LIBBY — As third- and fourth-generation Montana loggers in a timber town that once stood out among the largest sawmill complexes in the world, one might expect Bruce and Chas Vincent to have adopted a defeatist attitude given the state of their beleaguered industry.
Today, there isn’t a single mill producing timber in Lincoln County, which currently claims the second-highest unemployment rate in Montana, prompting urgent calls from the community to open up the forests for timber harvests and create new jobs.
Timber executives and forest managers alike bemoan the mill closures and job cuts, blaming the pitfalls on an over-reliance on logging private parcels, a soft market, and the constraints foisted on the wood products industry, aiming the most pointed barbs at a hamstrung National Forest System and the persistent litigation of timber sales, which can stall a project for years.
Yet the Vincent family has never been more optimistic about the future of forest management, in part because of the recent success of its efforts to stake out common ground with a slate of unlikely bedfellows serving on the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition.
For decades, the Kootenai National Forest, which comprises 80 percent of the land in Lincoln County, has been caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between warring factions eager to set the future for management on the national forest, pitting wilderness against timber production, non-motorized against motorized recreation, commercial interests against wildlife.
Historically, entrenched special interests on either side of the stump have ignored the notion of balance when fighting for their positions, but today, those former adversaries — tree huggers and tree cutters, eco-warriors and timber sawyers, hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, property owners, government officials, and nearly everyone else with a stake in the management of public lands on the Kootenai — have accepted that they can accomplish more when they pull together.
Words like “compromise” did not figure prominently into their lexicon and, crushed between opposing forces, they didn’t accomplish much. No new wilderness, no new logs for the mills.
The collaborative spirit of stakeholder groups on land management is a far cry from the bareknuckle divisiveness of the so-called “Timber Wars,” and while it’s not a new concept, the model the Vincents have helped craft has refined the process to an unprecedented degree, coalition members say.
But where the challenge once was rooted in trying to gather the state’s lumber mill owners, environmentalists and local government officials in the same room to fix forest management, the trouble now is getting anyone outside the room to listen.
Even with a sound management plan that all quarters of the forest can agree upon, implementation isn’t possible without a Congressional stamp of approval, which is a tough ask in the climate of partisan politics enveloping Washington, D.C., especially when the discussion centers on an obscure corner of Northwest Montana.
Meanwhile, a sprawling timber project on the Kootenai has been temporarily halted after a federal appeals court last month granted an injunction requested by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which appealed a federal judge’s earlier ruling that the project had adequately addressed threats to threatened and endangered species.
The project spanned more than 92,000 acres east of Lake Koocanusa and would yield an estimated 39 million board-feet of timber.
According to Bruce Vincent, the coalition worked hard to address environmental concerns surrounding the project, the Kootenai Forest’s largest in years, and while he described the injunction as a “scud missile” that torpedoed years of work, he conceded that it is part of the process in the timber industry.
“I have more hope now about cracking this nut than I did 30 years ago. I think we’re closer than ever to balanced forest management,” Bruce said. “But we are also in danger of losing all this hard work and all of the ground we’ve gained because of the fatigue and exhaustion, and if nobody listens at the legislative level and the model breaks, it will take another 30 years to rebuild it, because we will go back to the trenches, the fighting will continue and the forests will have turned to ash.”
The Vincents have been bedded down in the trenches before, and they’re not eager to go back.
The father-and-son business partners hail from a logging family with deep roots in Lincoln County, settling this timber-studded postage stamp of Northwest Montana by wagon train in 1904 and setting the stage for generations of loggers that would follow.
The thinning projects of a generation ago, when forest ecology took a backseat to timber economics, were hard on the land. In 1985, at the peak of logging on the 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest, the local mills were churning out 250 million board-feet per year, a formula that was as ecologically unsustainable as it was economically viable.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bruce Vincent found himself at the center of the timber wars as environmental absolutists monkey-wrenched his family’s dozers and backhoes and litigated the forest’s timber sales, while loggers retaliated.
Bruce organized rallies on behalf of the industry, at one point leading a 26-mile-long convoy of logging trucks from Eureka to a Montana mill in Darby that was on the brink of closure, delivering more than 1 million board-feet of timber and waging battle with the environmental groups he saw as jeopardizing his family’s livelihood.
In some cases, the feuding came to blows. There were threats of violence against his family, and an actor portraying Bruce was mock-killed in effigy on the steps of the federal courthouse in Missoula, where formal legal arguments against many of the Kootenai’s timber harvests were laid out in court papers.
In 1998, Bruce testified about the threat of eco-terrorism before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee of Crime, describing the threats against his four children, who were sometimes removed from school and taken to safe houses, and decrying environmental extremists.
“I was wearing bulletproof vests at speaking events,” Bruce said. “I literally led my side of the timber wars until we figured out we were the third ring of a three-ring circus and someone else was taking the gate receipts. We didn’t get anywhere until we started talking as neighbors about our common goals.”
In Montana, some of the best examples of local land-use collaborations were born of the intense infighting among polarized factions on the Kootenai National Forest and in the Yaak Valley, where the timber wars persisted for decades. Successful collaborative groups like the Three Rivers Challenge, the Whitefish Range Partnership, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, and the Montana Forest Restoration Committee all learned from the strides and stumbling blocks occurring on the Kootenai.
Today, Bruce’s early work has given rise to a new wave of collaborative agreements on timber in Montana. Instead of locking horns in expensive court battles that often delay work for years, he’s in the business of long-term agreements that strike a balance and provide something for everyone.
To that end, the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition is the product of more than a decade of work, and now includes some of the fiercest opponents from that bygone era — a range of timber interests, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, the Troy Snowmobile Club, and community members from Eureka, Troy, Libby, Columbia Falls, and Thompson Falls.
It has evolved from a focus on fuel reduction in the wildland-urban interface to include collaboration on economic and ecosystem sustainability. The coalition maintains an executive board, general board, subcommittees, and four regional working groups to support forest management at a district level.
Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, said she realized around the turn of the century that the old divisive model wasn’t working, and figured it would be more effective to stitch together a collaborative.
“The fighting hasn’t gotten us anywhere. We fought to a draw and nobody won anything,” King said. “Wilderness advocates lost. The timber industry lost. Recreation lost. And it was all still brewing after the timber wars were over, so why not sit down and put our values on the table and find common ground?”
Working within the established parameters of the 2015 revised Kootenai National Forest Plan, which estimated that the forest could sustainably produce around 40 million board-feet of timber per year, the coalition put together an alternative plan that could draw around 90 million board-feet while increasing wilderness and recreation by accessing the forest from different areas and using innovative methods.
To help craft the new alternative, the stakeholders hired Mason, Bruce and Gerard as a forestry consultant firm, the same outfit on whose data and modeling the Kootenai National Forest Plan had relied, and laid out the revised plan over the entire forest.
When the firm ran the coalition’s model against the forest plan, the timber sale volume more than doubled, federal budget constraints of the U.S. Forest Service notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the coalition agreed on more than 180,000 acres of new wilderness, nearly 57,000 acres of motorized over-the-snow travel, and more than 56,000 acres of non-motorized backcountry access.
“That was kind of a turning point for everyone,” Lincoln County Forester Ed Levert, a member of the coalition, said. “When everybody saw that the collaboration could actually increase the sale volume while adding wilderness and recreation to the plan, that was the selling point.”
Chas Vincent, Bruce’s eldest son and a state senator representing Libby in the Montana Legislature, was the last logger in the Vincent family’s long history in traditional timber, but he envisions a bright future for the industry in his hometown.
In the last decade, trends in forest management have tended more toward stakeholder engagement and community-based collaboration to provide input on the management of national forests nationwide. The 2012 National Forest Management Planning Rule codifies the trend with a requirement that national forests provide an opportunity for citizens to collaborate both with other stakeholders and forest managers on future management of national forests.
In the logging culture of Libby, like other communities in isolated, resource-dependent areas, the fighting came easy but the solutions didn’t come at all, Chas said.
“We will have another sawmill in Lincoln County,” Chas said. “We’ll never get back to the 1,700 employed at the height, but this is a new approach that may lead to a new day. We have to build on the backs of those who have been collaborating on the Kootenai for decades, in a way that is gainful for everybody involved.”
Bruce said people are hungry to bury the hatchet, improve local economies and forest health, and protect more habitat for wildlife.
To accomplish that, he said, they must find the common ground that can lead to local control and, ultimately, widespread acceptance at the federal level.
“We were doing a noble job of fighting, and if that is what we want to do we can do it for another 30 years while the forest burns down,” Bruce said. “Fighting is easy; in fact, it’s sexy. It’s on the front page, and you don’t have to accept another person’s worldview. But a solution? That’s the challenge.”
“If you go back far enough you can find most of the folks at the table today in a trench during the war,” he continued. “But we have been above ground and not in the trench for sometime. This new iteration of collaboration is not completely new, but it is more refined.”