Rodney Smoldon is the Forest Supervisor on the 1.1 million acre Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington. From his office in Colville, he commands a staff of approximately 135 permanent employees and an additional 100 summer employees. His annual budget is about $12 million.
Mr. Smoldon is a Colville native, an unusual circumstance in a Forest Service that rarely places its employees in their home towns. He graduated from Eastern Washington University in 1985, and holds a degree in Recreation and Wilderness Management. He has worked for the Forest Service for close to 31 years, mostly in California and Washington. As a District Ranger on northern California’s Plumas National Forest, he was well acquainted with the Quincy Library Group, the nation’s first major collaborative group and its most notable failure.
In this interview, Mr. Smoldon discusses the challenges he faces as Forest Supervisor on the Colville, a much watched national forest that appears to be breaking new ground, not just in forest collaboration but also in the use of innovative management tools Congress in providing in hopes of expanding forest restoration work necessary to reduce the risk of wildfire in Northeast Washington.
Evergreen: Mr. Smoldon, 2015 was the worst wildfire year in Washington State history. More than one million acres – nearly 12,600 square miles of forest and rangeland – were lost, most of it west of you, but still too close for comfort. You face an enormous challenge, especially with so much forestland so close to Colville and Kettle Falls.
Smoldon: Challenging for sure. Our wildfires are growing in size, frequency and intensity. You need look no further than the well managed forests owned by the Colville tribe to get a glimpse of what might have happened here. We were lucky this time.
Evergreen: Our Colville tribal friends tell us they faced the proverbial perfect storm: drought, heat, high winds and a lack of sufficient firefighting capacity.
Smoldon: When you have 80 to 100 mile an hour winds, it does not matter how well your forest is managed. Burning debris will reach into trees well ahead of the actual fire. Again, we were very lucky on this forest to only have had about 100,000 acres burned, most of it moderate to low severity.
Evergreen: The underlying problem on the Colville National Forest being the same one other western national forests are facing: insect and disease infestations in overstocked and drought stressed forests, triggering significant tree mortality, exacerbated by a warming climate cycle, leading to inevitable stand replacing wildfires.
Smoldon: You got it.
Evergreen: How bad is it on the Colville?
Smoldon. Mortality exceeds annual growth in some areas on the Colville. But not everywhere. I tell people who ask that there are social, biological, cultural and educational benefits to be observed in untreated or unmanaged forests, but we’re way over on the wild side on the Colville.
Evergreen: What do you mean when you say ‘way over on the wild side.’
Smoldon: I mean we have too many untreated areas that fit your description: overstocked, drought stressed havens for insect and diseases infestations, and thus a high risk for wildfire. What isn’t well understood is that these fires are so destructive that they make natural recovery extremely difficult.
Evergreen: In our many conversations with collaborative groups, we are hearing a lot of concern for the damage these big wildfires are doing. With their concern comes a parallel hope that more acres can be treated before they burn.
Smoldon: For the Forest Service, it is a function of staffing and money, but yes, we certainly share their concern, which is why we are such enthusiastic supporters of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition.
Evergreen: How would you rate their work?
Smoldon: So far, so good. It’s an excellent group. I enjoy our relationship with them, and I think my staff does too.
Evergreen: How would you describe your relationship with them?
Smoldon: The Forest Service is a public agency and we who work for it are public servants, so everything about our relationship with NEWFC is formal, completely above board and out in the open. Sadly, the rumor mill has us making side deals with the collaborative. Hasn’t happened, and won’t.
Evergreen: It must be difficult at times, given the fact that you are a home town boy.
Smolden: I have friends – mostly old high school classmates – on both sides of the issue.
Evergreen: ‘Both sides’ being the debate over whether publicly owned national forests should be managed or left to nature’s uncertain devices
Smoldon: That’s correct. The core issues are scientific and philosophical. But you have to remember than many of those with very different points of view are longtime friends of mine. I see their differing values as a sign of fundamental strength in our communities.
Evergreen: As you should, but doesn’t the collaborative give you and your staff some measure of political cover when dealing with forestry’s critics or those who feel somehow disenfranchised?
Smoldon: I don’t know that I’d call it political cover, though I can see why you would say that. What NEWFC actually gives us is a pretty accurate reading on what once polarizing interests think we should be doing at the project level on this forest. To this extent, they make the Forest Service more relevant in our communities.
Evergreen: So you see the collaboratives as the social conscience, or barometer, of the communities within the Colville National Forest.
Smoldon: That’s true, though I am constantly reminding people that the Colville is a national forest, not a three-county forest or a state forest. We are thus obliged to consider the points of view of people who don’t live here and may never come here. Also, there are other significant viewpoints out there that the coalition doesn’t yet represent, such as cattlemen and a large array of recreational interests.
Evergreen: But isn’t it sufficient to have people in NEWFC whose points of view run parallel to those of people who live in, say, New York City?
Smoldon: In a perfect world, what you say would be true, but the world is not perfect. My personal view is that NEWFC works very hard to be inclusive, and to represent the points of view of the broadest cross section of citizens. But there are people in our communities who, for various reasons of their own, look with suspicion on the work the collaborative does with us.
Evergreen: All of the ‘sleeping with the enemy’ nonsense that we hear constantly.
Smoldon: People who think we’ve sold out to the lumber industry and people who think we’ve sold out to wilderness advocates.
Evergreen: And you are caught in the middle.
Smoldon: That’s true, though it is a different middle that it was back in the days when environmentalists were on one side, and the timber industry was on the other side. Now we are caught between people who support collaboration and those who don’t. For the most part, lumbermen and conservationists seem to have peacefully settled their decades of differences.
Evergreen: We agree, but how do you bring collaboration’s skeptics to the table?
Smoldon: I wish I knew. They know they are welcome at our meetings and we invite them to accompany us on field tours. They know our doors are open and that all of our meetings are public.
Evergreen: And so we come to the litigators who refuse to collaborate because for them collaboration apparently constitutes a surrender of values they will never surrender.
Smoldon: It seems so, but we aren’t going to stop trying to get them to come to the table.
Evergreen: Nor should you, but don’t these collaboratives deserve some measure of protection for the thousands of volunteer hours they spend on projects they develop in concert with the Forest Service?
Smoldon: Protecting the collaboratives is a question and a decision that only Congress and its policymakers in Washington, D.C. can make.
Evergreen: Would you agree that the litigators are marginalizing themselves politically?
Smoldon: I hear a lot of frustration in the communities we serve. At some point, you’d expect the public will lose its patience with litigation that delays necessary forest restoration work.
Evergreen: What are the hot button issues on the Colville National Forest?
Smoldon: Other than collaboration itself, probably the Kettle Crest. Conservationists want it designated as wilderness. Many others representing motorized bicycle-based recreation interests disagree. It’s a very divisive issue. Some folks fear our collaborative will collapse if the area isn’t designated as wilderness. But that’s a battle that will be waged in Congress. I tell people that we’ve been managing the Crest the way we currently manage it since the Colville Forest Reserve was created in 1907, and we have no plans to change, and it still has the characteristics found in wilderness
Evergreen: Let’s talk about the A to Z project for a moment. The litigators who refuse to collaborate were quick to pounce on the fact that Vaagen Brothers paid for the environmental assessment, inviting suspicious that the Vaagen’s somehow influenced the assessment’s outcome.
Smoldon: The Vaagen’s submitted a proposal to pay for the Environmental Assessment because we didn’t have the time, staff or money to do it. Cramer Fish Sciences, a highly reputable firm known for its first-rate biological assessments, did the work and Vaagen Brothers paid the bill. But they had zero influence in the design or completion of the EA. The Forest Service set the rules and the Forest Service will make the final decision, not the Vaagen’s or Cramer Fish Science or anyone else.
Evergreen: And yet the Alliance for the Wild Rockies objected to your draft decision.
Smoldon: They did, and after evaluating their objection, we decided to withdraw the draft decision and asked Cramer Fish Science to provide more clarity on the potential environmental effects association with implementing the project. As soon as we have their additional work, we will set another 30-day comment period and go from there.
Evergreen: Will Vaagen Brothers pay for this additional work, too?
Evergreen: Given the simplicity of this thinning project, and the fact that it is occurring in a well roaded area only 12 miles from Colville, this must be terribly frustrating for you.
Smoldon: Its part of the job, but anyone who knows me well will tell you that the Forest Service shield is who I am. I bleed Forest Service green, so yes, it is a little troubling for me when the Forest Service’s integrity is called into question. Our relationship with the Vaagen’s is totally above board.
Evergreen: Duane Vaagen has certainly stepped up to the plate in Colville, hasn’t he?
Smoldon: His contribution to our local economy is enormous. But equally significant has been his ability to think very creatively and to reach out to conservationists who frankly did not know much about small log processing until he invited them to tour his mill. Conservationists will tell you that the kind of forest restoration work they envision is not possible without wood processing infrastructure and viable and unsubsidized markets for a wide array of wood-based products.
Evergreen: We have watched and envied Mr. Vaagen’s collaborative skills from afar for many years. He is easily one of the most disarming people on the collaborative stage today.
Smoldon: His contribution to collaboration and to NEWFC has been huge, as has that of Mike Petersen, executive director of The Lands Council. There was a time Mike and Tim Coleman, who runs the Kettle Range Conservation Group, appealed almost every timber sale we offered on the Kettle Falls Ranger District. I know because I was a pre-sale forester on the district.
Evergreen: Amusing now in light of the fact that collaboration has changed the face of forestry and the forestry dialogue in national forests in the Intermountain West.
Smoldon: I agree. It has made wood fiber a byproduct of a more holistic approach to forestry that does a much better job of accounting for all of the pieces: fish and wildlife habitat, air and water quality, soils, and year-round recreation opportunity.
Evergreen: And yet the wildfire crisis is still with us, and appears to be growing worse.
Smoldon: It is, and forest conditions on the Colville will continue to deteriorate until we finally treat enough acres to slow the underlying threats posed by drought, climate change, overstocking, insects, disease and mortality.
Evergreen: And somehow you need to convince skeptical publics that forest restoration trumps nature’s indifference to human need.
Smoldon: Wildfire season makes true believers out of a lot of people, but as soon as the smoke clears we tend to fall off the public’s radar screen. The news crews pack up and go home, and we’re left to our own devices until next fire season. Here’s hoping it won’t be as bad as the last one.
Originally published in Evergreen Magazine.