Forest for the Trees

In the search for common ground in the Bitterroot, loggers and enviros aren't out of the woods yet


A long yellow helicopter hovers above the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF). From its body swings a 100-foot cable, from which seven freshly cut logs dangle in the air. The chopper approaches the landing site where workers duck their heads and cover their ears as dust swirls around them and the noise drowns out everything. The cable swings around a cluster of trees and the logs move in a clean arc as the chopper tilts down into the wind.

The logs drop to the ground and are quickly scooped up into a front-end loader, whose window is broken—the victim of a recent act of vandalism. It moves the logs to another pile where a second loader lowers a large mechanical arm that scoops them up and places them onto a waiting logging truck.

The workers separate one log from the rest. Its surface is cracked enough that a mill would likely grade it as old and dead and pay only a nominal fee. The loggers examine it and make their verdict: It’s not worth hauling. With the helicopter costing them about a dollar per second, this defective log has already cost about $30 to move several hundred feet. There will be plenty more like it over the course of the day.

Bob Walker, a logger from Darby whose company is handling several jobs on the BNF, leans in to look at the log. Walker wears a sleeveless denim shirt that reveals his furry, muscular arms that have been built up over years of working in the forests.

“If we could have been on this a year ago there wouldn’t have been any,” says Walker, in his soft-spoken way that belies his quintessential mountain man appearance.

This salvage logging operation, like others underway in the Bitterroot, is characterized by a strange mixture of disappointment and determination. There is also a good amount of suspicion, as several miles down the road two Earth First!ers are camped out in trees, protesting the operation.

In the months of wrangling over the Bitterroot salvage sale, the largest post-fire recovery plan in U.S. Forest Service history, Bob Walker and his wife, Debra, found themselves the targets of both radical environmentalists and uncompromising loggers. By taking part in the court-ordered mediation that ended months of legal wrangling, the Walkers earned the enmity of some of their peers and ended up being forced out of the Bitterroot timber group that they had founded. Meanwhile, the Earth First! protest in Missoula last month on the Madison Street Bridge was directed at a logging truck from one of Walker’s jobs.

Earth First! is just one of many environmental groups throughout the West that made the BNF salvage plan its top priority. The Burned Area Recovery Plan proposed cutting more timber than had been logged in the Bitterroot throughout all of the 1990s. While officials say the massive logging is necessary to clear burned wood and reduce the risk of future wildfires, environmentalists accuse the Forest Service of relying on bad science and using the threat of wildfires as a scare tactic to “get out the cut.”

While touring the Bitterroot sale areas and seeing both loggers and Earth First!ers in action, an obvious question arises: Is compromise possible? One side firmly believes that harvesting timber is essential to the local economy. The other side opposes all commercial logging on public lands. As wildfires rage throughout the West this summer and forest management issues rise to the fore of the national agenda, the question is more relevant than ever.

Dramas and traumas
For longtime loggers Bob and Debra Walker, the events of this last year were the culmination of years spent immersed in Bitterroot logging and politics. Both came to the Bitterroot Valley when they were children, and both have long family ties to logging and the forest. After the couple met in 1988 they went into business together collecting house logs by hand. In the late ’80s Debra Walker was also working as a dental assistant for Terry Klampe (later a state senator), and she cleaned the teeth of the founder of Friends of the Bitterroot, an environmental group founded around that time.

In the ’90s Debra Walker became involved in local politics. She was part of the Como Dam Project, secretary of the Darby Civic Group, and chief volunteer for the food pantry. She filed suit against the mayor of Darby for alleged vote fraud, and later served on the town council for almost two years (after which she ran for mayor herself and lost by one vote). This was the backdrop when the fires broke out in 2000: a valley where local politics have all the drama of a soap opera and everyone knows everyone else. While Bob Walker remained largely out of the public eye throughout the ’90s as he built up his own logging business, the fires drew him into the limelight.

As BNF officials developed a post-burn salvage plan, the Walkers had an immediate interest to protect. Their company was working in the Bitterroot when the wildfires struck, and they wanted to get back into salvage logging from their existing sale area. The Walkers felt that for both economic and environmental reasons it was important they get on the ground soon. They also saw the larger interest of giving local timber workers a voice in salvage sale negotiations.

So on Oct. 29, 2001, the Walkers rented out a clubhouse and called a meeting. Debra served as facilitator as about 100 community members and some Forest Service representatives swapped ideas. There was already a great deal of anger and suspicion among some of the locals about what they saw as the Forest Service’s bureaucratic delays in getting back to business.

“Boy, they jumped all over the Forest Service,” recalls Debra Walker. “I said, ‘We’re not here to jump on the Forest Service.’”

About half the group stayed into the night as they decided to form a group. Citing Debra’s experience on the town council, some participants asked her to be the president. No, she said, it should be one of the men. Bob became president and Debra the secretary. The newly formed group was named Timber Workers United (TWU), but from the beginning there was tension.

“To start with, they didn’t respect a woman in that position,” Bob says of Debra’s leadership role. “And they really didn’t like that I was willing to talk with the Forest Service, and especially with the environmentalists.”

In late November, 2001 local environmentalist Larry Campbell was surrounded, threatened, and spit on by an angry crowd at a TWU demonstration as he was leaving the BNF headquarters in Hamilton.

Following that incident, Bob Walker signed a non-violence pact with the president of Campbell’s group, Friends of the Bitterroot.

In December, BNF officials attempted to bypass a public appeals process by sending the Environmental Impact Statement for the recovery plan directly to Washington, D.C. for approval. It was a move that infuriated environmental groups (especially since the official responsible for signing off on the plan, Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, is a former timber industry lobbyist) and added to an already tense atmosphere in the Bitterroot. The next month the polarization was spelled out in stark terms during the governor’s visit to Hamilton.

“I won’t call them environmentalists,” Gov. Judy Martz told a crowd of some 200 loggers gathered at the Grange Hall. “They’re obstructionists.”

Martz asked if there were any environmentalists in the audience. Stand up, she said, and explain where you’re coming from. “No one will hurt you.”

Environmentalists throughout Montana were incensed by what they perceived as the governor’s taunting. To the Walkers, though, who had paid for the Grange Hall that day and had brought Martz in to speak, hers was simply an innocuous statement.

“I know her heart and I know she didn’t mean it to be violent at all,” Debra Walker says, adding that if Martz is too candid or tells a rough joke it is because she is “a real person, not a politician.”

Indeed, Gov. Martz has stood by the Walkers even after their split with Timber Workers United. She sent them a letter of support last month after the Earth First! protest with their logging truck. In turn, the Walkers named their pet turtle Judy.

But not even the governor of Montana had the political clout to resolve the Bitterroot salvage standoff. After reams of legal briefs and several intermediate legal decisions, participants on all sides were ordered to the table for mediation in February 2002.

Two days in February

The wildfires that raged in the BNF in the summer of 2000 burned about 307,000 acres. The original BNF salvage plan, to log 176 million board-feet of timber on 44,000 acres, was later reduced in mediation to about 60 million board feet on 14,700 acres. (A fully loaded logging truck carries about 5,000 board-feet, which means that 60 million board-feet of timber fills about 12,000 trucks). The acres that were removed from the sale included some of the most sensitive fish habitats and roadless areas. Meanwhile, 19 timber sales were put on a “green” list and given the go ahead, and another 19 were put on a “red list,” meaning they were off-limits but could be revisited through another process in the future.

The mediating parties saw the settlement as workable, though neither side was especially pleased with the outcome.

“I think it was a fair compromise to everybody who participated in the mediation,” says BNF Supervisor Spike Thompson. “But I guess what I’d like to see is if we could work with all the interested parties up front.”

The logging community was also displeased with having the courts become so involved.

“It’s a terrible way to manage a forest, an absolutely terrible way,” says Keith Olsen, executive director of the Montana Logging Association.

The mediation, along with all of the delays along the way, resulted in a vastly scaled back project that will not produce nearly enough viable logging, he says. Olsen believes the environmentalists held all of the cards by delaying the process until weather and erosion meant most logging would be unfeasible.

However, he does not blame the Walkers for their participation.

“What people need to remember is the mediators, including the Walkers, were forced into mediation by the judge,” Olsen says. “So I know the Walkers handled themselves very professionally and were key in getting some of the environmental representatives from the local community to come to the table.”

Olsen echoes Thompson’s belief that local negotiations are still the most promising route. He makes the charge, increasingly common among logging industry representatives and conservative politicians, that the environmentalists who were involved represented mostly rich, out-of-state groups. However, Olsen acknowledges that local conservationists like the Friends of the Bitterroot should be included in the discussions.

Some members of Timber Workers United, though, did not share even that sentiment.

“I can honestly say that there would have to be a lot more time and effort spent before I’d stand there and shake hands with those environmental groups,” says Calvin Ruark, now the spokesman for TWU. “I’d have to see what they’re doing is in good faith to come to common ground somewhere, instead of doing that stuff superficially for a camera or a news reporter, when the bottom line is they’re playing dirty pool on the other side.”

After the mediation, resentment smoldered within TWU. The situation came to a climax when some members of the group met with Sen. Conrad Burns (R–Mont.) without the Walkers’ knowledge. In April, the Walkers sent a blistering letter of resignation to several local media outlets. In the letter, they sarcastically apologized for offending TWU by “thinking we could unite the locals” and “hanging on through the mediation for every scrap of wood we could” and “feeling the need to try to work with the local environmental community in a peaceful manner.”

The sarcasm seemed lost on the new leadership at TWU, which issued a statement after the Walkers’ resignation, thanking them for their apology. Now Calvin Ruark says TWU wants to avoid getting into a “media frenzy” with the Walkers.

“Sometimes our views were the same, sometimes they weren’t,” Ruark says. “They did a lot of things that were positive, but the group as a whole disagreed with some of Bob and Debby’s thoughts and they went in a different direction, which is their prerogative.”

Ruark adds that the Walkers are welcome to come to meetings and participate if they want to. These days the offer rings hollow with the Walkers, though, who say they have been treated cruelly by some in TWU and that they have lost friends they have known most of their lives.

The work goes on
As of last week, the Forest Service had advertised 20 million board-feet of timber on 6,150 acres. A handful of sales are underway and several more are yet to be advertised. Loggers estimate that when all is said and done, no more than 30 million board feet will be cut in the BNF.

On a recent tour of the Robbins Gulch Stewardship sale area, Bob Walker points out how he has left snags (clusters of uncut trees) distributed throughout the landscape.

“The Walkers have worked very, very hard to be conscientious and to respond to our requests and follow our rules,” says Thompson. He notes that Walker has “actually recommended and requested several changes to some of the helicopter landings that I think have resulted in less disturbance to the ground.”

Even FOB’s Campbell acknowledges that Walker is the model of a conscientious logger who follows the rules and tries to go easy on the land. Likewise, Jennifer Ferenstein, the Missoula-based national president of the Sierra Club, says she respects the Walkers. She does not know them well but took part in the mediation with them.

“My impression of them is that they dealt with this situation in good faith and they came with an open mind,” she says.

But not even the good will generated by the Walkers’s efforts at compromise have staved off controversy on the ground. Some environmental groups that did not participate in the mediation have continued their criticism. Some have sent in forest monitors, and the National Forest Protection Alliance now claims that green, unburned trees are being cut, outside the terms of the settlement. Other groups have started direct action protests, notably the incident on the Madison Street Bridge in Missoula in June, in which Earth First!ers blockaded the Walkers’ logging truck while two activists attached themselves to it and rappelled off the bridge and unfurled a banner condemning the salvage deal. The truck driver kept his cool throughout the incident. His poise was standard policy. The Walkers have instructed their employees on how to react in the event of such protests: Do nothing to provoke anyone and let the authorities handle it.

At the site of the Little Bull sale, logger Brent Anderson says that complaints of violations made on the ground have been blown out of proportion. Like his peers, Anderson is frustrated by all of the delays.

“You see that dead tree there?” he says, pointing at a decrepit husk. “That wasn’t killed by the fire. That was killed by bugs.”

Many of the green trees that were cut were infested with bugs and would have harmed other trees, Anderson says. Environmentalists counter such arguments by saying that insects and decomposition are a part of the natural process that nurtures the ecosystem.

At the Robbins Gulch sale, one of Walker’s crew members, Cliff Reed, defends his work by pointing to a single tree, a charred pine some 80 to 100 years old.

“We won’t see that again in my lifetime,” Reed says. “If we go in and thin the timber—not clear-cut, which was kind of the old way—we can do it so the forest stays healthy.”

The elusive middle ground

Environmental groups focusing on the Bitterroot salvage deal say that they’ve chosen this sale to make a stand not only because of its massive scale but also because of what it represents, which is the Bush administration’s return to the old days of unfettered clear-cut logging on public lands, says Matthew Koehler of the Missoula-based Native Forest Network. Koehler’s group is one of many participating in “Operation Enduring Forests.” They are pushing a bill in Congress ,with more than 100 bipartisan co-signers, that would stop all logging on national forests. They recently sent a letter to President Bush signed by 221 scientists to this effect.

Decades of intense, unsustainable logging have resulted in the destruction of 95 percent of the old growth ancient forests in the United States, Koehler says.

“We get less than three percent of our nation’s wood products from national forests,” he says. “Isn’t it time we set aside these public forests and manage them more like our national parks are managed?”

Koehler suggests putting local people to work doing restoration, saying that logging jobs could be replaced with work removing logging roads and restoring streams.

Debra Walker says it’s a nice idea, but restoration skills are totally different than logging skills, and so the workforce would not be the same. She also asks, without timber being produced, where would the money come from to finance such efforts?

“Most times this restoration is not going to pay for itself,” Koehler acknowledges. “We need a commitment just as we as a society commit to funding schools and social security. We need a commitment to fund the restoration of our public lands.”

Likewise, the Sierra Club advocates an end to all logging on public lands, although this is a long-term goal, and the group makes necessary compromises every day, Ferenstein says.

Nationally, there have been some successful alliances between loggers and environmentalists when their interests coincide. A Portland-based group called Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, for instance, advocates for both environmental and labor protection. They are one of the groups that emerged from the so-called “blue/green” alliance of union workers and environmentalists who joined forces in the Seattle protests of 1999 to oppose the cozy relationship between the government and multinational corporations.

In a place like the Bitterroot, though, where there is not much union presence and labor is very conservative, could such an alliance form? The best hope would seem to be in plans like those set forth by Larry Campbell.

“I think there is room to have a level of sustainable logging on the Bitterroot,” Campbell says. His vision calls for local companies practicing sustainable logging producing timber to send to “gyppo”—or local, independently operated—mills that run on a small scale.

“I’m an advocate of keeping the economy where the ecological damage stays,” Campbell says. Under his plan, the gyppo mills could send their boards anywhere “but the working in the woods should be done by Bitterrooters and the manufacturing of the boards should be done in the Bitterroot using low technology so you stay out of debt and the bankers aren’t controlling your future.”

Campbell’s cautions that problems wouldn’t arise locally from either side, but from the Forest Service nationally. He fears the federal government will continue to promote an overabundance of commercial logging because of the lobbying of large corporations.

Meeting in the woods
Heading back from the sale area in the Bob Walker Logging pickup truck, the Walkers say it is an important distinction that the Friends of the Bitterroot favor some logging activity. Walker hopes future logging controversies—which seem inevitable—can best be settled before going to court.

“It’s not just that we got 60 million board feet,” he says, referring to the mediated settlement. “It’s that we all got together—industry, loggers, Forest Service, and environmentalists—and over two days we worked out a compromise. To me, that’s the first step into the future.”

As we drive down the precarious, one-lane road through the forest, we have one last stop to make: the Earth First! contingent occupying trees at one of Walker’s helicopter landing sites, a group not at the table in February.

In the landing area, where most trees have been cleared, two activists are ensconced high in the trees and joined by ropes. A banner hangs from one of the trees that reads, “Is this Recovery?”

Three Earth First!ers remain on the ground, including Mike Bowersox, one of the elder statesmen of Missoula-area environ- mental activism.

“We don’t see this as a restoration project,” Bowersox says. “The Forest Service has taken out the biggest dead trees and some live trees, and that is not sustainable. Those are the least susceptible to a re-burn. They are the ones that provide the best habitat for woodpeckers and tree-dwelling birds, and when they fall down they’ll provide the future nutrients for that soil.”

The Walkers, who have been walking around on the other side of the road, wander over to where I am talking with Bowersox. They greet each other and toss around some small talk about the weather. Then there is a long pause.

Bob Walker breaks the silence. He mentions how he has been leaving snags and trying to use helicopters instead of ground machinery whenever possible.

“I’m really glad that you’ve been doing that,” Bowersox replies. “More snags will be an important habitat component.”

“I think I’ve eliminated a lot of soil disturbance by doing that,” Bob Walker says. “I lose money here, but make it up somewhere else.

We’re not here to hurt the land.”

Bowersox, who is seated cross-legged on the ground, flanked by his young companions, looks at Bob Walker and nods.

“We might have different perspectives from you folks, and we obviously disagree about some things,” Bowersox says. “But we’re all here because we love this land.” 

Conservation not condos

Loggers, enviros join forces in the race against sprawl

Environmentalists and timber companies have a long and cantankerous history. From spiked trees throughout the West to Missoula’s latest Earth First! protest, the two sides have rarely seen eye-to-eye on forest management issues. But in the foothills of Washington’s Cascade Mountains just outside of Seattle, the two sides may have found common ground in battling a mutual enemy: sprawl. In Montana, a similar alliance could be workable, but environmental and economic differences between the two regions will make such a partnership more difficult to forge.

Last year, several Washington environmentalists joined forces with loggers after noticing that ever-expanding subdivisions threatened what they both value. In January, a coalition called the Evergreen Forest Trust, made up of loggers, timber company representatives, environmentalists, academics and other community members, announced a plan to sell tax-free bonds to fund land purchases. The bonds are paid off by harvesting a percentage of the property’s timber, with the goal of safeguarding the land as open space from the encroachment of suburban sprawl. If the bond program is approved by Congress (currently the bill is under consideration in the Senate Finance Committee), conservationists throughout the West say they are eager to replicate the plan elsewhere.

“There are a lot of us interested in this,” says Melanie Parker, coordinator for Montana’s Swan Lands Committee. “But there are two problems that come into play.”

First, she says, the average timber tree grows slower in Montana than it does in Washington, which means that it would take longer to pay off Montana bonds. Second, Montana’s largest logging company, Plum Creek, has already begun to sell off some of its land for real estate development.

But when asked if Plum Creek is interested in exploring a bond program similar to the one proposed in Washington, Bob Jirsa, the company’s director of corporate affairs, says “The answer is a big, big yes.”

While Plum Creek owns approximately 1.4 million acres in Montana, only about 4,000 to 5,000 acres of it is up for sale for real estate development at any given time, according to Bill DeRue who works in one of Montana’s Plum Creek Land offices.

“The value of land is based on the market,” says DeRue. Generally, this means that land that is more valuable as timber is logged, while land that is more valuable as real estate is developed.

But the company’s involvement in land development doesn’t preclude it from working with conservation groups to protect land from development, says Jirsa, citing the company’s work with the Nature Conservancy in the Swan Valley and other areas of Montana.

Nevertheless, some critics say that the only thing Plum Creek is interested in preserving is its profits.

“They act like they’re great conservationists, but you have to pay top dollar for it,” says Trout Unlimited’s Montana Executive Director Bruce Farling. “They don’t give you anything.”

While Plum Creek doesn’t sell its land at a discount to conservation groups, it does offer it to these groups before it tries to sell it as real estate, says Jirsa.

“They may do this in some cases,” says Farling. “What they don’t do is go out of their way to donate or discount any land for conservation. They’re just making sure they’re covering the universal range of buyers.”

Until Congress decides the fate of the tax-free bond plan, it’s hard to predict how such a plan might unfold in Montana. But with the trend in the West toward suburban sprawl, rising land costs and declining timber prices, the plan may be one feasible way to curb unchecked development.

“The model seems compelling to people in rural Montana,” says Parker. “So we’re not ruling it out. We want to explore it.”
by Jed Gottlieb

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