"Forest collaboration and stewardship contracting are of great value as tools for engaging and energizing stakeholders and getting work done on the ground. But, when you look at the effort needed to plan each project, the scale of the need to treat Federal lands, and the limited resources available for these projects, I wonder how all of the work is going to get done.”
Mark Teply, Senior Scientist
Cramer Fish Sciences
Mill Creek A to Z Project
Mark Teply is a senior scientist with Cramer Fish Sciences, a Gresham, Oregon consulting firm that works for federal, state and private clients in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, California and Alaska. The firm offers a wide variety of services including watershed and fish population assessments, restoration planning and implementation, aquatic monitoring, Endangered Species Act status reviews, regulatory compliance, and expert witness testimony.
Mr. Teply has been a field scientist for 30 years. He holds degrees in forestry and natural resource management from the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. His expertise lies in forest planning, watershed analyses, riparian assessments, restoration planning and stakeholder relations involving natural resource management.
At the project level, Mr. Teply has specialized in landscape-level assessments. His early work focused on timber harvest planning for private timberlands in northern California and hydroelectric project relicensing throughout the western US. He has conducted numerous watershed assessments for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, statewide water quality assessments for the State of Montana, restoration planning for the Army Corps of Engineers, and restoration design and monitoring for large abandoned mine sites in Montana. Most recently, he was research manager for the Olympic Experimental State Forest, conducting landscape level planning on anout 250,000 ac of state forested trust lands in western Washington. He has conducted NEPA planning projects for forest management plans, fire management planning, mining projects and linear facilities.
In this interview, Mr. Teply discusses his work as Project Manager for the Mill Creek A to Z Project, a Forest Service stewardship contract on the Colville National Forest. Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company, Colville, was the successful bidder for the project. Of interest to us is Mr. Teply’s unique collaborative approach to the project’s design, an approach more akin to shuttle diplomacy than the roundtable approach used by organized forest collaboratives.
Because of Forest Service budget constraints, the agency allowed Vaagen Brothers to pay for the necessary NEPA work that Cramer Fish Sciences is doing, but the company has no say in the project’s design or its final approval. Those roles remain with the Forest Service. As Project Manager, Mr. Teply is charged with working with the Forest Service and stakeholders to develop a project that meets restoration needs within the sideboards set by the Colville National Forest Plan.
Evergreen: Mr. Teply, we’ve never met before, but you’ve been in the resource management game for a long time and you bring a very impressive resume to your work.
Teply: Thanks for saying that. As you know from your forestry education outreach, the work never ends,
Evergreen: It certainly doesn’t. Your resume tells us that you received your master’s degree in forestry from Cal Berkley in 1986, the year we published our first edition of Evergreen Magazine. A lot of water under the bridge.
Teply: That’s for sure.
Evergreen: Tell us a bit about the A to Z Project. Are we correct in assuming that this is the first project of its kind in your 30-year work history?
Teply: I’ve worked on several large forest planning projects, including the Santa Fe Pacific Timber Company, the Idaho Department of Lands and the Washington Department of Natural Resources, but this is the first Forest Service stewardship project wherein the contractor – in this case Vaagen Brothers Lumber Company – has been allowed to pay for the planning work, which we at Cramer Fish Sciences are doing.
Evergreen: Does Vaagen Brothers have any say in the project’s design or approval?
Teply: No, they just get to pay the bill. Final authority, of course, still rests with the Forest Service.
Evergreen: Seems like a pretty gutsy move on Vaagen’s part.
Teply: It is to the extent that they no control over the outcome – the return on investment, so to speak. But there is a demonstrable need for the project.
Evergreen: Tell us about the project site.
Teply: The A to Z Project spans 50,000 acres about 10 miles northwest of Colville, Washington. There are several key stakeholders who bring quite divergent values and opinions to the table, and we sought to solicit citizen input well beyond the membership of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition.
Evergreen: Shuttle diplomacy?
Teply: Yes, in a manner of speaking. Our goal was to gather as much input as we possibly could. People who think that a project is way too big and others who think it is way too small, plus those who suspect there must be something wrong if Vaagen Brothers is involved and others who suspect that something is wrong if conservationists are involved.
Evergreen: How do you deal with those who swing from opposing poles?
Teply: Often in one-on-one meetings.
Evergreen: What do you tell them?
Teply: We remind them at our role at Cramer Fisheries is strictly operational. That we work at the direction of the Forest Service. Our guiding document is the Colville National Forest Plan. We don’t deviate from it, which means all of the hard decisions about treat and no-treat areas were already made by the Forest Service. We are simply following the standards and guidelines approved in the Forest Plan in the A to Z project.
Evergreen: Tell us about the project area.
Teply: The Mill Creek drainage is remarkably diverse for being such a small area. All three forks, North, Middle and South, drain into the Colville River, which runs into the Columbia River. The three forks are fish-bearing streams but not very productive. Summer stream flows are the limiting factor.
Evergreen: What makes the area so diverse?
Teply: Wet to dry site forest characteristics with dramatic changes in elevation, slope and aspect that influence tree species composition.
Evergreen: We will hazard a guess that there are far too many trees present than the site can support.
Teply: Most of the project area is overstocked with a buildup of ladder fuels in the understory.
Evergreen: So heavy ground fuels?
Teply: There can be a tremendous amount of biomass on the ground.. Lots of competition-based mortality in standing trees, lots of mountain pine beetles and root rot. The entire area is set up for catastrophic fire.
Evergreen: How on earth do you even approach such a challenging area?
Teply: We divided A to Z into two more manageable project areas. The North Fork piece spans 12,800 acres and the Middle-South Fork piece covers about 27,000 acres. We completed the NEPA work on the North Fork portion in November of 2013 and the Environmental Assessment was published last month. We expect to complete our work on the Middle-South portion next summer.
Evergreen: We looked at a project in northern Idaho last week that had a stewardship side and a commercial side. The commercial side holds useable timber that helps pay the bills on the stewardship side, which had no timber of commercial value, but really needed thinning. Is that what you have here?
Teply: There is actually quite a bit of commercial value here. The proposed action had a lot of heavy-to-light variable density thinning, creating mosaics that feature a lot more species and structural diversity than is currently present.
Evergreen: Will you favor one particular tree species over another?
Teply: The preferred species will be western larch, Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine and aspen. These shade intolerant tree species dominated the area before big fires swept through in 1926 and 1929. We will work to reduce the presence of shade tolerant grand fir and cedar on drier sites, which gained dominance after wildfire was excluded as a matter of public policy.
Evergreen: How many of our forest health problems in western national forests are the result of the nation’s wildfire policy?
Teply: It has had great influence in Intermountain mixed conifer, dry site forests. Historically, wildfires were frequent but not as destructive as the fires we’re experiencing now. They helped keep forest density, species composition and insect and disease infestations within what forest ecologists call “the historic range of variability.”
Evergreen: But given the enormous fuel buildups that you have cited, it isn’t possible to simply allow wildfires to burn uncontrollably.
Teply: The public may never get to the point where it accepts wildfire, associated loss of life, property damage, firefighting costs, and the smoke wildfires generate. But the answer to the related policy question is well above my pay grade.
Evergreen: What reactions to the A to Z Project did you get when you started shuttling between stakeholder groups and individuals you identified in the Colville area?
Teply: Initially, there was some resistance and skepticism. It took patience and persistence on our part and theirs. We are very appreciative of the efforts all of the stakeholders have put into this project. We stuck to the direction that had already been spelled out in the Colville Forest Plan. As I said earlier, the A to Z plan is strictly an operational document. Diverting from the final Forest Plan would be illegal.
Evergreen: How were you able to reach beyond the already very diverse membership of the Northeast Washington Forest Coalition?
Teply: They pretty much made themselves known. And in talking to people. You end up finding them or they will find you.
Evergreen: Did you find anyone who wasn’t willing to visit with you about the project?
Teply: Some don’t want to collaborate, but most do. We do our best to acknowledge and respect their interest, no matter what it may be. Then you discuss options. Then it can be a problem-solving exercise.
Evergreen: Everyone we’ve interviewed since last April has said that the collaborative process is too time consuming and that the scale is too small.
Teply: That can be. Ideally, forest collaboratives should also work at the Forest Plan level. Their values, opinions and ideas should be incorporated in the planning document as early as possible.
Evergreen: And yet many collaborators tell us the Forest Service is tone deaf, and not a good listener.
Teply: I don’t know about that. We found the Colville National Forest staff to be very engaged.
Evergreen: So what’s the lesson from 30,000 feet? Are these new tools Congress has devised – forest collaboration and stewardship contracting – of any real value, or are we kidding ourselves concerning the limits of our ability to respond to the West’s wildfire-forest health crisis?
Teply: Forest collaboration and stewardship contracting are of great value as tools for engaging and energizing stakeholders and getting work done on the ground, but when you look at the effort needed to plan each project, the scale of the need to treat Federal lands and the limited resources available for all of these projects, I wonder how all the work is going to get done.
Evergreen: Would you agree that there are clearly limits to our ability to confront this crisis – federal budgets, manpower, infrastructure and time, which is definitely not on our side?
Teply: I agree, but we have made a start and we are moving in the right direction. That’s called progress.
Evergreen: So what we have here is sort of a “Field of Dreams” scenario, like the movie of the same name: If we build it, they will come.
Teply: I had not thought of our challenge in that light, but there is a lot of building yet to do.