National forest branches out

With less timber to sell, the Gifford Pinchot uses innovative management, partnerships to generate new revenue sources and restore damage from decades of logging

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Video

GPNF road decommissioning

The U.S. Forest Service decommissions a road in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service decommissions a road in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Video

Huckleberry burn

The U.S. Forest service and the Yakama Tribe cooperate on a controlled burn of the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

The U.S. Forest service and the Yakama Tribe cooperate on a controlled burn of the Sawtooth Huckleberry Fields in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Gifford Pinchot National Forest then and now

1990

Budget: $50 million.

Employees: 750.

Timber volume sold: 689 million board feet.

Ranger districts: 5.

2010

Budget: $17.8 million (plus $15.8 million in one-time stimulus funds and grants).

Employees: 171.

Timber volume sold: 16.5 million board feet.

Ranger districts: 3.

Value of partnerships: $4.1 million.

Collaborative groups: 3.

Back before the spotted owl, the salmon and ecosystem management changed the rules of the game, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest was one of the biggest timber producers in the Northwest.

The numbers tell the story.

In 1990, the 1.3-million-acre national forest in Vancouver’s backyard sold 689 million board feet of timber, enough to fill more than 1.2 million log trucks. The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan whittled that to 52 million board feet, a target the forest never met. In 2010, the forest sold 16.5 million board feet. This year, it sold 25 million board feet, slightly above its current goal.

In the late 1980s, before legal injunctions to protect the northern spotted owl and other species ushered in a new era in federal forest management, the forest service employed 750 at Gifford Pinchot headquarters in Vancouver and five ranger districts. The forest pumped tens of millions of dollars into the U.S. Treasury and had an operating budget of approximately $50 million.

Last year, the forest had a budget of $33 million, temporarily swelled by $15.8 million in stimulus funds and grants, and employed 166 permanent and 65 seasonal employees. Since 1990, its five ranger districts have been consolidated into three. The building that housed the Packwood Ranger District, where 60 to 80 Forest Service workers were based in the late 1980s, has been sold. It now houses a tool rental business.

What timber the Gifford Pinchot sells these days comes almost entirely from commercial thinning projects. The old-growth forests that remain are largely off-limits to logging.

It’s a familiar story in the Pacific Northwest, where the Northwest Forest Plan changed the paradigm for managing national forests from timber production to ecosystem management.

And yet, two decades after the end of big timber, the Gifford Pinchot, one of the nation’s oldest national forests, is a beehive of activity.

Crews are pulling culverts, decommissioning forest roads and taking out dams to improve fish passage. The forest is working with the Yakama Tribe to restore huckleberry fields near Mount Adams through the use of low-intensity fires. And it’s working with collaborative groups of conservationists, mill operators and community volunteers to plan forest-thinning and restoration projects across the forest.

These partnerships, and a small army of volunteers, do a lot of the work that agency employees once performed. Partnerships are worth $4.8 million to the forest annually, and the 46,000 hours volunteers contributed last year were worth $962,000.

The forest has found a significant new source of revenue in commercial sale of “special forest products,” including huckleberries, wild mushrooms and noble fir boughs prized by florists. Sales of those products, under guidelines that assure sustainable harvests, now bring in about $1 million annually, rivaling the $2.5 million to $3 million generated by timber. Under a federal law that expires in 2014, the forest gets to keep all that revenue rather than turn over a portion to the federal Treasury.

Faced with a sharp drop in timber revenue, forest administrators have been forced to become entrepreneurial. They actively seek partners, grants and other outside funding to carry out restoration projects.

“Being entrepreneurial on the forest puts us in a better place,” said GP spokesman Chris Streibig. “We have to be nimble.”

“We spend a lot more time leveraging money,” said forest administrator Dave Olson. “We have to justify each program.”

Since 2000, the forest has benefited from the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, passed by Congress to help timber-dependent counties make the transition to more diverse economies. Title II of the act pumps money into restoration projects intended to create jobs in the woods.

Last year, Title II contributed about $1.5 million to the forest. But the program expires this year, and Congress has not taken action to extend it. That has created a funding crisis for neighboring Skamania County, Washington’s largest recipient of Secure Rural Schools dollars.

A diverse resource

The Gifford Pinchot National Forest encompasses a diverse chunk of Southwest Washington, including Mount St. Helens and the National Volcanic Monument that surrounds it and Mount Adams on the drier east side of the Cascades. It’s carved by the Cowlitz and Lewis rivers, both dammed to generate hydroelectricity, and the free-flowing Wind River. About 180,000 acres of the forest is protected as congressionally designated wilderness.

After the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Forest Service built Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center and Johnston Ridge Observatory to serve visitors to the national monument. But with dwindling timber revenue, funding to operate and maintain those facilities lagged.

It was a rough time for an agency that had enjoyed generous funding in the era of big timber.

Back then, “We were generating money and putting it into the Treasury,” said Forest Supervisor Janine Clayton, who came to the GP in 2009. “No one questioned funding for the Forest Service. It had paid its way all those years. There was the expectation that we were going to be able to keep self-funding.”

President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus breathed new life into the monument. The Gifford Pinchot received about $12 million in all, including $7.5 million to repair and improve visitor attractions at Mount St. Helens and upgrade aging buildings.

Restoring lands

Much of what the Forest Service does these days is aimed at repairing the damage done during the decades of road-building and clear-cutting that screeched to halt in the early 1990s.

“If you think about it, we put so much money into the Treasury” in the heyday of logging, Clayton said. “We were all clear about what the mission was. I don’t think we fully appreciated the cost to the land.”

The GP is laced with 4,000 miles of logging roads, a legacy of the years when road-building penetrated almost every part of the forest outside wilderness areas. Today the forest maintains just 788 road miles and as revenue permits is decommissioning roads no longer needed.

Restoration work has been extensive in the Wind River watershed, which provides habitat for threatened Lower Columbia River steelhead.

As of 2010, the Forest Service had completed habitat restoration work in more than 15 stream miles in the watershed. It has thinned and revegetated hundreds of acres of streamside forest, removed two concrete dams, decommissioned numerous roads that once blocked fish migration, and replaced four fish-blocking culverts with bridges.

In September, in a green bower at the end of a rutted road off the Wind River Highway, a huge excavator chomped away at 2,000 cubic yards of dirt in a 25-foot-deep road bed and deposited buckets full in a waiting dump truck. Once a culvert carrying Youngman Creek under the road was exposed, it was lifted carefully out of the stream bed. The road bed was broken up and recontoured and the area was seeded with native grasses and mulched. This month, trees were planted.

Eventually, nature will erase all evidence of the road’s existence. “All of this will be gone and we’ll see the creek and a broad valley,” said project leader Bengt Coffin, a Forest Service hydrologist. “We’ll match the grade, the slopes, the elevation to the landscape we see around it. We’ll reconstruct a free-flowing stream” to connect migrating fish to upstream habitat.

The road, built to haul timber out of the Wind River drainage in the 1970s, had not been used for years, and the culvert was perched three feet above the stream, an impossible leap for juvenile steelhead and cutthroat trout.

In all, the Upper Wind River project will remove 20 culverts on four crossings of Oldman and Youngman creeks and several smaller culverts. The project will cost $51,000, but only about a quarter of that will be borne by the Forest Service. The Bonneville Power Administration, NOAA Fisheries and the conservation group Ecotrust all chipped in.

Coffin has overseen the decommissioning of several fish-blocking logging roads. He also led the project that removed Hemlock Dam on Trout Creek, a major tributary of the Wind River, in 2009.

“We’ve decommissioned 80 miles of road like this,” Coffin said. “Most had problems with either perched culverts or erosion or road failures. We don’t have enough money to maintain these roads. We have thousands of miles of roads that are slowly falling apart.”

The GP isn’t unique, he added; it’s following a Forest Service national directive. “We’re right-sizing our road system. It’s really kicked in the past couple of years. All the national forests have to come up with road systems that are sustainable.”

Collaboration

Over the past 20 years, the Gifford Pinchot has opened up its operations to active involvement by outside organizations.

“We are much more transparent and collaborative in working with the public on how we do forest management,” said GP administrator Olson. “We have open houses, we have field trips. I think it is a result of the collaborative effort in the Northwest Forest Plan,” which required each forest to establish a citizens’ advisory group, he said.

“It used to be that if people didn’t like what we were doing, they had to appeal or litigate. This is about getting people involved up front.”

The Gifford Pinchot Task Force, formed 26 years ago to serve as a watchdog, was the first conservation group to reach out to the timber industry and timber-dependent communities to help influence management decisions. In 2003, the task force formed the Pinchot Partnership, a first attempt at collaboration between conservationists and the hard-hit Cowlitz River towns of Randle and Packwood. The partnership hired contractors to conduct timber stand surveys on 33,000 acres of previously logged, second-growth forests and proposed thinning sales to improve forest health and get timber moving to local mills.

The effort was only partially successful, said Lisa Moscinski, the task force’s deputy director. The timber stand surveys “have proved to be really helpful,” she said. But instead of offering timber sales on these previously logged plantations, she said, forest timber sale managers continue to offer sales in 100-year-old, naturally generated stands that grew up after fire and provide high-quality wildlife habitat.

“One thing we learned is that it might be easier for a collaborative to have a more focused project,” she said. The task force decided to focus its efforts in areas where the Forest Service already was planning projects.

It has joined forces with the Mount Adams District Collaborative, a diverse group founded in 2008 to develop strategies for improving forest health and promoting economic development in the Mount Adams area. It’s developing a plan to restore meadows and remove roads in the Trout Lake and Cave Bear watersheds, which cover 78,000 acres. The work would occur in connection with a 5,000-acre Forest Service thinning project in the same area.

Moscinski hopes for a productive synergy. “The Forest Service often underfunds restoration work,” she said. “We thought if we could leverage additional funding, it would be helpful.”

Already, the collaborative has won a $108,000 grant to cover the initial planning, and restoration work could begin as soon as next year.

In 2008, the task force released its own 20-year plan for the GP. It called for strategic forest thinning, road removal, and policy changes to reduce the impact of grazing, mining and off-road vehicle use. It outlined a vision for increasing protection for fish and wildlife, including the gray wolf and the northern spotted owl, while putting people to work in family-wage jobs. And it envisioned that the task force would be an active partner.

The GP could become “a model for restored Northwest ecosystems,” said Emily Platt, then president of the task force. “We have an exciting opportunity to replace the timber wars of the past with a new and hopeful vision that can support our communities and native biodiversity,” she said.

Three years later, with help from its partners, the Forest Service has accomplished several important goals, Moscinski said. Those include removing Hemlock Dam, canceling a grazing permit near Mount Adams to protect a rare butterfly, and decommissioning old logging roads to restore fish passage.

“I guess our only concern is the continued focus on timber,” Moscinski said. “We feel a lot of the reason it continues to be a focus is that it continues to be a performance measure” on which the GP is evaluated by the Forest Service, she said.

Seeking timber

Jim Mickel is chief executive officer of WKO Inc., which operates mills in the Skamania County towns of Carson and Home Valley and in Parkdale, Ore. He agreed to take part in the Mount Adams Collaborative at the request of a Skamania County commissioner. He says he participates out of necessity.

“My involvement is from the standpoint that we need logs,” he said. “We have seen the offerings from the Gifford Pinchot decrease significantly. This thinning sale will amount to some volume.”

The Forest Service will offer up to four thinning sales of trees 40 to 60 years old on the Mount Adams district. Typically, loggers are allowed to cut only the smallest-diameter trees and only about 20 percent of the stand.

“Any volume from anywhere helps,” Mickel said. “If we had our preference, we would do a clear cut. That’s not politically popular right now.”

In his ongoing quest for raw material, Mickel has bought half the stewardship sales offered by the GP and Mount Hood national forests in recent years. Winning bidders on those sales are paid in timber and required to perform restoration projects such as precommercial thinning, topping trees for wildlife and repairing roads as part of the deal.

Mickel can still make money on them. “The reality is that we are able to save on the cost of the restoration work. We can hire contractors for less than the U.S. government.”

He agrees with Moscinski that there needs to be more thinning of plantation forests.

“There are hundreds of thousands of acres of plantations on the Gifford Pinchot from logging 20 to 50 years ago,” he said. “All that could benefit from commercial thinning. Once they are 35 years old, they will make saw logs.”

But he doesn’t agree with the GP Task Force’s decision to appeal a court ruling approving a big thinning sale called Wildcat in the Lewis River watershed. The appeal will delay for years a sale that would have provided 20 million to 30 million board feet of timber, plus a significant amount of restoration work.

Is it possible for the timber industry and conservationists to engage in true collaboration?

“I can only speak from my point of view,” Mickel said. “Because of my background in business and silviculture, I believe that management of the forest is a preferable alternative. Many of the environmentalists want no management. We aren’t getting everything we want, they aren’t getting everything they want, but the projects are going ahead.”

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