Interim U.S. Forest Service chief says she will make it ‘easier for all kinds of businesses to work with and on the forest’

By Eli Francovich

elif@spokesman.com

(509) 459-5508

 

The head of the U.S. Forest Service promised Tuesday that the way the Forest Service does business is going to change.

U.S. Forest Service interim Chief Vicki Christiansen spoke at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s annual summit.

“We have great opportunity and we have significant challenges and this is not going to be business as usual,” she said.

Specifically, Christiansen said the permitting process for guides, outfitters and other recreational services is going to get easier on National Forest Lands, and cooperative agreements between industry and the Forest Service are going to be more common.

“We are working to reform our process to make it easier for all kinds of businesses to work with, and on, the forest,” she said.

Christiansen took charge of the 35,000-employee federal agency in March following the downfall of former chief Tony Tooke, amid allegations of relationships with subordinates.

At Tuesday’s keynote luncheon, Christiansen laid out ways that the Forest Service can and will partner with local communities and businesses.

Those partnerships include increased timber harvest and streamlining the permitting process for special-use permits for guides wishing to work on forestland, among other matters.

In particular, Christiansen highlighted the increased timber harvesting scheduled to occur on the Colville National Forest as part of the contested A to Z timber project.

In the A to Z project, the Colville National Forest has turned to a timber company for help with thinning and restoration of 54,000 acres of the 1.1 million-acre forest.

Some of the logs will be turned into lumber at Vaagen Brothers’ Washington sawmills in Colville and Usk. Other logs will be chipped and burned for wood-fired electricity.

The Vaagen Brothers are also responsible for the environmental review of the proposed work.

The project has support from the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition and Stevens and Pend Oreille counties, although it has drawn condemnation from some environmentalists and conservation groups.

Forest managers are anticipating removing between 130 and 150 million board feet of timber, said Franklin Pemberton, a spokesman for the Colville National Forest, said

During her presentation, Christiansen also mentioned a company that’s hoping to revolutionize construction.

Katerra, a California-based company, creates cross-laminated timber and glulam. The products can replace concrete and steel in wooden high-rise buildings and parking garages. They also can be used for other applications, such as walls and flooring.

The products are made from wood scraps, which are compressed and glued together in layers, forming structural panels and beams.

Katerra is planning to build a factory in Spokane Valley.

Of particular interest to Christiansen and other foresters is that Katerra’s products can be created using the small-diameter trees that crowd Eastern Washington forests and pose wildfire risks.

Christiansen said Katerra’s “work dovetails” with the need to manage and thin U.S. Forest Service lands.

Christiansen’s talk highlighted the way in which the U.S. Forest Service’s mission is changing and evolving.

“We have this added focus on how can we be relevant in our communities,” Pemberton said.

Forest lands have to be managed not just in accordance to their “intrinsic value,” he said. In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, published a report finding that visitors to Washington state National Forests spent roughly $290 million in nearby communities and supported 2,130 year-round jobs in 2016.

Earlier this year, the Forest Service released the Pacific Northwest Forests app as part of the effort to engage recreational users in a different way.

At the same time, cuts to the Forest Service’s budget, combined with increasing wildfire costs, forced the agency to get creative. Part of the solution, Christiansen and others hope, is for the Forest Service to work more seamlessly with industry.

“We certainly need industry partners to help us get land management work done,” said Marie-Louife Smith, thedirector of natural resources for the Pacific Northwest Region of the Forest Service. “We also work very closely with the state of Washington as well as in Oregon.”

Correction: The original headline on this story incorrectly labeled the Interim U.S. Forest Service chief. The headline has been corrected.