library Group, the nation’s first major collaborative group and its most notable failure.
In this interview – our second in two years – Mr. Smoldon discusses his satisfaction with the controversial A-to-Z forest stewardship contract, his hopes for a second such project near Chewelah, Washington, south of Colville, and his hopes that northeast Washington’s forest collaborators will continue to grow and diversify their organizations.
Evergreen: Mr. Smoldon, your A-to-Z forest restoration project recently made Page 1 news in the Spokesman Review in an upbeat story unlike any we can recall seeing in eastern Washington’s largest daily newspaper. Quite a feather in your cap, wouldn’t you say?
Smoldon: It was a good story and I’ve received quite a bit of positive feedback from our communities. As far as a feather in the cap? The credit goes to the outstanding employees on this forest, the communities that supported the effort and the previous Forest Supervisor, Laura Jo West for getting this project off the ground.
Evergreen: We were surprised to read that you’d been able to boost your harvest level from 70 million board feet last year to 120 million board feet in the current year. To what do you attribute such a dramatic one-year increase?
Smoldon: There are many factors, but the two biggest are the forest restoration guidance Congress provided in the 2014 Farm Bill, and the strong support we get from the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition. Without the Mill Creek A to Z project, and the community/collaborative support, we wouldn’t be seeing such a significant increase in the acres treated this year and into the future.
Evergreen: You’re a big fan of collaboration, aren’t you?
Smoldon: I am. It’s wonderful seeing people representing so diverse points of view sitting around the same table helping us craft workable solutions to some of our more difficult forest restoration problems.
Evergreen: Peace in the valley.
Smoldon: I’m not sure I would use peace to describe where we are but it is different than at any other time in my 30-plus years with the Forest Service. It’s not just here on the Colville, but in many National Forests in Idaho and Montana. We have a far more satisfying work environment now that the collaboratives are gaining traction and enjoying some success with projects that never would have gotten off the ground without their help and input.
Evergreen: Beyond their seemingly tireless dedication, what strengths do the collaboratives bring to the table?
Smoldon: None more important than their diversity – the great breadth of values and opinions they represent. Another strength of collaboratives is their willingness to tell the story of why we propose and take the land management actions that we do.
Evergreen: Would it be fair or accurate to say they provide political cover for the Forest Service and members of Congress who support forest restoration work on the National Forests?
Smoldon: In a broad sense, I suppose that’s true, though it isn’t something we think much about around here. Ours is a comparatively small staff with a relatively small budget. We look for innovative ways to treat more acres annually. Our northeast Washington collaborative helps us select and design projects we’d never get to without their input.
Evergreen: Do you think these groups now provide a national-scale demographic of the Forest Service’s customer base?
Smoldon: We’re very close, though I’d like to see a broader recreation base.
Evergreen: Recreation interests do seem to be a little late coming to the party. Until recently, I don’t think they’ve understood the depth of the forest health and wildfire crisis we are facing in the West.
Smoldon: I would agree.
Evergreen: What has been the public reaction to increasing the Colville’s harvest from 70 to 120 million board feet in one year?
Smoldon: Generally positive, especially locally. I think most people in eastern Washington are well acquainted with the wildfire and air quality problems we experience nearly every summer, and they realize we need to address the underlying problems.
Evergreen: The underlying problems being insect and disease infestations in forests that are too overgrown to sustain themselves.
Smoldon: That’s correct. And, there’s too much fuel on the ground from the dead and dying trees.
Evergreen: You, among many others, use the term “forest restoration” to describe the thinning projects you’ve undertaken. How do you define “forest restoration?”
Smoldon: The goal is to recover lost natural resiliency, which we define as the ability of a forest to naturally fend off insect and disease infestations. Forests stressed by stand density, drought or insect and disease infestations lose the ability to right themselves. Wildfire risk, size and destructive power increase dramatically.
Evergreen: The Colville doesn’t have the diversity in tree species found in some other forests, does it?
Smoldon: That’s true. We lack a diversity of composition and structure in our forests. Our restoration efforts are intended to put these stands on a trajectory to correct that. And it isn’t only about forest restoration. We improve the health of aquatic systems by reconstructing and maintaining our road systems, reintroducing fire to the landscape our terms, replacing undersized culverts, creating or improving habitat for wildlife. The list goes on.
Evergreen: And yet forest restoration – the thinning and cleanup work you are doing – has its skeptics and its critics.
Smoldon: Yes, but we are confident that the work we are doing is the right thing, supported by science and is best for present and future generations.
Evergreen: You are satisfied that the work you are doing is the right thing to do?
Smoldon: Absolutely, and I’d invite anyone to come here and look at this work. Treated stands that were so dense you could hardly walk through them are now healthier stands that set the forest up for increased diversity of structure and composition.
Evergreen: Some critics say there are more species in burnt forests.
Smoldon: Areas that have burned play a role in the evolution of forest succession and we incorporate into our project planning efforts prescribing fire as a management tool that I feel addresses this interest.
Evergreen: We’ll hazard a guess that most people prefer healthy, green forests in which they can enjoy themselves, which would add to the list of reasons why collaboratives play such an important role in your decision-making.
Smoldon: Those who value collaborative processes, understand the importance of having common understanding. It’s not about all or nothing. Just like it’s not about burned forests or green forests. A healthy forest has parts of all of it. Some will have burned areas, preferably areas we burned under our conditions, and areas will have disease as it is also part of a healthy forest system. My interest is in managing the Colville with a common understanding from our collaboratives that there is balance that puts us on a trajectory of reaching a desired condition, a healthy forest that is diverse and productive for present and future generations.
Evergreen: Do you ever feel the urge to publicly challenge your critics?
Smoldon: No, I don’t. The Colville is a national forest, so we respect the opinions of all citizens, even those who are less informed or have agendas that run counter to the Forest Service’s mission. Our agency’s mission hasn’t changed in more than 100 years and it is our mission that brings me to work every day.
Evergreen: National Forest opinion polls consistently show that the public rates clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and year-round recreation opportunity higher than it does timber production. Timber management thus becomes a bi-product of the need to protect these more aesthetic forest values. Right?
Smoldon: I believe so. We are focused on treating acres. Mortality exceeds growth on some parts of the Colville. These are our priority treatment areas.
Evergreen: A goal being to significantly increase the recreation potential in these areas?
Smoldon: Yes, and to protect soils, water quality and fish and wildlife habitat by reducing the risk of stand-replacing wildfires.
Evergreen: Recreating in black sticks isn’t much fun, is it?
Smoldon: Fun is in the eye of the beholder, right? Areas that have been burned on this forest in years past receive visitors that enjoy picking mushrooms or backcountry skiing. I have friends and family that will spend a few years after an area burns pursuing large game during deer or elk season.
Evergreen: While we’re tossing around numbers, what would you estimate to be the annual harvest volume on a 60-year rotation for all suitable and available acres on the Colville?
Smoldon: I love numbers but I can’t say with any certainty what that would be. I believe we need to be looking at commercial harvest, mechanical fuel treatment and prescribed fire as three primary methods of managing suitable acres and it should be around 20 to 30 thousand acres a year.
Evergreen: You’ve been quoted as saying the Colville is a little over on the “wild side”. What exactly does that mean?
Smoldon: That quote was in response to a question about the forested stands we focus on treating. The intent of my response was to paint a picture of overstocked small diameter stands that were created from old fires of the previous century. It was not in response to areas on the forest that would be candidates for inclusion into the wilderness preservation system. The forest has some remarkable landscapes that I would hope our communities and congressional delegates would support in consideration of such designations.
Evergreen: Speaking of overstocked small diameter stands, how is the A-to-Z stewardship project progressing?
Smoldon: It’s going very well. I’m pleased with our progress. We’ve learned a great deal. I’m having conversations with my staff and our collaborative about doing this again.
Evergreen: What have you learned?
Smoldon: Foremost, we’ve learned that we can do these kinds of projects involving outside contractors who work under our direction and follow our planning guidelines. We also learned that doubling the acres we treat requires an organization adjustment to oversee all the additional work. We have also discovered that this increase in pace will require us to look at different business models for managing the extra workload associated with contract inspection.
Evergreen: A-to-Z was Duane Vaagen’s idea, wasn’t it?
Smoldon: I believe it was, and he was successful in convincing the leadership in our Washington office that it was a good idea.
Evergreen: Do you think it was a good idea?
Smoldon: I absolutely do. Vaagen Brothers hired Northwest Management and Cramer Fish Sciences to do the layout and environmental work under our direction, and Vaagen paid for the all of that work. We could not have done it under our budget constraints and limited staff. We’re getting more restoration work accomplished because of A-to-Z.
Evergreen: About 17,000 acres so far, and another 26,000 or so to go?
Smoldon: Yes, that’s about right.
Evergreen: It is our understanding that Vaagen Brothers paid north of one million dollars for the environmental work the Forest Service required.
Smoldon: He hasn’t said and I have no intention of asking. This isn’t inexpensive work. I estimate our costs at around $900,000, but it would have taken us at least three years to do what Cramer Fish Sciences did in about a year.
Evergreen: Why is this?
Smoldon: Again, ours is a relatively small staff, and many of us wear multiple hats, working on multiple projects at a time. Part of the formula for success on this forest is that we have employees with multiple skill sets and we work hard to match the employee with the work consistent with our priorities at the time.
Evergreen: And a significant portion of your budget gets shifted to firefighting costs.
Smoldon: That’s unfortunately true. The agency is currently spending over 50% of our budget on fire suppression. It is anticipated that by the year 2021 it will be around 67%. As a result of this, our funding to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of our nations forests becomes a greater challenge.
Evergreen: Do you have another A-to-Z project on the drawing board?
Smoldon: We have one in mind for an area near Chewelah that’s about 20,000 acres larger than A-to-Z. I’m meeting with employees from the Washington Office, Regional Office and my staff later this month to discuss our plans moving forward. My supervisor, Regional Forester Jim Pena and his staff have been extremely supportive of our efforts to increase pace and scale of restoration efforts.
Evergreen: Given A-to-Z’s local popularity, we suppose news of a new and larger similar project will be welcome news in northeast Washington. Do you have the budget for it or will you again be in the hunt for private sector funding?
Smoldon: I feel we have the budget and experience to be successful with a similar project. Our budget doesn’t support paying for the planning and layout costs of an additional project over our existing program of work, so we will again need to find a willing contractor to bid on the work for the environmental assessment and project layout, just like the Vaagen’s did.
Evergreen: Given your need for outside funding, does the idea of a community forest in which local government entities would share in costs and recover more of the cost benefit make sense to you?
Smoldon: The way we see it is that the local community benefits both environmentally and economically from the active management we do here on the Colville. Local businesses benefit from those who work in the woods and therefore increase the tax base for local government. One of the reason many folks live here is the quality of life the Colville National Forest provides through employment or lifestyle. Our goal has always been to manage for the greatest good for the greatest number and we feel that philosophy ultimately benefits local communities and governments as well.
Evergreen: Which means the advice and consent of people who don’t live here and may never see the Colville National Forest is as important to you as the advice and consent of people who live and work in northeast Washington. Is that correct?
Smoldon: That’s correct, though I would add that we do have a closer relationship with the communities in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille County and are proud of the trust and respect we have established over the years. Many of our employees have worked on the Colville for most of their careers and have raised families in these communities. They are heavily invested in the success and positive relationships we have established. What matters most to us is ensuring that everyone understands why the work we are doing is important for the long-term health and productivity of the Forest. I would add, even though the forest we manage is national and all opinions and interests are important, the local community and local government have significant influence over the programs and projects we plan and manage.
Evergreen: So, it is important for people in, say, New York or Philadelphia, to know what you are facing in terms of declining forest health- and what must be done to restore natural resiliency.
Smoldon: In my opinion, yes.
Evergreen: Whose job is it to deliver the bad news?
Smoldon: Ours, organizations like yours and the collaboratives.
Evergreen: We’ve been poking around northeast Washington for about three years now, and it has occurred to us that local governments and civic groups in the three counties could benefit from a comprehensive economic analysis that tells everywhere where we are and ranks future development options. Would you agree?
Smoldon: I absolutely agree. We’ve done some work within the scope of our forest planning documents, but nothing as comprehensive as what you describe.
Evergreen: A new collaborative has formed in Colville under the aegis of the Tri-County Working Group and the county commissions of Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens County. What has been the Forest Service’s role and what do you see that makes this group different from the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition?
Smoldon: Our role thus far has been to answer questions and listen. My sense is that this group has a keen interest in recreation, which is good, but they’re still at the “Storming and Norming” stage, so I don’t know where they will settle. I’m hopeful that they will continue to meet with all the interests at the table. It would be an extremely influential collaborative. NEWFC has been together for over 15 years so they have lots of experience and established rules of engagement with one another. A few NEWFC members have been attending their meetings, which is good.
Evergreen: Good in what sense?
Smoldon: Collaboration is hard work requiring that you have a formal organizational structure, bylaws and a system in place for resolving internal disagreements. They are well organized, inclusive and very transparent.
Evergreen: This brings us back to this whole business of collaborative diversity providing political cover. We’d say that if a group’s demographic profile matches the national profile, the Forest Service has the citizen endorsement it needs to make sometimes difficult management choices that favor management over a “leave it to nature” approach. Are we correct?
Smoldon: Why wouldn’t the Forest Service want to do what such a diverse group wanted it to do? But you must have that very diverse demographic profile you describe. There needs to be a common understanding of the problem and realistic options for solution. But we help provide leadership and technical knowledge.
Evergreen: We agree. And speaking of leadership, have you met Tony Tooke, the new Chief of the Forest Service?
Smoldon: I have – while I was assisting with the Chetco Bar Fire on the southern Oregon coast and then again when I traveled to D.C. to brief him on our forest plan revision efforts. He strikes me as a roll-up-your-sleeves and get to work kind of guy. He is very interested in streamlining processes and doing what’s right for our communities and the land. He understands and supports the necessity of getting more work done on the ground. I believe his presence has generated a lot of excitement agency-wide. He brings us what we need at a crucial moment in Forest Service history. I’m liking it.