Listen: Hear the “Timber Wars” podcast tell the full story of an unlikely partnership between environmentalists and loggers.
So, a logger and an environmentalist walk into a forest together…
It sounds like a joke, because, at least historically speaking, loggers and environmentalists didn’t go anywhere in Oregon together. If they crossed paths in the forest, it was because they were on opposite sides of a road blockade or logging protest.
But not in eastern Oregon’s Grant County. Here, loggers and environmentalists have been walking in the woods together for years.
“So did this pencil out?” environmental attorney Susan Jane Brown asked during a tour of different logging treatments in the Malheur National Forest in August 2019.
“Yeah, easy logging,” responded Zach Williams, a forester for the company that cut the trees, Iron Triangle. “I don’t hesitate to say this was the best sale we’ve had in years.”
Brown and Williams are part of the forest collaborative group Blue Mountains Forest Partners. They’ve been so successful at finding common ground that environmentalists haven’t filed a single anti-logging lawsuit on the Malheur National Forest since 2003.
It might not seem like a big deal to see environmentalists and loggers working together in the woods. But in the Northwest, it is.
In the 1980s, environmentalists protested timber sales across the region, sparking what was called the Timber Wars. By the late ’90s, they had managed to severely limit logging in federal forests, which crushed timber-dependent areas like Grant County.
Related: The "Timber Wars" podcast tells the story of how an epic fight over the last of America's old growth forests transformed the Pacific Northwest forever.
“I can’t even name the amount of kids I grew up with that: families lost jobs; the mill lost, you know, lost whole logging companies; businesses started to close down,” Williams said. “Slowly but surely, you start to wonder if you’re going to be a ghost town at some point.”
Williams’s family goes back five generations in the area. He watched his father close their sawmill, and he said locals blamed environmentalists for locking up the trees.
“At that point in our lives, ‘Susan Jane Brown’ were extremely dirty words to say around here.”
“I certainly was concerned about my safety at that time,” said Brown, who, as a lawyer at the Western Environmental Law Center, regularly appealed timber sales on the Malheur National Forest. “I had been run out of town before — had been tailgated by pickup trucks. I’ve had air let out of my tires.”
So how did these two groups go from enemies to tromping through the woods together?
What it took was a few locals realizing in 2003 that they couldn’t beat Brown in the courtroom. So they invited her to Grant County to see if they could find some way to manage the forest that would meet both their goals. And Brown agreed, bringing along other environmentalists she worked with.
They started meeting informally every couple of months in the back room of a local restaurant. And about the only thing they could agree on was a name for the group, the Blue Mountains Forest Partners (and even that was contentious).
“I’ll begin by describing some of those early meetings,” said Mark Webb, who was the county judge during the early years of the collaborative, before losing reelection in part due to his participation with the group. “Industry and community members are on one side of it. Environmental community’s on the other. And we have a third party, a facilitator, that’s walking back and forth between us, because we couldn’t talk to one another. It was that bad — almost that poisonous.”
Webb, who is now the group’s executive director, said he considered it a multicultural conversation, because it was like the two sides spoke a different language. When they said something like “healthy forest,” they meant two completely different things.
So to find common language and common ground, they made a fateful decision: they committed to follow the science. They invited ecologists, biologists, silviculturists and other scientists to tour the forests with them and talk about what exactly makes a forest healthy. And where there wasn’t clear science, they commissioned their own.
Such was the case for this tour on a hot August day. One of the most contentious issues for the collaborative over the years has been salvage logging, or the logging of trees that are dead or damaged from fire.
Loggers historically rush to harvest burned timber because, to them, leaving wood to decay is like watching money rot on trees — to say nothing of providing fuel for future wildfires.
But to environmentalists and scientists salvage logging is anathema, because these burned forests provide essential habitat for many animals, especially woodpeckers.
So, when more than 110,000 acres burned in the 2013 Canyon Creek Complex Fire, much of it on the Malheur National Forest, instead of seeing it as another thing to fight about, the Blue Mountains Forest Partners saw it as an opportunity. They invited Forest Service biologist Vicki Saab to create a study that would determine whether there was a level of salvage logging that could provide an economic benefit to the local community without compromising woodpecker habitat.
Saab’s study involved logging different test sites at different levels, ranging from cutting no trees to cutting most of them, and then tracking how woodpeckers fared over four years.
As they toured the test sites at the end of the study, Saab said that the preliminary results suggested that selective logging had minimal negative impact on Lewis’s and white-headed woodpeckers, but that it appeared to cause a slow decline in the nesting numbers of black-backed woodpeckers.
At the end of the tour, the group circled up around a charred, old-growth ponderosa pine that had housed one of the study’s woodpeckers.
“I definitely agree this was a success,” said Williams, whose company had logged in the study area. “Susan Jane detests salvage logging, and if I’m being honest, I look at this burn — 110,000 acres — and look at salvaging 5,000 of it and think: how is that really going to harm habitat? And I’m not going to say that I think any differently about that, but that’s the point of collaboration. And if this is the kind of process we have to go through, then it worked.”
“I agree,” Brown said. “And I don’t want this to be one off. And we can do salvage, and we can take logs to the mill, and people can earn a living wage, and we also don’t have to kill a bunch of birds in the process.”
Following the science gave them a shared language to talk about the forest. But it was also dangerous, because it meant both sides had to be willing to change their beliefs.
For environmentalists, that means not only accepting Saab’s research that some level of salvage logging might be compatible with woodpecker habitat, but that logging itself can be an important tool in forest restoration.
That’s because the scientists they’ve worked with argue that these dry, eastside forests, like many of the drier conifer forests in southern Oregon and throughout California, are now overgrown. The main cause is a century of putting out the low-intensity fires that historically burned through the forests on a regular basis, cleaning out the duff and small trees that now crowd the forest and make it ripe for much larger catastrophic fires. But the scientists suggest that the way to restore them to their historic state is going to involve both fire and logging, because logging gives more control over what trees are preserved and which are removed (for instance, keeping the old-growth ponderosa pine trees while removing the smaller, faster-growing fir trees that now crowd it out).
“The more time you spend out looking at this stuff and the more the science can inform what we’re seeing, the more willing many of us in the environmental community have been to having a conversation about, ‘OK, chainsaws, I think we’re going to need some chainsaws out here,’” Brown said. “And the other side of the equation, for the community, they’re getting more comfortable talking fire — prescribed and wildfire. Because you look at these forests, and they’re out of whack. And given climate change, it’s not going to get any better on its own.”
Perhaps the greatest test of this partnership came in 2012, when Grant County’s last sawmill announced it was closing for a lack of timber.
“I was like, this is not OK,” said Brown, who learned the news as she was returning home from a backpacking trip. “If the mill closes, this community just dries up and blows away. It’s really the mainstay of what’s keeping this community alive.”
But it wasn’t just the community. Brown realized the mill was also keeping the collaborative alive because it bought the timber they cut out of the forest during their restoration work, which in turn funded the work.
So she started making phone calls. She got Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s office involved. She roped in other conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy and Sustainable Northwest. And she got the mill’s president, Bruce Daucsavage, and the county’s biggest logging operations on board.
The result was what’s called a 10-year stewardship contract. It guaranteed that the Forest Service would pay for a certain amount of restoration work for 10 years, ensuring a sustained level of logging.
“I think that’s when I really looked at Susan Jane,” Daucsavage said. “She was putting her neck out on the line from her side, because she was actually being presented as more of a moderate. And I’m sure she had plenty of feedback from people that were winning the battle.”
Brown did get pushback. She still gets it. But she hasn’t been the only one.
“A lot of my friends in the industry said, ‘you’ve gone to the dark side, this will never work,’” continued Daucsavage. “And my response was, ‘I don’t think it’s the dark side. It’s a little gray. But what are my alternatives?’ And I got to tell you, I’m learning something more about the forest than just harvesting trees.”
Whatever shade of gray the agreement lived in, the economic results were black and white. The logging company Iron Triangle won the contract and doubled its staff from around 50 to more than 100. The Forest Service office also staffed up by dozens of positions. All told, the contract supported more than 250 jobs a year.
“Susan Jane, she’s my hero,” said Daucsavage. “She helped save a lot of jobs.”
Related: Episode 7 of the "Timber Wars" podcast tells the full story of how the Blue Mountains Forest Partners stepped in to save the Malheur Lumber Company sawmill.
For Brown, after years of collaborating with folks in Grant County, saving the mill was about a lot more than just ensuring the future of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners.
“When the mill was going to close, I was just like, my friends are going to lose their jobs. And just like any friendship, you want your friends to be happy and healthy and successful,” she said. “And now that these folks are my friends, that’s what I want for them. And that’s what they want for me. I have no doubt about that.”
Of course, not everything’s perfect. The 10-year stewardship contract has fallen short on some of its goals, both environmentally and economically. The collaborative is again at loggerheads with the U.S. Forest Service over how the agency is implementing restoration work and the new forest plan for the Malheur National Forest. And there are critics on both sides who feel their side has compromised too much along the way. But the process itself — the collaboration — is the kind of success that social scientists and policy makers fly out to study. Because it can provide a road map not just for how to approach forest management elsewhere, but for how to approach other deeply divisive issues, like climate change.
“We’re not fighting the old wars anymore,” Brown said. “There are new battles. We need to deal with climate change. We need to deal with putting more fire on the ground. And we can’t do that in the way that we used to.”