NE Wash. timber projects get visits from federal delegation

Two key members of Washington’s federal delegation visited forest collaborative sites in Northeast Washington in recent weeks.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, last month visited a site in the Colville National Forest.

The congresswoman was joined by Vicki Christiansen, the interim chief of the U.S. Forest Service, on a tour Thursday of areas north of Colville where the firm Vaagen Bros. won a unique contract to thin 54,000 acres of dense forestland. Known as the “A to Z Program” – so named because Vaagen is responsible for all portions of the work, including environmental review – McMorris Rodgers and Christiansen said the model illustrates the future of forest management.

…Crews are performing the same work to reduce tree canopy that would have otherwise been conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, which didn’t have the cash or the resources to keep up with the backlog of thinning that needed to be done to reduce the threat of massive wildfires, said Rodney Smoldon, the forest supervisor for the Colville National Forest.

“I would say it’s been a big success,” Smoldon told assembled lawmakers and officials, beneath a sky hazy from the smoke of fires raging in central Washington and Canada.

The private partners are treating areas of the forest faster, at lower costs and producing more sellable lumber than the Forest Service could on its own, Smoldon said. Where the Forest Service estimated it could treat 6,000 acres of forestland and produce about 45 million to 60 million board feet of lumber each year, the partnership has allowed crews to handle 16,000 acres a year, producing close to 150 million board feet of lumber.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers wants to see similar public-private partnerships.

(The A to Z project) means jobs for the local economy, said McMorris Rodgers. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Washington found that for each additional million board feet of lumber produced, roughly 12 jobs are created in forest-related industries.

McMorris Rodgers has introduced federal legislation that would enable similar programs to take place elsewhere in the country. In the spring, she invited Christiansen to the Colville National Forest to tour the project area and see for herself the fruits of the partnership between the Forest Service, Vaagen Bros. and Northwest Management, Inc., the forestry service hired to supervise the thinning work to ensure compliance with Forest Service standards.

“Our goal here is to improve the health of the Colville National Forest,” McMorris Rodgers said. “That is one of the best deterrents to catastrophic wildfires, is to have healthy forests. When you have trees that are stressed and damaged, that makes them more susceptible to the fire.”

Vaagen Brothers’ partnership with the Forest Service covers 54,000 acres in the Mill Creek area of the Colville National Forest. Federal leaders now want to start an A to Z project in another part of the national forest, which U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Seattle, discussed in a local visit last week.

Tuesday’s meeting (with Cantwell and other stakeholders) was about starting a second A-to-Z project in the Chewelah area, called Chewelah A-to-Z that would encompass roughly 20,000 more acres than the Mill Creek Project in the Colville National Forest just east of Chewelah.

That puts the area at close to 80,000 total acres, and it will include more industrial, private, and state lands than the Mill Creek A-to-Z.

…The project is meant to add value to the area as a viable source for building the economy and involve the community through a focus on recreation, especially new or improved trail systems.

In all, it was said that the Chewelah A to Z could generate millions of dollars, paying for recreation, tourism and roads, while also working to mitigate fire danger.

“We’ve been positioning ourselves for this for four years,” Chewelah Mayor Dorothy Knauss said during the discussion about the city’s work to prepare for the increases in tourism that the A to Z project and other ventures could bring.

…Beyond recreation, the project also focuses on long-term care and fire management, a major concern with multiple major fires causing damage in recent years.

The project calls for a 20-year plan that would maintain roads and help to mitigate fire danger through selectively clearing timber where it is thick and dying, two factors that can fuel major fires.

…Those involved in the project hope to get bids out and begin work starting in Spring, 2019.