N.W. has new leader in stewardship of forests

Regional forester has had hand in agency’s transition

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Two weeks into his new job, Northwest Regional Forester Kent Connaughton made his first trip to Johnston Ridge on Wednesday to mark the 31st anniversary of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

It was an emotional occasion for him as he recalled the transformation of the mountain and the loss of life that day, including the death of David Johnston, a young U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist for whom Johnston Ridge Observatory is named.

“This was the place that David was killed,” Connaughton said. He couldn’t help recalling the young scientist’s last words — “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” — and imagining his colleague’s final seconds before he was engulfed in the volcano’s lateral blast.

Connaughton, 64, was working as a forest economist in the Portland office of the Forest Service’s research branch at the time. It wasn’t the career path he’d planned.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and serving three years on active duty in the Mediterranean, he was having second thoughts about a career as a naval officer and reconsidering plans to attend graduate school in marine biology at Yale.

He had a strong desire to plant his feet squarely on solid ground.

He decided to consult his father, Charlie Connaughton, who had served as Northwest regional forester, overseeing national forests in Washington and Oregon, from 1967 to 1971.

“When I was in the Navy, I wrote him a letter on his retirement,” Connaughton recalled Wednesday. “A couple of months later, I wrote him again. The Navy was downsizing. I asked him, ‘What about forestry?’”

His father said he happened to know of a forestry school in Oregon. He also happened to know the dean of the Oregon State University School of Forestry, Carl Stoltenberg, who went on to serve 22 years in the post.

Introductions were made. Connaughton was admitted. He graduated in 1973, “took a detour” to the University of California, where he earned a Ph.D. in forest economics, and began his Forest Service career in 1978.

At the time, timber was flowing out of the national forests of Washington and Oregon at the rate of 4 billion to 5 billion board feet annually. The Northwest’s Region 6 was the nation’s top producer of federal timber. The concept of ecosystem management wasn’t in the agency’s lexicon, and the northern spotted owl was still only an obscure forest-dweller of little interest to federal biologists. In the Northwest, the agency’s mission was driven largely by the imperative to get out the cut.

Like Mount St. Helens, the Forest Service has gone through a dramatic transformation since Connaughton’s early years with the agency.

The owl was listed as a threatened species. The timber sale program shrank dramatically. (In 2010, the agency sold just 510 million board feet of timber in Region 6. )

And as the agency, the timber industry and Northwest timber towns struggled through the transition, a new concept — the idea of managing the national forests for sustainable timber, recreation, fish and wildlife, and ecological values — began to take hold.

Connaughton had a hand in that transition when he was assigned to coordinate and implement 18 economic development and watershed restoration plans established by the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.

During his 32-year career with the agency, he has also served as supervisor of northern California’s Lassen National Forest, as project manager for forests in California’s Sierra Nevada range, and as a deputy regional forester in the Pacific Southwest.

In 2005, he was named associate deputy chief for state and private forestry in the Forest Service Chief’s office in Washington, D.C. And in 2007 he was named regional forester for the Eastern Region, which stretches across 20 states, from Maine to Minnesota, and encompasses thousands of lakes, 15,000 miles of streams, and 2 million acres of wetlands.

Now he’s back in Region 6. In the years since the old-growth timber wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said, the national forests of the Northwest have become leaders in environmental stewardship.

Let’s work together

Collaborative efforts between the Forest Service and its various stakeholders, including timber companies, labor unions, conservationists and community organizations, are the agency’s new mantra. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest, headquartered in Vancouver, works closely with three such groups. The Portland-based Gifford Pinchot Task Force continues to serve as a watchdog over forest management in Southwest Washington but also gets out on the ground to help GP managers design thinning sales.

The agency also is reaching out to private and other public land managers in an effort to manage landscapes across property lines and political boundaries. That’s especially true for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

“Mount St. Helens has always had to be about collaboration,” Forest Service spokesman Tom Knappenberger said, because the monument crosses county lines and is surrounded by industrial forest land.

Also, the agency is launching a national effort to review its extensive system of forest roads, many of which are eroding and in disrepair.

Connaughton says it’s all good. “I’m gratified to see the collaborative efforts,” he said.

When asked for his response to the views of those who would like to see Mount St. Helens administered by the National Park Service as a recreation destination, he immediately slips into collaborative mode.

How public lands are administered is determined by the goals the public sets for those lands, he said. “I think both agencies would find common ground” in promoting the research, recreation and educational values of the monument, he said.

As Congress sharpens its budget knife, the Forest Service, as a nondiscretionary federal program, could find its own budget slashed in coming years. Connaughton is philosophical about the prospect.

“My personal philosophy is, we’ll take what Congress appropriates and make the best use of it,” he said. “My commitment is to tell them that I can deliver what they think needs to be delivered, and to be imaginative” in making ends meet.

And if Congress should direct the Forest Service to ramp up timber sales dramatically?

“We have to do it the right way,” he said. “We are stewards of this land.”

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, the agency’s first broad attempt at ecosystem management, was adopted during the Clinton administration to get the west-side timber sale program out of the courts. Is it still working 17 years later?

“The broad goals are quite durable,” Connaughton said. “Some of the means to achieve those goals might need to change.”

Protecting wildlife

The most controversial issue facing the Forest Service right now is the Obama administration’s proposal to change the rule under which the agency develops individual forest plans. Comment closed on the proposed rule earlier this month.

Under 1982 amendments to the 1976 National Forest Management Act, the agency is required to maintain the viability of vertebrate species that dwell in national forests by protecting their habitat. It was that “viability standard,” not the Endangered Species Act, that environmental lawyers used to protect the spotted owl and other forest-dwelling species.

Many national and regional conservation groups oppose the new rule, saying it gives individual forests too much discretion in how they protect sensitive species and weakens protections for wildlife.

“We want to see basic minimum standards for water quality, climate change and wildlife protection,” said Sean Stevens, spokesman for the conservation group Oregon Wild. “The Obama rule says the agency can do its best job,” but it lacks teeth, he said. “It’s taking a step back from the 1982 rule, which is meant to be a preventative measure. It’s intended to avoid things like spotted owl listings that have an impact across the region.”

Connaughton doesn’t see it that way.

The proposed rule does give individual forests more flexibility, he said, but it still requires the agency to manage national forests in a way that ensures native species will persist and the habitat conditions that support them also will persist.

“One thing I really like about the rule is that it calls for a wider consideration of what the public wants from its national forests,” he said. It calls on the agency to consider the social and cultural values of public lands. The national forest system “has an important environmental purpose, it has a social purpose, it has an economic purpose.”

How has the culture of the Forest Service changed in the 32 years since Connaughton joined its ranks?

“The idea that conservation has a collaborative element is quite dominant now,” he said. “We work with other landowners in other jurisdictions. Those themes have matured.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.