ICYMI: Private company to manage forest site

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Private company to manage forest site

Newport Miner – By Fred Willenbrock

COLVILLE – The Colville National Forest announced last week the awarding of a 10-year contract that will cost the company $1 million up front and give them the right to purchase $30 million worth of timber. This privatization of management to rehabilitate a large site from planning to implementation is a unique experiment not seen on this scale in any national forest.

The stated goal of the Forest Service is to get more forest rehabilitation accomplished than its reduced staff can handle. Employment on the forest has dropped by 70 percent during the past 20 years.

The timber industry and its supporters in Congress want more Forest Service timber heading to area mills while improving what they say is very poor forest health because of a lack of logging for a decade.

“We’re willing to take a risk to show a better way to manage forests,” said Duane Vaagen, president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc., the sole bidder on the 55,000 acre project in Stevens County. There could be up to 50 million board feet of timber to cut in the deal during the 10-year period. The forest sold 43 mbf in 2013. Vaagen has said the forest should be cutting close to 80 mbf a year.

How it works

Russ Vaagen, vice-president, said they will pay for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and pre sale work. That could cost as much as $1 million. Then the Forest Service will appraise timber in the areas where logging is proposed and Vaagen will have to pay stumpage for it. How much money they make or lose will depend on the price of lumber at the time of the sale.

Russ Vaagen is president of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a local group that is made of all stakeholders including local environmental groups. He said this close connection will help them be successful when proposing what to do on the project and avoiding legal action.

“Local community cooperation,” said Vaagen when describing how the project will work. “We will capsulate all user interests.”

Duane Vaagen said he and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., pushed the concept from the beginning. McMorris Rodgers is also sponsoring other legislation in Congress to increase timber harvest on the Colville National Forest.

“The Colville National Forest is proud to be on the forefront of innovation in the agency and is looking forward to learning as much as we can from this project to help improve the pace and scale of restoration in the future,” Forest Supervisor Laura Jo West stated in a press release. “This approach will create capacity and flexibility on the forest by contracting out project work that would normally require additional appropriations if completed by Forest Service staff.”

McMorris Rodgers stated in a press release that, “We are thrilled to announce that Vaagen Bros. Lumber Inc. has received Colville National Forest’s stewardship contract. One-third of the national forest land managed by the Forest Service is diseased or dying. This funding allows for sufficient management for treating the forest and surrounding areas.

“The Colville National Forest is no exception to disease issues and is the economic driver in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties and the contract gives the local forest industry the opportunity to create more jobs and better manage the forest,” she said.

“Our office has been working on the concept of privately funding forest management for years, pushing to find innovative solutions to allow timberland owned by the Forest Service to create jobs and revenue for counties and schools in northeastern Washington.”

The Integrated Resource Service Contract (IRSC) will be used to eventually treat approximately 54,000 acres on the Colville National Forest over a 10-year period. The contract will provide opportunities for restoration work, including the removal of timber and biomass through the treatment of large areas. These larger project areas are the focus of current Forest Service efforts and they have several of their own in the pipeline.

The contract is unique in requiring Vaagen Bros. to complete and pay for necessary NEPA planning before harvesting any timber. And if the Forest Service turns down their work plan, Vaagen still pays for the planning work.

The contract also allows Vaagen to be paid for reforestation or forest improvement work in their plan either by direct appropriation from the Forest Service or by trade for saleable materials.

Large goals

Duane Vaagen said he understands the goal is to make the forest healthier while keeping a supply of raw materials for the region’s timber industry. The material will go to their Colville and Usk mills. Vaagen has said in the past that if they can depend on more timber from Forest Service land they could add another shift of up to 100 workers at the Usk mill.

“I hope to get wood in a year,” Vaagen said. “It’s too early to tell how much it will cost and other details.”

The contract will include various types of work such as pre-commercial thinning, mechanical fuels reduction, road maintenance, and timber product removal, according to Forest Service documents.

The contract focuses on end-result ecosystem benefits and outcomes, rather than on what’s removed from the land, according to the documents.

The project site is on the forest’s Three Rivers Ranger District, in Stevens County. It is known as Mill Creek A to Z. It is near the Tiger Pass area where the Vaagen family began its long timber industry history.

Colville National Forest Public Affairs Officer Franklin Pemberton said federal law requires Vaagen to use an independent contractor to do the NEPA work. This third party contractor will report to Forest Service contract managers.

This work may include, but is not limited to, unit layout, cruising, marking, road and trail maintenance; work to improve soil productivity, habitat for wildlife or fisheries, or other resource values; setting prescribed fires; removing vegetation to promote healthy forest stands, reduce fire hazards, or achieve other land management objectives; restore and maintain wildlife and fish habitat; and control noxious and exotic weeds and reestablish native plant species.

Forest Service control

The Forest Service maintains all government functions it has done in its own forest management projects such as selecting the preferred alternative, Pemberton said. The projects have to go through all the current “screens” used before any action is taken.

He said many of the details of the contract implementation have to be worked out. But the Forest Service is watching this closely so they can use it as a model for future projects.

Pemberton said there might not be a cost savings for the Forest Service, but if successful, the stewardship projects like A to Z could increase the work that needs to be done in the forest to improve its health. He said the forest staff would continue to do other projects as well. But he pointed out that the staff and budgets are much smaller than 20 years ago. For example, the timber sale administrators went from 118 to 37 since the late 90’s.

Even though the focus is on forest health initiatives, Pemberton said they recognize that they need to keep the region’s timber industry healthy as well. Without them nothing would get done on the forests.

He said they aren’t at a crisis level like other western forests but they have to stay ahead of it or they could be.

Time consuming legal action by environmental groups challenging Forest Service NEPA findings has also been another roadblock for activities on the forest. Pemberton wasn’t sure yet how that would be handled should it come up for the A to Z projects.

Russ Vaagen said they would be working closely with environmental groups and others during the planning process before the final NEPA decision is made to avoid legal action.

Colville forest health

Gayne Sears, Newport/Sullivan Lake District ranger, said during an interview this summer on forest health that she felt they had made improvements but pointed out that staff cuts hindered them.

When asked about the public concern that the forest was being overwhelmed by insects and disease, she said that insect and disease rates and effects are considered natural processes in these forested stands. Endemic mortality due to insect and disease provide important habitat for many species and open up patches in the forest to allow for regeneration of young trees.

But she also pointed out that the Colville National Forest statistics show that only about 1 to 2 percent of the forest’s trees have problems now with insects or disease.

The confusion comes when the timber industry and some political leaders say that a third of national forests in general have these problems.

Pemberton said they know the Colville National Forest is in relatively good shape but will become like the rest of the national forests if they don’t speed up rehabilitation efforts.

The Forest Service’s Wenatchee insect and disease service center analyzed data produced by a 2012 aerial survey in order to provide land managers with a summary of insect and disease activity in particular areas.

Sears said the aerial survey information could give a valuable overview of recent tree damage at the time of the flight. She noted that trees identified as killed by bark beetles were generally attacked in the spring through summer 2011 or the spring of 2012.

It takes several months for the crown of a beetle-killed tree to lose its green color. The speed of the color change depends on the condition of the tree at the time of attack.

Sears said trees killed on the Newport/Sullivan Lake Ranger District based on the 2012 aerial survey were similar to 2011, and considerably less than 2010. Most reported tree mortality was mountain pine beetle in lodge pole pine.

She said trends might be related to several factors both natural and man caused.

For example, weather data shows that in 2009 annual rainfall was below average. The reduced rainfall likely triggered increased moisture stress on the trees and reduced their ability to ward off attacks by bark beetles. This may have led to an increase in the numbers of trees successfully attacked in 2009, which generally would not show up on the annual insect and disease flight until 2010. Rainfall was at or above normal for 2010 through 2012 so the trees would have increased vigor and be able to more successfully ward off the bark beetle attacks.

Man-caused forest health problems include decades of fire suppression and growing large areas of the same type tree and age.

Over the same time period from 2010 through 2012 the Newport/Sullivan Lake Ranger District targeted treating and restoring stands that were at high risk for bark beetle attack. These treatments also support the trend of reduced bark beetle attacks and subsequent mortality.

Sears said that their efforts to continue the past decade’s work of restoring forested stands on the Newport/Sullivan Lake District and across the Colville National Forest to healthier and more resilient conditions are focused on two areas.

First, they are trying to prevent epidemic outbreaks of insects and disease that kill large areas of the forest. The second is to reduce the risk of large, stand-replacing fires.

Sears said, “given the last few years of insect and disease occurrence data, I believe we have made progress toward this goal.”

Sears noted that mountain pine beetle, Douglas-fir beetle, western spruce budworm, and Douglas-fir tussock moth are a concern because of their ability to outbreak on a large scale.

There have been some recently completed projects to address insect and disease concerns by reducing stand densities to promote the health of the remaining trees. The healthiest and most resilient trees and tree species were retained in these projects: Wolf Trails (Newport Area), Misery (Ruby Creek Area), Hanlon/Scotchman (LeClerc Creek).

Future projects include:

• Power Lake Project (near Power Peak) – 20,000 acre planning area; planning (NEPA) process completed in 2012; work on the ground will begin in 2014

• Renshaw Project (near Ione) – 13,000 acre planning area; large stands of mature lodge pole in this project area would be treated to prevent epidemic outbreak of insect infestation; currently in the planning (NEPA) process; work proposed to start in 2016

• Limestone (near Canadian border) – planning area is 16,000 acres; inventory work in 2012/13, planning in 2014 work will probably start on ground in 2016.

History of logging

Sears also addressed concerns that more timber isn’t being harvested in the forest. First she explained that the mission of the Forest Service has changed in the last decade. The number one job isn’t to find more trees to harvest. It is to build and maintain a healthy forest. To do this there will always be logging but it isn’t the first priority.

Sears explained that the management philosophy has changed. The long term sustainable yield (LYST) and Allowable Sale Quantities (ASQ) in the 1988 Colville National Forest Plan were based on very aggressive forest management, most of it using logging and replanting techniques. Foresters would harvest stands about every 70 years over the majority of the suitable timber ground.

The Colville National Forest Plan, signed in 1988, describes the long-term sustained yield (LTSY) for the forest at 170.7 million board feet (mmbf) per year. Allowable Sale Quantities (ASQ) was 123 mmbf annually for the first four decades then approach the LTSY in decade seven.

The forest plan was amended in 1995 to include the Interim Management Direction Establishing Riparian, Ecosystem, and Wildlife Standards for Timber Sales, commonly referred to as the “Eastside Screens.” These are now in place and Vaagen’s plans will be subject to them just like every other project in the forest.

These screens are designed by scientists to protect wildlife habitat and decreased the potential harvest levels when compared to the 1988 plan.

The forest now manages stands for longer rotations, does not harvest timber from riparian habitat conservation areas, and is practicing forest restoration to increase forest health and resiliency.

Sears said that threatened and endangered species laws, new science and identified potential wilderness areas have also resulted in decreased potential harvest levels on the forest.

In 2013, the Colville National Forest will sell 43 mmbf, with 20 mmbf coming from the Newport/Sullivan Lake District in Pend Oreille County.

The Newport/Sullivan Lake Ranger District Oreille consists of 394,079 acres. There are 1.1 million acres of land on the Colville National Forest in Pend Oreille, Stevens, and Ferry counties.

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