Taking control of the machine

Environmentalists and timber companies push big experiments in national forests

  • Iron Pine Logging uses a feller/buncher in the forest near Deer Lodge, Montana.

    Anne Sherwood
  • A worker at one of Sun Mountain Lumber's mills in Deer Lodge, Montana, passes by stacked lumber milled from locally cut trees.

    Anne Sherwood
  • Iron Pine Logging uses a feller/buncher in the forest near Deer Lodge, Montana, taking even small trees to the Sun Mountain Lumber mill

    Anne Sherwood
  • Sherm Anderson with some of his logging equipment

    Anne Sherwood
  • Eve Wills, courtesy Montana Wilderness Association

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It seems inevitable that someone would experiment with running things differently in this forest. The inspiration came in a 2005 congressional hearing on Montana's forest crisis, held in Missoula. Anderson, who'd battled environmentalists in the past, testified that he'd changed. As he puts it, "(Industry's) past practices were not the greatest. Things have changed, but some people haven't, and they think we're still raping and pillaging like in the old days." That surprised Montana Wilderness Association leaders Tim Baker and John Gatchell, who met Anderson at the hearing. "He's very thoughtful, very open-minded," Baker says.

The Montana Wilderness Association -- one of the oldest statewide wilderness groups, founded in 1958 -- was also frustrated and ready to try something new. The group had made repeated efforts to negotiate with the timber industry since the 1980s, but hadn't managed to get new wilderness areas designated. Watching the revival of wilderness politics in many compromise deals in other states, the group's board went through a shakeup in 2004, and in 2005 the realigned board brought in Baker as the new executive director, to bring a fresh approach to collaboration.

The MWA leaders talked with Anderson and visited his timber operation. As Anderson would say, it just kind of grew from there. Two more environmental groups joined the talks -- the National Wildlife Federation, represented by Tom France, who runs NWF's Northern Rockies office in Missoula, and Trout Unlimited, represented by Farling. Those groups had a track record of negotiating deals to protect wildlife by buying out grazing permits and gas leases.

Anderson brought in two more Montana timber companies and two manufacturers of particle-board and cardboard. Altogether, the companies employ several thousand people. The Montana Wilderness Association has about 5,000 members; Trout Unlimited has 3,200 in Montana and 150,000 nationwide, and the National Wildlife Federation has more than 4 million.

The negotiating table was in the Missoula office of a consulting firm that works with the timber industry. There, the representatives pored over maps and computer displays that detailed the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest's slopes, soil types and other conditions. They brought in consultants from the wider industry and from the national environmental movement. They roughed out the geographic boundaries and language for a proposed deal and then took it on the road, making hundreds of presentations to local governments, business groups, ATV and snowmobile groups, hunters and anglers, county fairs and other venues. Anderson stood beside the environmentalists and told the often-conservative audiences, "I'm a Republican, and a principle of our party is, ‘Control our own destiny.' "

In other words: Let's take charge of the forest.

In response to feedback, the partners adjusted boundaries and language. They got endorsements from county governments, unions and other groups.

These are the current basics of their proposal: They want to "reduce gridlock and promote local cooperation and collaboration" in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. They want new wilderness designations for 571,000 acres in 15 sections of the forest, plus about 58,000 acres in four pieces of nearby BLM land. They want "landscape-scale restoration" in much of the rest of the forest through stewardship contracts, a special, fairly new method for funding such work.

Each stewardship contract would bundle timber with various restoration tasks, such as removing old roads, fixing culverts and reducing the risk of big fires; companies would bid for the contracts and do the restoration while cutting trees. They promise it would be logging-lite: No tree-cutting within 300 feet of streams, and all new roads would be temporary -- used for a few years, and then most traces removed.

In return, loggers would get more efficient analysis of environmental impacts and a guaranteed flow of timber. The analysis for the stewardship contracts would be done in big chunks -- 50,000 acres or more in one bureaucratic swoop, lumping many projects together. Loggers would get access to 7,000 acres per year for 10 years, compared to about 1,300 acres per year this decade, which has been eked out through plans and lawsuits, not by guarantees. Anderson expects the increased acreage to yield 35 million board-feet of lumber or more per year, as opposed to the 9 million board-feet harvested annually in recent years.

Formal "advisory committees" -- made up of environmentalists, loggers and other stakeholders -- would shape the stewardship projects and related logging. They would help monitor results and tune management accordingly.

They took their proposal to Montana's Sen. Jon Tester, because their agreement will need congressional approval to designate wilderness and override the Forest Service in various ways. Tester, a Democrat who won the seat in 2006 by a few thousand votes, needs to work the political center and deliver noticeable results to get re-elected. Tester has been evaluating and fine-tuning the proposal for months; his office is very close-mouthed, but insiders say that he'll probably introduce a package of wilderness proposals in the Senate soon. And the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership probably won't get everything it wants.

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