Democracy in the Woods

Democracy in the Woods
Stewards of a Watershed Build Trust
by Arlene Hetherington and Lou Piotrowski
Published in YES! Magazine, Beta 2 issue, p. 41

They said: "It's been tried before and it didn't work." But during the summer of 1992, a forester employed by a sawmill in the Sierras of Northeastern California was haunted by two proposals rejected a decade before. Maybe one or the other, alone, couldn't improve the timber situation that had plagued the Pacific Northwest for a generation. Together, might they?

They said: "No use talking to them. They've got all the answers."

But during the winter of 1992-93, two men on opposite sides of the Timber Wars in the Feather River watershed - surrounding the forester's sawmill - decided to risk it. They began a conversation that eventually included others and continues to this day. One, a self-described "environmental wacko" lawyer. The other, a county supervisor, businessman, and timber industry advocate. Like the forester, they knew it was time to stop the decay that was spreading throughout their communities. Their conversation spread like wildfire.

Barely 50,000 people live in the three northeastern California counties that make up the Feather River watershed. Villages are scattered atop the plateaus, among the valleys, and along the rivers and streams. The built environment is dwarfed by 2.5 million acres of prime federal timber land. Tourists consider the area a recreational wonderland because it includes portions of three national forests. This watershed is the source for the largest facility in the California State Water Project and provides much of the drinking water for 10 million southern Californians nearly 1,000 miles away.

During the summer of '93 the conversation between the supervisor, the lawyer, and the forester expanded to include others who were also tired of fighting. Sawmill owners, employees, union representatives, loggers, and other timber industry spokespersons. Environmentalists, conservationists, biologists, a fisheries technician, an educator, business people, politicians. And US Forest Service employees from the Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe National Forests. All knew in their guts that their causes, their communities, and their families were losing.

Suddenly the light dawned: If we're all losing, who is winning?

At that point, conversations changed and people began to listen, to learn what others knew about the whole system of tree and people communities, and to explore the options left. What they had in common was love for the area in which they lived - the natural environment and the tiny settlements - and a common fear for the future in their deteriorating communities.

The story of this unlikely coalition of daring and stubborn citizens - operating under the unlikely name of the Quincy Library Group (QLG) - is about coming together, staying together, and making a difference. They not only created an unusual collaborative forum that works, but they de-escalated the Timber Wars as well.

One member explains: "Timber communities are notorious for being paternalistic. The timber culture teaches that someone is responsible for me other than myself." That's now changing in most of the communities in this region - some of which were company towns, until recently. "They're becoming sustainable..." with new kinds of work and alternative sources of income. Timber income has declined, like everywhere else. It's no longer the major source of support for the region, but it is still one of the sources of jobs and income.

In short, QLG developed a comprehensive plan for the forests in their three counties - one which contributes to the health of both the trees and the human economy. It grew out of extensive talking, arguing, listening and learning, negotiating, compromising, lobbying, sprinkled with a liberal amount of humor and hair pulling.

It began in the privacy of a neutral office in a neighboring county, then moved to a meeting room of the Quincy Library, agreed to be the most neutral space on home territory. Along the way, it took them to the highest offices of power in Washington, DC.

Briefly, their plan identifies a network of watersheds and establishes harvest levels in each. It calls for logging trees singly or in small groups instead of clear cutting. It requires that timber be processed at local sawmills before leaving the region. It protects and restores creekbeds, providing additional employment. And more than half-a-million acres, much of it in small sections, have been declared sensitive and off limits to any logging.

The plan also calls for clearing the forest in a way that reduces the threat of catastrophic fires. Priority is given to harvesting dead and dying timber as well as white fir, a species that is especially sensitive to fire and is prevalent in the Feather River watershed after years of fire suppression practices.

The President's Council on Sustainable Development has cited QLG's process as an outstanding collaborative approach to responsible stewardship of natural resources. Both Republican and Democratic members of California's congressional delegation have endorsed the Quincy Library Group's plan.

And when several dozen Quincy Library Group advocates went to Washington, DC, public officials and department executives alike were impressed with the group's dedication, thoroughness, and innovation. They were particularly persuaded by the way environmentalist members understood, appreciated, and articulated timber industry issues - and by the way timber industry spokespersons did the same for environmental and conservation issues.

The plan isn't an answer to the problems of all Northwest forest communities. But QLG is an example of local people resolving local issues in a uniquely local way. It could be called "Lego Politics" - linking a variety of oddly shaped pieces into something productive, but quite different from how it was originally conceived.

Late last year, the QLG approach was rewarded with $4.7 million by the US Department of Agriculture, as part of a $20 million package for forest management activities in the Feather River watershed. True to their unique organizational structure, however, QLG doesn't have a bank account. So the funds went directly to the US Forest Service. They are earmarked for salvage work, fire hazard reduction, watershed restoration and monitoring in the Plumas, Lassen, and Tahoe forests in accordance with the priorities spelled out in QLG's plan.

What makes the QLG work?

• The situation which brought people together was critical; the timing was right to try something new. Everyone felt they were losing ground - or as one member described it, the region was in a "state of critical desperation."

• A sense of neutrality was immediately introduced. The library provided a neutral place to meet. The group name had no meaning other than to identify the meeting site. There was no big push for membership; participation was allowed to evolve as interest grew. The only real requirement for membership was a desire "to get to work."

• Consistency between what is preached and what is practiced. For instance, a key component of the plan is a digitized land-use map that divides the forests into three categories: 1) available lands - those eligible for harvest in accordance with the QLG guidelines, 2) off-base lands - those that will not be logged, and 3) deferred lands - those that will be decided upon after five years. As the group made decisions about a course of action, topics for discussion also were similarly divided into three groupings: 1) action items - those that could, in all likelihood, eventually be agreed upon by consensus, 2) unresolvable conflicts - topics that were shelved because there was no possibility for agreement or even a sane discussion, and 3) deferred items - those which were tabled until a later date. QLG's method of decision making mirrored the plan for the forest.

• Organizational details are kept to a minimum. There are no officers, nor is there a corporate identity. The steering committee, of about 25, functions as the voting body. This remains constant to ensure a balance among the various interest groups. However, steering committee members facilitate many other meetings and activities so that a broad segment of the public is involved.

• Even though it seems unlikely, no jockeying for leadership has occurred. The closest the group comes to some sort of formal structure is by having a regular convener. They chose the county supervisor because "he's used to sitting on the chair and taking the heat." The environmentalist lawyer might have been chosen by the membership if it had come up for a vote, but "he'd rather be the gadfly who drives the chair crazy." While that arrangement may sound like a set-up for trouble, it isn't because "there's plenty of help from others to make sure no blood is shed."

• Rather than begin by focusing on solutions - which tend to elicit arguments - QLG began by clarifying common principles and by educating themselves. They've taken a lot of field trips - standing together in small groups at the same place in the forest or along a stream and discussing options with experts - sometimes other QLG members, sometimes outside authorities.

• Meetings are held semi-monthly, in different communities throughout the region, and they last all day. They are free-wheeling and lively. But there are limits. Bluntness is encouraged; rudeness is not. Several members of the steering committee have conflict resolution experience, and this has generally prevented lively discussions from turning into polarized arguments.

Visitors have described it as "a bare knuckles group ... practicing a rough-and-tumble form of communication." But members say there's much more beneath the surface. They describe the process as made up of politicking, brokering, mediating, and some handholding, "a what-the-hell-is-really-bothering-you kind of communication."

Trust has been tested and proven true, even by fire. In 1994 a roadless area, designated by QLG as off-base land, burned. Despite the QLG designation, the US Forest Service recently put out a call for bids for fire salvage of the area. Several QLG timber company members could have qualified and, if chosen, could have made a profit. But when the final day for bids rolled around, not one QLG member had submitted a bid. That's not only respect for the process, but it's also faith in the outcome.

The timber companies "were desperate to have those logs," explained a steering committee member, but the agreement stood! "It's easy when it's your own money ... (But) they were not speaking just for themselves. They have an obligation to their boards of directors and they were able to withstand the pressure of that."

Restoring healthy forests and economically healthy communities was of sufficient importance to bring this group of activists together. What happened in the process will probably inspire and empower them to continue. They learned how to take action on complex and controversial issues with people of widely differing belief systems. They discovered how to build and strengthen a coalition through honoring and utilizing differences.

As one member put it: "We've learned how to practice respect."

The contact person for the Quincy Library Group is Mike Delasaux, University of California Cooperative Extension, 208 Fairgrounds Road, Quincy, CA 95971, tel. 916/283-6125, e-mail [email protected]

The authors of this article can be reached through Meta-Link, PO Box 11349, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; tel. 206/842-9575.