Recently, Washington’s largest environmental, wildlife and natural resources agencies recognized 43 large forest landowners for their “exemplary efforts” to upgrade forest roads and stream crossings which improved salmon habitat and water quality.
After investing more than $300 million collectively, these landowners rebuilt 25,000 miles of forest roads, replaced over 6,000 in-stream barriers to migrating fish, and opened in excess of 3,500 miles of previously blocked spawning habitat.
The recognition is a milestone in collaboration and a remarkable turnaround from nearly a half-century ago when regulators, fishermen and loggers were at each other’s throats.
It took a couple of visionary leaders from vastly different backgrounds to set up the problem-solving framework which is in place today.
Billy Franks, Jr., the legendary Nisqually tribal leader, was a fisherman with an engaging personality and an abundance of common sense and wisdom. Even though he fought bitter fish wars and was arrested, he wasn’t resentful. To him, the battles weren’t about the past, they were about the future.
Stu Bledsoe was a World War II Navy fighter pilot who saw combat in the Pacific Theater. He had the same warmth, engaging manner, and genuine commitment to settling a feud which many thought was unable to be resolved.
Bledsoe was a rancher, former legislator and state agriculture director in the Evans Administration, and head of the Washington Forest Protection Association — the powerful organization representing private forest landowners.
Together, they were the “calmer heads” which were needed to reduce tensions and set a respectful tone. They started bringing leaders together to listen to one another’s perspective and research to find what would work.
At that time, Judge George Boldt, a Tacoma federal jurist, issued game-changing rulings which were upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the landmark decisions didn’t settle differences, they only exacerbated them.
Boldt ruled that natural fish spawning and rearing habitat must be restored. That meant reducing silt in spawning beds, curbing soil erosion from logging roads, and reducing harvest areas along streams to keep water temperatures low.
The overriding fact was wild salmon and steelhead runs were declining. Something dramatic needed to happen outside the courts and legislative chambers.
Bledsoe understood that forest landowners were in for dramatic and costly changes, but his members could not afford another round of prolonged litigation nor to be shut out of the woods.
Frank felt the same way. He would say that while the lawyers argue, fish runs decline. Litigation meant paralysis for everyone.
Both took risks and recognized they had a hard sell with their constituents. The talks were emotionally charged and at times, were on the verge of unraveling. Somehow, Frank and Bledsoe kept the train from derailing.
After a decade of hard work, the forests and fish agreement was ratified by the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gardner in the 1980s. It led to streamside buffer zones, road culverts revisions which allowed migrating fish to pass and put sensitive areas off-limits to logging.
The bottom line was simple. Frank wanted fish runs restored and Bledsoe wanted timber landowners to be able to plant, manage and harvest trees. They soon realized their interests were compatible.
To Bledsoe and Frank respectful relationships mattered as did the words they wrote and spoke. They realized that unless they brought people with diverse views together and found ways to work out their differences, everyone would lose.
It’s the best way to build public trust and solve problems.
Don Brunell, retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, is a business analyst, writer, and columnist. He lives in Vancouver and can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.