JOHN DAY — Longtime Oregon lumberman John Shelk remembers the first time a colleague suggested that if he was interested in the idea of collaboration, he might want to talk to Andy Kerr.

“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, really ... there aren’t enough hours in the day,’” recalled Shelk, the managing director of Ochoco Lumber.

Wade Mosby, a Collins Pine Co. executive, had suggested the conversation because of Kerr’s involvement in Lakeview’s Federal Sustained Yield Unit, home to one of the longest running and most productive collaborative efforts in the state. 

Kerr was better known, however, as a firebrand environmentalist with a knack for making headlines and leaving the old industry guard spitting mad.

Mosby also had been telling Kerr to talk to Shelk – and getting an equally skeptical response.

“We knew of each other, and we had low opinions of each other,” Kerr recalled. “We came from opposite sides of the timber war.”

 Eventually, Kerr met with Shelk at his office in Prineville. A tentative discussion led to a couple of trips into the woods. One was to the Malheur National Forest, where Tim Lillebo of Oregon Wild and Mike Billman of the Ochoco subsidiary, Malheur Lumber, had already been promoting collaboration.

“We realized that the world had changed, and we had a lot more in common than we thought,” said Kerr.

 

Partnership helped foster legislation

The unlikely alliance between the two men fostered perhaps the most high-profile legislative effort to date to bolster active management in the federal forests. The Oregon Eastside Forest Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act was unveiled in December 2009 by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, flanked by a coterie of environmental and industry representatives – including Shelk and Kerr.

The bold plan was to require the U.S. Forest Service to identify and develop landscape-scale projects – at least 25,000 acres – on the federal forests in Eastern Oregon, with an aim of supplying timber for local mills, improving over-dense forest stands and retaining or creating jobs. 

Despite an 11th-hour push, the bill stalled out last December as the Senate minority blocked virtually all attempts to pass public lands bills before the end of the session. Wyden hasn’t given up, however. On Jan. 27, he reintroduced the proposal, with revisions, as Senate Bill 220.

Whatever happens in the new session, proponents say the proposal has focused a national spotlight on the plight of the fire- and disease-prone forests of Eastern Oregon. It also reflected an evolving approach to forest management – one that puts former foes like Shelk and Kerr at the same table in an attempt to shortstop the litigation that has shut down logging on the eastside forests over the past two decades.

Wyden says the eastside alliance arose out of a mutual recognition by forest stakeholders – many of them former adversaries – that the forests and the communities amidst them are in crisis.

“We saw that there’s this window of time,” he said in a recent interview, “and it’s going to close in a hurry. The mills are going to close, the fires are going to burn down the forests.”

Wyden said it’s no surprise that the citizens who gathered to hash out the Eastside Forests bill include “principled and pragmatic folks” from both camps. They saw dwindling options.

“If we lose the mills, we won’t have jobs for the communities, and we won’t have that infrastructure that’s so necessary for environmental restoration,” he said.

Observers say the press conference helped to plant the seeds of that message in an important arena – the halls of Congress.

For Kerr and Shelk, the journey began with some trips into the woods to kick the duff and talk about trees. 

“The idea was to see if we could find any common points of interest, beyond thinking the other is an SOB,” Shelk said. Despite a tension headache or two, the meetings generated some agreement – and the tantalizing idea that the group should work on legislation for a compromise over the forests of Oregon.

The discussions proceeded with a hand-picked group of environmentalists and industry people – seven from each side. Shelk said that by seeking out moderates, “it took out the bomb-throwers on either end of the spectrum.”

The “7x7” group still represented an array of views – from the Oregon Wild to Roseburg Lumber, from Pacific Rivers Council to the American Forest Resources Council. Shelk remembers the first meeting for its classic body language: “Everybody was armed for battle.”

Participants knew that the forests were overgrown, and that fires and insects were destroying thousands of acres of trees. Yet they were wary of each other’s motives for still-polarized stands on active management. Shelk recalls it went something like: “You’re blocking any sort of activity in the forest” vs. “You just want to cut down more big trees.”

Throughout, the participants tested each other on specific scenarios. 

“Let’s say a 36-inch tree blows over and has to be removed. What do you do with it? They wanted to cut it but leave it in a stream or on the ground for habitat,” Shelk recalled. “My answer was, how about if I could take that tree to a mill and generate positive revenue, enough revenue to pay for thinning five acres of overgrown land?”

As the talks continued, the group narrowed its focus to the dry eastside pine forests where they had more in common.

At the time, Wyden had some discussion drafts of forest legislation that neither side liked. Instead, the group proposed a new approach, and Wyden’s chief of staff agreed to work with them.

The result was the bill unveiled at the December 2009 press conference.

 

Critics attacked plan

However, in hearings in Oregon and Washington, D.C., the bill ran into criticism – some of the harshest from the territory it would affect.

Grant County Judge Mark Webb conceded that while the backers were well intentioned, he opposed the bill. He said it would significantly increase regulation without giving the Forest Service any new authority or funding to manage the land. Environmentalists would gain more rules on which to appeal or litigate forest projects, he said.

Opponents particularly disliked a proposal for a science panel – a group of experts who would vet the large projects. Webb said that would put the federal forest managers under the control of outsiders, likely academicians, and further erode local influence on decision-making.

Shelk understood the concerns but also defended the intense discussion and debate that went into the bill.

He said the idea was to be prepared if, or when, a project gets to court.

“We were looking at key questions: How will this be viewed by a judge? How do we create a forest  project that is bullet-proof?” he said. “We worried these subjects to death – from two separate ideological viewpoints. But we agreed that we were looking for ways to move biologically defensible projects forward – projects that would be practical, economically viable and defensible in court.”

Kerr also acknowledged that the bill had its detractors, but he said it had been adjusted to reflect concerns from both sides. Asked about the concerns voiced by some environmental groups, he said, “There are some organizations that are unhappy with the bill as it was introduced. There are some that will be unhappy with anything.”

Wyden also finds that people are often suspicious until they can see a strong law at work on the ground, but he sees hope for a solution in the future – if industry and conservation groups can work together.

“Keeping the forests healthy can translate into a healthy economy,” he said. “It’s good for the mills, it’s good for the ecosystems.”

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