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Washington State Is Thinning Out Forests To Reduce Wildfire Risk


OK, in these times of sharp political divisions, we now bring you a story about bridging divides. As the threat of wildfires worsens, environmentalists are joining forces with loggers in parts of the rural Northwest. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from eastern Washington.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Diesel trucks rumble up Highway 395, headed for nearby mills.


SIEGLER: It's what amounts to the morning rush in Colville, a small timber town sandwiched into the remote mountains near the Canadian border. After a rain, the smell of freshly cut wood hangs thick in the air. And then there's the dull roar of the Vaagen Brothers' sawmill dominating the skyline on the edge of town.


SIEGLER: For the first time in decades, lumber mills like this are expanding. This is a remarkable turn of events. During the timber wars of the 1980s and '90s, environmental restrictions led to a dramatic drop in the amount of public lands open to logging. Hundreds of mills closed. Thousands lost jobs.

SUE RICHART: The fires have forced everyone to relook how they were doing things.

SIEGLER: Sue Richart echoes a common local refrain. She used to run a small logging company here with her husband.

RICHART: It's the large fires, which is totally frightening. As you drive up 395 through the Colville Valley, you'll see burned parts.

SIEGLER: Washington is coming off some historically bad wildfire seasons. During one week this past winter, 54 fires were burning. They ignited in rainforests. They chewed through mountains east of the Cascades, where forests are stressed by climate change and overgrown from a legacy of suppressing natural fires.

In the northwest, this crisis is prompting something of a truce. Environmentalists are conceding they can't stop all logging, and the timber industry is realizing they can't just cut all the big trees that make the most money.

RUSS VAAGEN: People want eco-friendly building materials, and we have an opportunity to make them here and to do something different in the forest that hasn't been done before.

SIEGLER: This is Russ Vaagen. He's standing on the floor of his brand-new sawmill next door to the family's old sawmill built in the 1950s. Now, what's different here - he's milling all the smaller-diameter younger trees that are densely packed into the forests. That removes the biggest fire risk and turns them into a marketable product.

VAAGEN: What we're seeing in front of us is cross-laminated timber and...

SIEGLER: The idea behind cross-laminated timber is that you mill and glue the smaller wood together and turn it into big beams and lumber boards without having to cut down a bigger tree. The eco-friendly wood is in high demand now in cities like Portland and Seattle.

VAAGEN: We're creating better, healthier forests that we're leaving out there, leaving the biggest and best trees behind to be in a natural spacing that would've been here, you know, had we not fought the wildfires or logged the forests in the past.

SIEGLER: There's emerging consensus this is part of the solution to the worsening wildfires, which are threatening homes and people and emitting even more CO2 into the atmosphere.

VAAGEN: That's good advice if I ever heard it.

SIEGLER: Environmentalist Mike Peterson (ph) is on board. He's hiking through a proposed forest-thinning project he helped broker. Not too many years ago, he would've chained himself to one of these trees to stop logging.

MIKE PETERSON: I did tree-sits up here on the Colville National Forest, had some arrests and really protested because the logging, in our view - and it was out of control at that time.

SIEGLER: Peterson says we have better science now, more of an agreement on what makes a healthy forest. Everyone knows clear-cutting is bad, but putting out every fire or stopping all cutting is also bad, even dangerous.

PETERSON: What I find is that people who don't want to collaborate typically throw darts from a distance. They don't get out on the ground. They don't read the science, or they selectively pick science.

SIEGLER: These kinds of compromises don't always make the headlines, but they're starting to happen, even in some of the most conservative parts of the Northwest, like this. The state of Washington's Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz considers it a win-win for the environment and the economy. She's helped enact an ambitious plan to thin and treat nearly 3 million acres of forest over the next 20 years.

HILARY FRANZ: It sent a message to the marketplace. It said, if you want to invest in cross-laminating timber, you should come to Washington state 'cause we're going to guarantee you supply.

SIEGLER: Two of these mills have opened in the past few months. Another one is in the planning. Franz is that rare liberal politician from the Seattle area making inroads in conservative eastern Washington, where she's widely respected as someone who listens and follows through.

FRANZ: I think leadership and leaders have to start really being able to lead and change the language that is used that is about division.

SIEGLER: For sure, there are still fights over the forests here, and Franz's plan has been criticized by those who worry it gives the state and industry too much say over what's going on in national forests.


SIEGLER: But Russ Vaagen, the mill owner in Colville, sees it as a potential model for reviving rural economies. People here have felt left out of the tech boom in cities while watching their jobs get moved overseas.

VAAGEN: Well, I grew up here, and I lived here my whole life. And I've seen the growing urban-rural divide. We see it politically. But when you get down to it, people want what's best.

SIEGLER: Vaagen says what's best is getting past the divisions and reducing the threat of wildfires.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Colville, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.