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In NE Washington A Timber Truce, But Not Everyone Is On Board

For more than a decade, Northwest environmentalists have waged a war on what they consider unsustainable logging practices. They’ve filed lawsuit after lawsuit to stop timber sales.

That’s why in timber towns, environmentalists are often blamed for ruining the economy. So what if the two sides called a truce and decided to work together to bring back jobs and preserve the forest?

It’s happening in the Northeast corner of Washington. And that’s where we start our weeklong series on Northwest communities reinventing themselves. Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports.

On a dirt road in the Colville National forest, a helicopter logging operation is underway. Two men, Tim Coleman and Lloyd McGee, watch as the helicopter approaches with its load of logs.

 Coleman & McGee
Lloyd McGee and Tim Coleman with the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition

Not so long ago, Coleman and McGee were on opposite sides of the battle over logging in Northwest forests. Coleman, with the environmental group Conservation Northwest, was an avowed treehugger.

Tim Coleman: “I spent a couple of nights up in tree sits.”

While McGree, with Vaagen Brothers Lumber, made a living chopping down trees.

Lloyd McGee: “Treesitters and all that, I thought, oh brother these wacko environmentalists.”

Today, not only have these men buried the hatchet. McGee says they consider each other friends.

Lloyd McGree: “We are finding so much more in common than we ever thought and it all started with not waving a white flag but just saying hey let’s just have a peace summit you know?”

Out of that peace summit — in 2002 — was born the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. The members are people with a stake in what happens in the million-acre Colville National Forest.

Similar groups have formed in National Forest-dependant communities in Idaho and Oregon too. But the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition stands out as a model — in large part because logging on the Colville has doubled in recent years with no appeals or lawsuits by environmentalists.

On the drive back from the logging site, Coleman says his days of fighting in court are over.

Tim Coleman: “I’ve put down the litigation pen and the appeal pen and I’ve said let’s work on this from a point of cooperation and shared interest.”

That shared interest is saving the Colville National Forest from catastrophic fire — something neither loggers nor environmentalists want to see happen. So the Coalition has proposed a blueprint for managing the forest into the future.

In basic terms it calls for dividing the million acres into thirds: the third closest to civilization would be logged sustainably. The next third would be called a restoration area — where nursing the forest back to health is the priority, not logging. And the final third would be set aside as hands-off wilderness.

This compromise, if you will, has gotten both Coleman and McGee in trouble with their own people.

Lloyd McGee: “There is accusations out there that we’ve gone to the dark side or that we’re selling the farm, we’ve given away the farm.”

Tim Coleman: “In my case as a conservationists that we’re giving life support to an industry that otherwise would vanish and deservedly so.”

One especially vocal critic of the Coalition is Ferry County Commissioner Mike Blankenship. I met him at a cafe near the town of Kettle Falls.

Mike Blankenship: “You’ve put the weasel and the fox in the henhouse. You’re going to put them together and let them develop a plan for the Colville National Forest. Absolutely not. Not unless you’re a damn fool.”

Blankenship blasts the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition as a narrow special interest group. He says it benefits environmentalists and Vaagen Brothers Lumber whose specialty mill profits from the small diameter trees logged in thinning operations.

Blankenship says the coalition doesn’t speak for the people he represents in Ferry County.

Mike Blankenship: “We want no more roadless, we want more productivity off the forest and we want more recreation on the forest.”

Specifically more places to ride ATVs.

The Coalition’s Blueprint has yet to be adopted. Blankenship says he’s prepared to sue to block it. But the Coalition has the ear of the Forest Service. In fact the Colville National Forest has become a national test case for community collaboration.

Next we'll visit the coastal timber community of Coos Bay , Oregon: a little town with big port dreams.

Online: New Community Forestry

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