The Oregon Board of Forestry got some frank assessments of collaboration, the latest wrinkle in forest project planning, at a meeting last week in Grant County.

The comments ranged from "woefully slow" to "the only hope" for restoring forest health, keeping mills operating and saving timber communities across Eastern Oregon.

"We desperately need industry to be retained in this valley," said John Shelk of Ochoco Lumber and Malheur Lumber companies. "Ultimately, it comes down to collaboration."

However, he also acknowledged that collaboration - a process in which environmental, industry and community advocates hash out their difference on forest projects - is cumbersome and time-consuming.

"And it doesn't currently produce the outputs that our company needs to survive," Shelk said.

The state forestry board traveled to John Day to tour several Forest Service project sites and discuss forest health with local experts Nov. 21. The meeting drew about 60 people to the Malheur National Forest headquarters.

The board is reviewing recommendations from the Oregon Department of Forestry's Federal Forestlands Advisory Committee regarding the 58 percent of Oregon forestlands that are federally managed. A draft committee report emphasizes the interconnected nature of state, federal and private forest lands.

"Across Oregon's forested landscape ... federal forestlands should help deliver a set of environmental, economic and social benefits sufficient to ensure that the State's forest resource in total is sustainable," the report states.

The report also notes a "sense of urgency" as the federal forests become increasingly overstocked and unhealthy, leaving them vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire and insect damage. At the same time, the state report notes that the infrastructure - the mills and logging industry - needed to clean up the forests is rapidly disappearing, particularly in Eastern Oregon.

A local panel urged the Board to push ahead with the report's recommendations, including creation of a federal forestland liaison program to work with local communities and federal forest managers. In addition to Shelk, the panel included Boyd Britton, Grant County commissioner; Tim Lillebo of the conservation group Oregon Wild, and Diane Vosick of the Nature Conservancy.

Panelists called for better funding of the U.S. Forest Service to move sales off the drawing boards. They also asked for the ODF's technical assistance in preparing sales.

Boyd Britton praised the state forestry agency, referring to its credibility among resources agencies operating in the state. He urged the board to "use that bully pulpit" in the political arena to take action for forest health and survival of mills and communities.

Speakers lamented the relatively small size of projects that get done through today's collaborative process.

Board member Barbara Craig expressed concern that "we're not getting the scale needed" - and asked if we're making deals on a "micro level" because of concern because people can't agree on a larger landscape.

Several local speakers agreed with that assessment and said progress often hinges on the buy-in by a few dissenters. Britton said the process doesn't give enough deference to the abilities of trained federal and state land managers.

"If we're just going to second-guess them, let's fire them," he quipped. "These folks know how to do it. Mr. Shelk knows how to do it."

Shelk said he'd rather see collaborative efforts move faster, but he also called collaboration "the only game in town."

Lillebo of Oregon Wild agrees that the science today supports active management for a functioning ecosystem.

"I believe there are hundreds of thousands of acres out there that could use active restoration management," he said.

While an advocate of protecting old growth, he conceded that Oregon's forests are overly dense, making them more susceptible to fires and insect infestation. He thinks the conservationists, communities and industry can "find common ground" to manage the forests.

"The way to do that is through collaborative groups," he said. conceding "It's a lot of damned work, and it's not always fun."

Others aren't so sure about the prospects for collaboration.

Ted Ferrioli, the state senator from John Day and also with Malheur Timber Operators, worries that collaboration is really just setting the resource communities up for "a better form of failure."

The current process defers to individuals who are the most litigious, he said, delaying solutions in the quest to appease the dissenters.

He also urged the board to help inform people about the dire state of Oregon's federal forests.

"Oregon's forests are burning up, rotting and dying, and getting fed to the bugs," he said.

Research indicates, he added, that "within the next three decades, this forest, the Wallowa-Whitman and the Umatilla, will burn."

He urged the board to help get that message across to the rest of the state.

"I would ask the board to help define the problem and set the clock," he said. "We don't have decades to resolve these issues."

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