Group tries to change how trees are cut

  • Logger Bob Love (L) with Steve Thompson of Mont. Wilderness Assn.

    Sherry Jones

KALISPELL, Mont. - Strange bedfellows, the logger and the conservationist. Yet here in the Flathead Valley the two have joined forces to try to revolutionize the way America's public forests are managed.

"Our goal is to look at the entire forest," says Steve Thompson of the Montana Wilderness Association. "Environmental goals are the prime concern and timber is a by-product."

To that end, Thompson and other members of the Flathead Forestry Project have written the Forest Ecosystem Stewardship Demonstration Act, introduced in Congress as HR 1682 by Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont. The bill would allow the U.S. Forest Service to hire loggers as "stewards' of tracts of land, cutting trees as part of an overall plan for the forest's health. The agency then would sell the logs to the highest-bidding timber company.

The bill turns the current timber sale procedure on its head. Now when the Forest Service wants to sell trees, it contracts with a timber mill, which in turn hires the lowest-bidding loggers to cut those trees. Profit, not land protection, is the motive behind the method - a method that, project members say, has sown discord and distrust among all the factions involved and led to a timber-harvest stalemate on local public lands.

"The Flathead National Forest has come to a standstill with regard to timber sales," says Flathead project member Brent Mitchell of Kalispell, who also is active in the Audubon Society. "If there was ever going to be a change, we thought now was the time to try and move it."

That sentiment was the impetus behind the Flathead Forestry Project's formation one and one-half years ago, Mitchell says. "We wanted to try to set up some sort of dialogue, and get past this impasse."

A small group, including Carol Daly of the Flathead Economic Policy Center, Keith Olson of the Montana Logging Association and Lex Blood of the Glacier Institute, began meeting and quickly discovered common ground: They all wanted to maintain logging. They wanted the Forest Service's timber sales to consider the environment as well as economics. And they wanted to rebuild the community's trust in public-lands management.

They were able to agree on these goals without fisticuffs or shouting matches, Mitchell points out.

"The timber industry learned early on that we weren't trying to put them out of business," he says. "We think logging has a place. We're trying to change the way business is done."

"The energy in the group is very positive," Daly says. "Everybody is looking for solutions."

Writing legislation was never the group's goal. But when it asked the Forest Service to try its stewardship approach, agency officials said it was illegal.

"They said, "We can't do it unless you get the law changed," "''''Daly says.

Penned by Daly, Thompson and the Montana Logging Association's Keith Olson, the Forest Ecosystem Stewardship Demonstration Act is small in scale and narrow in scope. It allows the Forest Service to offer demonstration sales of 300,000 board-feet or less per project, though the sales cannot occur in roadless areas or involve new road construction. It limits logging contractors to those with 25 or fewer employees. It creates forest stewardship councils made up of citizens from a variety of sectors, much like the Flathead group, to monitor each sale.

And it's an option, not a mandate, Thompson says. "The bill authorizes, but it doesn't shove (stewardship forestry) down anybody's throat," he said. Rather, HR 1682 is designed to give the concept a chance, he said.

Williams, who introduced the bill this spring, calls it "a good product. It won't work everywhere," he says, "but it has a good chance for being a successful salvage process in many parts of the country."

He doesn't expect the bill to become law as is, he says, but it may pass muster as part of a timber salvage reform bill. Alternatively, Forest Service officials are considering which, if any, aspects of the bill they can adopt without congressional approval, Williams says.

Large timber mills pose the greatest threat to the bill's chances, Williams says. "It doesn't provide a way to produce enough salvage timber for the large mills," he says. "But that's not what it was intended to do.

"Timber's dirty little secret is that the big boys don't get along with the little mill owners," he says. "It's the big boys who are sitting in the back room with the new Republican leadership writing the new salvage timber bill."

Criticism has come from both sides of the fence. The American Forest and Paper Association dislikes the bill because it doesn't address the bigger problems in timber salvage on public lands, says Rem Kohrt, general manager at Stoltze Lumber Co. of Columbia Falls and a member of the Flathead project. And environmentalists, including Steve Kelly of Bozeman, who ran for Williams' seat in the 1994 congressional election, oppose the bill essentially because it allows more logging in addition to conventional contracts.

"I don't think it's got a chance in Congress," says independent logger Bob Love, who sits on the board of directors of the Montana Wilderness Association. "Its value is that it will start to promote dialogue. We have the feeling people are tired of extremists, tired of politics, and looking for some kind of solution. That's what this bill is addressing."

Steve Thompson is more optimistic about the bill's passage. Support for it has been growing throughout the summer, he says. Regardless of the bill's fate, however, the idea behind it will get tested in the coming months. Under a stewardship contract arranged by the Flathead Forestry Project, loggers will cut timber off a 20-acre private parcel located between Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

For more information contact Steve Thompson of the Montana Wilderness Association, 406/755-6304.

Sherry Jones writes from Missoula, Montana.

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