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New high-speed sawmill scheduled to be online soon.


New sawmill expected to be operational by October.

What a pleasant surprise it was when Dwayne Walker of Future Forest called Friday evening to let me know a new high production small log sawmill will soon begin operating in his home town of Eagar, Arizona. Vaagen Brothers Lumber, Future Forest, and the U.S. Forest Service, all major supporters and participants of our Small Log Conference, have teamed up to do a live test on the feasibility of processing logs salvaged from recent catastrophic wildfires in Northeast Arizona and Northwest New Mexico, and from logs generated from fuels reduction activities in the region. A new high-speed sawmill installed in Eagar, Arizona, and consisting of a mobile HewSaw, is expected to be operational by October 2012.

The installation of the mobile HewSaw will be beneficial in evaluating the economic feasibility of treating large volumes of small diameter timber, thereby enhancing the Forest Service’s mission to restore critical habitats, watersheds and protect communities threatened by wildfire and overstocked stands of timber. Jim Zornes, Forest Supervisor of USFS Apache Sitgreaves National Forest said, “The Apache-Sitgreaves is excited to be a part of this major announcement. This significant event will trigger Secretary Vilsak’s accelerated restoration initiative by increasing capacity for product demand – allowing more at-risk acres to be treated. Additional salvage from last year’s Wallow fire can now be made available, to provide much needed jobs for local loggers, contractors and supporting small businesses..”

Vaagen Brothers, guided by a corporate program called ”Fibervision,” is an industry leader in incorporating the highest and best utilization of small diameter logs by employing state-of-the-art HewSaw technology to maximize efficiency and product value. Vaagen Brothers is a third generation forest products company operating three sawmills in the Western United States and Canada. Future Forest, a contractor for the White Mountain Stewardship Project (WMSP), which is the largest active stewardship project in the nation, has partnered with local environmental leaders and the U.S. Forest Service to identify large tracks of timber for sustainable harvest within the Wallow Fire restoration area.

This is exciting news indeed for forest health, for the region, and especially for the community of Eagar. Here’s a quick synopsis of the team and the new sawmill:

The Team

- All met at Small Log Conferences in years past
Vaagen Brothers Lumber: 3rd generation family-owned company with mills in the Western U.S. and Canada
Future Forest: Owned by Forest Energy and WB Contracting
U.S. Forest Service: Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Springerville, Arizona
- Forest Energy: Pellet fuels manufacturer based in Show Low, Arizona
- WB Contracting: Family-owned logging business based in Eagar, Arizona

The Mill

- Type: Mobile, debarker, small log processor, lumber stacker
- Manufacturer: HewSaw North America
- Production: 35 million MMBF/year
- Employees: 10-12 on one shift basis
- Location for the test: Abandoned mill site in Eagar, Arizona – population just under 5,000

New high-speed sawmill scheduled to be online in Arizona October 2012New high-speed sawmill scheduled to be online in Arizona October 2012

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Credit Union backs community-owned sawmill

The Boundary Sawmill in the tiny town of Midway has found a solution.
The Boundary Sawmill in the tiny town of Midway has found its saviour.
After phone calls from as far away as New Brunswick and a million-dollar offer from Okanagan businessmen, a much hoped-for loan to keep the mill in the hands of the community came Sunday from the Heritage Credit Union in Rossland, a mere 90-minute drive away.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Stephen Hill, a financial planner and key figure in the struggle to save the mill in Midway, about 50 kilometres east of Osoyoos along Highway 3. Many of the town’s 630 residents are also investors.
Earlier this year, Hill rallied members of the community to buy the facility from Montana-based Fox Forest Products. The company shuttered the mill in 2008 during the economic meltdown.
The money comes just in time for an Aug. 31 payment to Fox, which could have foreclosed on the mill and left local investors and the municipality out to dry if they were unable to pony up the $1 million.
Hill has been in Vancouver for almost two weeks on a mission to raise the capital. On Monday, he said he’s glad he can return home to Rossland.
“I’m looking forward to getting my life back. My wife’s getting lonely and my kids are missing me,” he said with a laugh.
An article earlier this month in The Province led to national television and magazine publicity for the tiny Boundary Sawmill, drawing the attention of Premier Christy Clark and allowing Hill to speak with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s staff at an event in Abbotsford on Sunday.
With the $1-million loan and additional share sales, the mill can pay off Fox and a large sum owed to another creditor.
Hill said he’s glad it worked out.
“It’s all in the hands of the lawyers and the credit union now,” he said.
The mill is being leased to Vaagen Bros. Lumber of Colville, Wash.
Hill said workers expect to begin testing equipment in September with a goal of running logs in October.
And as long as the mill’s production ramps up and the price of lumber rises, Hill said, he expects the company to have little trouble paying off its new loan.
Vaagen Brothers is presently pumping about $10 million in upgrades into the mill, Hill said.
By Sean Sullivan, The Province September 1, 2011
© Copyright (c) The Province 
Read more here
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Midway mill to reopen, villagers meet deadlines

Local investors raise $1 million in 11th-hour deal to revive community's lifeblood
The village of Midway's shuttered sawmill has been saved from foreclosure and demolition after a group of local investors raised $1 million needed to meet a mortgage deadline of Aug. 31.
The last-minute deal will give a new lease on life to a mill that has been the community's lifeblood for generations.
Boundary Sawmill Inc., formed by local business leaders to buy the mill and pay off its debts, beat the deadline to pay the mortgage after Midway's Heritage Credit Union agreed to advance the needed funds.
"The sawmill is going to reopen and it looks like the mortgage is going to be paid by tomorrow," Stephen Hill, a financial adviser from nearby Rossland, said in an interview Tuesday.
Hill has been instrumental in the resurrection of the mill.
The mortgage is the last remaining link with former owner Fox Forest Products, of Montana, which bought the idled sawmill in 2008 from bankrupt Pope & Talbot but never got it fully operational.
Boundary Sawmill Inc. bought the mill earlier in the year from Fox, has paid delinquent taxes and has signed a lease agreement with American lumber company Vaagen Brothers to operate it.
"They plan on firing her up mid-October," Midway Mayor Randy Kappes said in an interview. "What this means to the town is financial security. It means our future."
He said the mill is expected to employ 35 people and, in a town of 630, that's a huge economic boost. There will be dozens of other spinoff jobs, he said.
Midway is in the Kettle Valley, on Highway 3, midway between Osoyoos and Grand Forks.
The mill will employ younger working families, Kappes said, people who will use Midway's services and shop there. It will mean more children to attend the local schools, which have been struggling with enrolment since the mill closed in 2007.
Kappes said the mill is the village's largest taxpayer - it accounts for 42 per cent of the tax base - and its vital role in the community prompted the village to become a shareholder in Boundary Sawmill Inc.
"Once the corporation was formed, the village put in a $250,000 investment to get it started," Kappes said.
"The village invested because we understood the benefit it would be to the whole area, and the benefit it would be for our tax base. We understood that [re-starting the mill] is a really good manoeuvre to secure the village's future.
"This is a longtime mill town and most of the people, or a lot of the people, who still live here worked at the sawmill or had family that worked at the sawmill at one time or another. They were really proud of their sawmill and it really tugged at people's hearts when that thing went down," Kappes said.
"There's a lot of sympathy for it and a lot of understanding for what it means to the town."
The mill's history predates the Second World War. During the war, employees included interned Japanese.
The local investors are reviving the mill's old name of Boundary Sawmill, a company first formed when several small mills were consolidated into one company in 1943.
Fox Forest Products had told Boundary Sawmill Inc. that if it was unable to meet the mortgage deadline, the U.S. company would be forced to foreclose to meet its own financial needs.
Hill said the financial deadline, coming before the mill is operating, put additional pressure on the search for funds.
He became involved in the sawmill's fate while running as the local Conservative candidate in the June federal election. He learned of the mill's troubles while door-knocking in the region in 2010.
Hill lost the election but became engrossed in saving the mill - and the town - in the process. He was instrumental in setting up Boundary Sawmill Inc. as a venture capital corporation through the provincial government, so investors would receive a 30 per cent tax credit on their investment.
He said that the loan from Midway's Heritage Credit Union is the last hurdle to get the mill up and running.
The corporation has attracted more than 40 investors so far, mostly local people. But people from the Prairie provinces to Vancouver have bought shares as well, said Hill.
"For some reason, this story has resonated from New Brunswick to Nanaimo," Hill said.
The mill was closed when then-owner Pope & Talbot went bankrupt in 2007.
It was purchased by Fox Forest Products for $750,000 but the U.S. housing collapse and high Canadian dollar meant it never became fully operational.
Boundary Sawmill is leasing the mill to Vaagen Brothers, who will ship the lumber produced across the border, where it will be planed at Vaagen's Colville, Wash., mill and then shipped to Australian and Asian markets.
Once the mill is up and running, acquiring timber will be the next challenge. Logs have already started coming in from local woodlots, Kappes said, and the village has applied to the province for a community forest licence to ensure the mill has a long-term timber supply.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
To read the article in its entirety click here
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Forest has ‘too many trees’

Coalition hopes to thin Colville National Forest
Becky Kramer of The Spokesman-Review
Can cutting trees help save a forest? In northeastern Washington, a broad coalition of loggers, environmental groups, government officials and others think so. They’ve put together a forest restoration grant proposal that would step up timber harvests in the Colville National Forest over the next 20 years.
The grant request seeks $31 million for extra projects in the forest. The work would create an estimated 530 full- and part-time jobs in Stevens and Ferry counties over the two decades.
Most of the restoration logging is aimed at thinning dense stands of trees on the 1.1 million-acre forest. The tightly packed trees are the legacy of decades of fire suppression in the Colville National Forest, as well as past high-grade logging practices that cut the valuable timber and left the rest.
“You’ve got thickets of small-diameter trees that are 50, 60 or 70 years old,” said Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, a Spokane conservation group. “They’re choked, and they’re unnatural.”
Better spacing would reduce the risk of disease, insect attacks and high-intensity wildfires. Open stands would also help the trees weather the effects of climate change, which is expected to bring hotter, drier summers to the region.
“Having trees is a beautiful thing,” said Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. “But when you have too many trees, you’ve got a forest that’s going to fall in on itself. It’s like any overpopulation situation.”
Petersen and Vaagen are part of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, an 8-year-old endeavor to find common ground on forest management. The coalition includes the timber industry, conservationists, local business owners and others.
Coalition members wrote the grant proposal in cooperation with the Colville National Forest, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Improving the vigor of trees in the national forest will benefit the tribe and the state, which own neighboring lands.
In late February, the $31 million grant request received a green light from the Forest Service’s Region 6, which covers Washington and Oregon. Now, the proposal heads to Washington, D.C., to compete for funding with restoration projects submitted by other national forests. A decision is expected in May.
The close collaboration by diverse parties has produced “what we feel is a highly competitive proposal,” said Laura Jo West, supervisor for the Colville National Forest.
If the proposal is funded, the Colville National Forest would harvest an additional 210 million board feet of timber over the next 20 years. In recent years, the forest’s annual harvest has averaged between 35 million and 60 million board feet of timber.
The 210 million board feet equates to about 42,000 truckloads of logs. The timber harvested would be a good fit for local sawmills that have switched to processing small-diameter timber, the Lands Council’s Petersen said.
All the material could be processed in the region as lumber or plywood, or chips or sawdust for pellet, pulp or biomass plants, Vaagen said.
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Vaagen Bros. Lumber and Moxon Timbers Australia

Vaagegn Bros. Lumber and Moxon Timbers have teamed up to supply lumber to Australia.
Mike Beye CVO Vaagen Bros. Lumber
Vaagen Bros. Lumber has, for several years, been a supplier of quality framing lumber to the Australian market through a partnership with Moxon Timbers Australia of Brisbane, QLD.  Through the marketing and sales efforts of Moxon Timbers, Vaagen Bros. Lumber products have become well known through out Australia.

The inland timber, unique to Northeastern Washington and Southern BC, has begun to gain wide acceptance as an alternative to European Pine in Australia.  With the tight grain, small knots, strength and nail plate holding of the fiber, coupled with Vaagen Bros. Lumber's high standards of quality manufacturing, these products have been gaining attention in the component manufacturing market “down under”.

The recent agreement to operate a sawmill in Midway BC has opened the door for Vaagen Bros. Lumber to expand and formalize the Australian partnership with Moxon Timbers Australia.  The timber supply for the mill is the same tight grain, small knot timber used to supply Vaagen Bros. Lumber current Washington operations.  The Midway mill is being retooled and updated to provide the same high quality lumber products for which Vaagen Bros. Lumber is known.

The Moxon Timbers Australia and Vaagen Bros. Lumber are both family owned and operated companies that span multiple generations.  We look forward to the joining of these two family operations in a partnership to supply the exciting Australian construction market.

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Boundary Sawmill Opens With Fanfare in Midway

Hundreds turn out to witness official re-opening of the Midway mill
By Mona Mattei - Boundary Sentinel
Photo: BC Gov Photos

Nearly 200 people turned out to witness the official re-opening of the Midway mill and to meet the new operators from Vaagen Bros. Lumber Inc. Officials from local and provincial government as well as a long list of dignitaries were present to lend their support for the venture.

Midway Mayor Randy Kappes acted as master of ceremonies for the opening welcoming local residents, and called on guests to speak including: the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource operations Steve Thomson, MLA John Slater, Gord DeRosa from the Southern Interior Development Initiative Trust (SIDIT), the Osoyoos Indian Band (part of the Okanagan Nation), Stephen Hill, federal Conservative candidate, and operators Duane and Russ Vaagen. Also present were Regional Director Bill Baird, Greenwood City Council Mayor Colleen Lang and Councillors, as well as Teresa Rezansoff, chair of School District 51.

Thomson congratulated the community on their accomplishment and announced that the approval of their community forest was nearly ready.

Partnerships have been key to the way the Boundary Sawmill project came together. From identifying wood sources, to involving First Nations and last minute loan approvals from SIDIT, Slater noted that this indeed may have been the main reason for the success so far.

With over $2 million already raised under the Boundary Sawmills Inc. venture capital program, Hill was please to announce the opportunity to raise up to another $5 million.

Kappes presented the Vaagens with a bottle of champagne that they shared with the dais instead of breaking on a machine. Duane Vaagen asked for patience from the community as they develop their new operation.

The opening was held last Saturday, Apr. 9 and a community celebration took place at the Midway Community Centre after the official ceremonies were done.

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Vaagen Brothers Deal Will Reopen Sawmill in Canada

Deal should help timber workers in both the U.S. and Canada.

Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. plans to restart a sawmill in Midway, B.C., through a cross-border deal that should help timber workers in both the U.S. and Canada.

The Midway mill had sat vacant for three years before residents in the town of 630 decided to buy it. Boundary Sawmill, the local corporation, has signed a 10-year lease with Vaagen Brothers, which will run a small-diameter log mill similar to its operation in Colville.

Vaagen Brothers expects to employ about 35 workers at the Midway mill when it reopens in the fall.

“In a village of just over 600 people that’s a huge economic impact,” said Randy Kappes, Midway’s mayor.

The deal also benefits Vaagen’s Colville operation. Trees cut in British Columbia will be sawed and dried in Midway before being trucked about 70 miles to the Colville mill, where they’ll be planed and turned into a finished product. The planer at Midway is partially dismantled, and Colville’s planer isn’t being used to its full capacity, said Russ Vaagen, the company’s vice president.

“It’s always been a struggle for us to get enough logs into our existing mills,” Vaagen said.

Vaagen Brothers had been interested in the Midway mill for several years, but it took a collaborative effort to put the deal together.

The sawmill was formerly owned by Pope & Talbot, an Oregon company that filed for bankruptcy. Fox Forest Products of Montana purchased the Midway property but only operated the mill for a short time.

“For the last three years, the mill property has sat idle, and we all wondered what we could do to get it going again,” Kappes said.

Community leaders worked with provincial representatives to put together the local corporation. British Columbia residents who buy shares in Boundary Sawmill will get a 30 percent refundable tax credit from the province.

The village of Midway is among the investors, said Doug McMynn, Boundary Sawmill’s president. Though the purchase of the mill has closed, the corporation still wants to raise $3 million to $4 million for capitalization, he said.

The lumber that originates in Midway will probably end up in distant, overseas markets. The Colville operation already sells a high-value dimensional lumber to an Australian client, which “wants about four times as much as we’re selling to them,” Vaagen said.

The company is also investigating sales opportunities in China. Traditionally, Chinese contractors used brick and steel for construction, but demand for lumber is on the rise in the rapidly industrializing country, Vaagen said.

Becky Kramer - The Spokesman-Review

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Wilderness Areas Designated in Colville National Forest

Plan keeps timber industry and environmental concerns in mind
By Becky Kramer, The Spokesman-Review

A proposal to designate 215,000 acres of new wilderness areas in the Colville National Forest is drawing support from a broad coalition of forest users.

The plan would expand the existing Salmo-Priest Wilderness in Northeast Washington and create new wilderness along the Kettle Crest, protecting six peaks that are each over 7,000 feet tall. The acreage represents some of the most remote, untouched land left in the lower 48 states. It’s home to grizzly bears, lynx and woodland caribou. And it’s an important wildlife migration route that connects the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades, environmentalists say.

In an unusual move, the wilderness proposal doesn’t stop there. The plan also calls for stepping up logging activity on other parts of the Colville National Forest and building new trails for mountain bikers, motorcyclists and ATV riders, who would have to give up some of their existing trails if Congress approves the new wilderness.

Timber industry representatives, ranchers and recreational groups all worked on the plan.

“We’ve been involved in exhaustive discussions over the past four years,” said Tim Coleman, a director for Conservation Northwest. “This is as much about supporting working farms and ranches, jobs in the woods and new recreation opportunities as it is about wilderness.”

With 1.1 million acres, the Colville National Forest has room for all types of users, said Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. By working together, different groups can find appropriate places to harvest timber, graze cattle, ride four-wheelers and still support wilderness for solitude and wildlife habitat, he said.

“If we look at it in terms of abundance, we’ll all get more than we have right now,” Vaagen said. “If we look at it in terms of scarcity, of holding out, we’ll all get less.”

Conservation Northwest is working to gain political support for the wilderness proposal. Ideally, federal legislation would be introduced this fall or next spring, Coleman said. The proposal also includes new “national recreation areas,” which would trigger federal dollars for additional motorized loop trails, mountain bike routes and facilities such as warming huts and restrooms, he said.

But wilderness proposals often take years to win passage. The Wild Sky Wilderness, which protects 106,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, was approved in 2008 after five years of congressional debate.

According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness designations are for forests that have kept their “primeval” character, showing little influence of human activity. Logging and mining are prohibited in wilderness areas, as are chain saws, motor vehicles and mountain bikes. Cattle can remain, but ranchers sometimes have to leave their trucks behind.

The Colville National Forest is currently evaluating whether 240,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas have wilderness potential through a forest plan update.

The collaborative effort that produced the wilderness proposal unveiled Wednesday grew out of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, an 8-year-old effort by the timber industry and environmental groups to find common ground. Through the coalition’s work, environmental groups began supporting timber sales and commercial thinning in the Colville National Forest. In return, they wanted allies for their wilderness proposal.

Vaagen said his company’s two sawmills have benefited from the collaborative effort. The mills employ about 120 people and could hire more workers if the Colville National Forest’s timber sales increased.

The forest sells about 43 million board feet of timber annually.

“The industry wants 80 million board feet, and they are willing to support wilderness,” said Conservation Northwest’s Coleman. In return, environmental groups are willing to support the higher cut rate, which includes thinning dense stands of trees and other forest restoration projects.

“It’s acceptable to us to manage the forest to provide timber jobs,” Coleman said.

Vaagen said he hopes the coalition’s success will help bring other user groups to the negotiating table. Motorized recreation groups were noticeably absent from a press conference about the wilderness proposal. Designating new wilderness remains controversial with many ATV riders in northeast Washington, Vaagen said.

Ranchers have questions, too. John Dawson and his son, Jeff, graze about 400 head of cattle on the Colville National Forest. A portion of their allotment lies within a roadless area that could become part of the Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area.

The father-son team already does a lot of its work by horseback. That lessens the potential impact of a wilderness designation, Dawson said. But other local ranchers may need continued motorized access to check their herds or get work done on their federal grazing allotments, he said.

At the same time, Dawson said he and other ranchers support wilderness values.

“We like the solitude and quietness of nonroaded areas,” he said.

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Vaagen Helps Sustain Jobs & Protect Forests

New public campaign to address threats to wildlife and rural economies
Jul 28, 2010

Conservation Northwest, along with timber industry leaders, recreationists and ranchers announced today a new initiative aimed at addressing threats to wildlife and rural economies posed by overdevelopment and climate change. The Columbia Highlands Initiative, unveiled today at simultaneous press conferences in Spokane and Seattle, seeks to maintain an important habitat connection between the Cascades and Rockies by protecting wild places and sustaining working ranches and jobs in the woods in the Columbia Highlands region of northeast Washington.

The lands in the northeast corner of Washington state still exemplify the mystique of the western frontier: local, family-owned mills still thrive, many family ranches still make their living off the land, and wild mountains and forests still provide habitat for a wide range of species, from caribou to grizzly bears and Canada lynx, found few other places in the U.S. Scientists have also identified the Columbia Highlands region of northeastern Washington with its intact wild areas and open space as an important region for wildlife to travel between the Cascades and Rocky Mountains as development continues to encroach on the remaining intact wildlife habitat.

“The pressures and changes of the modern world require us to take a new, collaborative approach to conserving our wildlife, natural areas, and traditional rural lifestyles,” said Tim Coleman, director of the Columbia Highlands Initiative. “We can’t do it without working together on the big picture: To maintain wildlife pathways and healthy forests, we also need to maintain our timber jobs and the large habitat-rich ranches."

The key elements of the group’s proposal includes: 1) the designation of new national conservation, national recreation and wilderness areas in the Colville National Forest, 2) support for ongoing national forest stewardship projects, and 3) collaborative work with ranchers, including raising private funds for easements, to keep several key ranches in operation for cattle production and that provide essential habitat for wildlife.

Ultimately, formal designation of wilderness, national conservation areas, and national recreation areas will require an act of Congress. Additionally some funding may be needed as well.

We’re deeply appreciative that members of our state’s congressional delegation, particularly Senator Cantwell and Rep. McMorris Rodgers, have been closely following our outreach efforts,” said Coleman. “They have consistently voiced their support for our consensus-building approach. We look forward to working with them on our ultimate goal of moving legislation through Congress.

“My grandfather started our family milling business and my dad followed in his footsteps and now I follow in his,” said Russ Vaagen, manager of Vaagen Bros. Lumber who attended the press conference in Spokane . “Community collaboration has worked for our business, and in these tough economic times, that has helped keep our workforce on the job. There’s an acceptable balance in both sustaining jobs in the woods and protecting some special places,” Vaagen said.

Some local ranchers have gotten involved in the effort because they recognize that changes to the land threaten their cattle business and the open spaces that enhance their lifestyle. They are collaborating with conservation groups to permanently commit key ranches to agriculture, open space and wildlife habitat, preventing real estate and mining developments that break up operations and harm the natural and agricultural heritage. “When the property around us starts growing houses instead of grass and trees, that hurts us and the wildlife,” said Ferry County rancher Bryan Gotham. “This partnership is helping us keep the land the way it was in my grandfather’s time, with a quiet backcountry that we can access by horse and a means to keep our ranch economically viable so I can pass it on to my children when the time comes.”

The Columbia Highlands Initiative also aims to increase recreation access and tourism in the region by convincing Congress to pass legislation that would establish national recreation areas, national conservation areas, and new trails for mountain bikes and off-road vehicles. New wilderness areas proposed in the package would also be an added tourism draw to the region.

Wilderness is seen by many traditional backcountry enthusiasts who enjoy the slower, quite pace of hiking or horseback riding as a way to keep a little piece of northeast Washington the way its always been. Many hunters also see wilderness as a way to maintain opportunities for pursuing deer, elk, bear and other game away from roads and crowds where hunting success can be greater and the size of some game bigger. “Wilderness areas ensure that those of us who prefer putting in the effort for a traditional hunt on foot or horseback will still have places like the Kettle Crest or Salmo Priest area to share with our children and grandchildren even with ever expanding development pressures,” said Joe Mirasole, a resident of Elk, WA, and chair of the WA chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“We want a balance where wildlife and wildlands can contribute economically,” says John Eminger, owner of 49 Degrees North Ski Area and a partner in the effort. “Wildlife and wilderness is an important part of the overall reason why people enjoy coming to recreate here. We want it to stay that way.”

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Vaagen Helps to Better Care for Our Forests

Timber conservation and logging industry agree on common grounds, to protect our forests.
James Hagengruber Staff writer

CHEWELAH, Wash. – An environmentalist and a sawmill owner took a walk in the woods. It sounds like the start of a joke, or maybe the setting of a horror movie with lots of chain-saw action.

But things got even more peculiar on a cool morning earlier this month as the two walked and talked their way through a recently logged portion of the Colville National Forest about 50 miles north of Spokane.

The sawmill operator mentioned the need to stay out of certain portions of the forest while the environmentalist applauded the logging work that had just been completed.

"We're just scratching the surface of what needs to be done," said Tim Coleman, wilderness campaign director for Conservation Northwest. "There's easily a couple of hundred thousand acres that need treatment.“

The two are part of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, an unlikely alliance that's beginning to shake up the forests of northeast Washington. The group's members range from Ponderay Newsprint and Vaagen Bros. Lumber to The Lands Council and Conservation Northwest.

They all agree that certain portions of the federal forest need to be thinned. Coalition members still disagree strongly about issues like wilderness protection or whether it's a good idea to build new roads for logging, but by focusing on the tens of thousands of acres of common ground, there will still be more than enough timber for the mills without entering the tracts most important to environmentalists, said Russ Vaagen, vice president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber of Colville.

Russell Vaagen of Vaagen Bros. Lumber and Tim Coleman of Conservation Northwest find their way last week with the help of a map of the Burnt Valley Stewardship Project in the Colville National Forest. (Holly Pickett/The Spokesman-Review )

"We've got so much work to do elsewhere, why even discuss that other stuff?" he said.

The group has been meeting regularly for nearly three years to discuss logging and forest thinning projects proposed for Colville National Forest. With help from the group, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to jump-start several large projects that had been stalled by appeals or lawsuits, including a massive fuels reduction project in the South Deep watershed. Environmentalists had fought the project because it called for building up to 20 miles of road and would log important habitat for rare wildlife and fish.

About 500,000 acres of northeast Washington burned in wildfires 70 years ago. The forest is again thick with timber. Colville National Forrest Supervisor Rick Brazell said he wants to do everything he can to make sure a devastating wildfire doesn't burn through communities on his watch. He said he was more than happy to work with the forestry coalition if it meant reducing the backlog of projects in the forest.

"We've got so much work to do elsewhere, why even discuss that other stuff?" he said.

The group has been meeting regularly for nearly three years to discuss logging and forest thinning projects proposed for Colville National Forest. With help from the group, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to jump-start several large projects that had been stalled by appeals or lawsuits, including a massive fuels reduction project in the South Deep watershed. Environmentalists had fought the project because it called for building up to 20 miles of road and would log important habitat for rare wildlife and fish.

About 500,000 acres of northeast Washington burned in wildfires 70 years ago. The forest is again thick with timber. Colville National Forrest Supervisor Rick Brazell said he wants to do everything he can to make sure a devastating wildfire doesn't burn through communities on his watch. He said he was more than happy to work with the forestry coalition if it meant reducing the backlog of projects in the forest.

"We went to them and said, 'Guys, give us your proposal.' I'm more than willing to make adjustments," Brazell said. "I'm not going to fight over little logging units. I'm not into building new roads anyway."

The South Deep project is now moving forward, as are nearly 20 other projects on the "to do" list of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. Group members complain their only limitation is the Forest Service – the agency has been hamstrung by budget cuts and struggles to conduct all the environmental analysis.

"To have environmental groups saying you're not doing it fast enough, that's kind of weird," Brazell said. "In my 25 plus years in the agency, I've never been in a place where folks are wanting to solve problems like this.“

Coalition members credit Brazell for his willingness to try new approaches for forest management, all with the goal of protecting communities from fire, preserving ancient forests and protecting timber jobs. Earlier this month, Brazell accepted an invitation to attend a gala event in Spokane hosted by an environmentalist group. He was skeptical at first – feeling a bit like a mouse being invited to a cat convention. But it was no joke. He was actually applauded. "It was just strange," he said.

With several small and medium-scale projects already under its belt, the group is planning to pressure the federal government to give the Colville National Forest an extra $1 million to help plan what could be one of the largest fuels reduction projects in the nation, said Jim Doran, the coalition's coordinator. "It will be restoration work on a scale not seen in Western states," said Doran, an attorney from Twisp, Wash.

The success of the coalition has attracted national attention. Doran was invited last year to share his experiences at a special White House conference. A meeting is being held in Coeur d'Alene on Monday to help launch a similar group for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, a major battleground forest between environmentalists and the timber industry. But a leading conservation group already says it wants nothing to do with the effort.

"The Idaho Panhandle National Forests have never indicated that they are willing to change from their position of focusing solely on getting the cut out," said Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance. "KEA is not willing to spend the time unless the Forest Service is going to show a gesture of good faith."

Russ Vaagen, whose family has run a sawmill for three generations in Colville, hopes the era of mistrust and litigation has ended for federal forests in northeast Washington. Not only do communities need protection from wildfire, but the 130 employees of his family's business need to have a dependable source of logs. Everybody can agree on that, he said, while walking through portions of 980 acres of recently thinned forest in the Burnt Valley near Chewelah.

"Management of the land should not be a political discussion," Vaagen said. "It's about what's best for the land."

Tim Coleman, the wilderness campaign coordinator for Conservation Northwest, couldn't agree more. Coleman said he has appealed more than 100 national forest timber sales in the past, but he would much rather spend his time working with his neighbors to make sure healthy forests are around for another generation.

"Each of us shares similar values," said Coleman of Republic, Wash. "I've learned to trust that Russ (Vaagen) and his dad care as much about the forest as I do."

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