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Originally published July 27, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified July 27, 2010 at 10:42 PM

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Environmentalists, loggers push new wilderness deal in Northeast Washington

After years of lawsuits and fights, environmentalists and timber companies are working together on proposals to preserve thousands of acres of forests in Northeast Washington — and an agreement to dramatically increase logging. The centerpiece is an initiative that will be unveiled Wednesday to add more than 180,000 acres of wilderness to Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington.

Seattle Times environment reporter

The rolling highlands of Northeast Washington are home to grape ferns, lady slipper orchids, burnt-orange flameflowers — and scratch-dry ponderosa pine that timber companies really want to log.

The wild country from the Kettle Range to the Selkirk Mountains offers a corridor linking Washington's elusive lynx with other carnivores in Montana. But it also offers uber-popular spots for riding dirt bikes, jeeps and all-terrain vehicles.

So after decades of lawsuits and arguments about this corner of the state, environmentalists and logging companies tried a different approach: They talked. And talked some more.

Eight years later they're putting forward something new: proposals to set aside tens of thousands of acres as wilderness.

Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based environmental group run by former EarthFirst! tree-sitter Mitch Friedman, will unveil an initiative Wednesday to add more than 180,000 acres of wilderness to Colville National Forest. The plan also calls for designating areas of the forest for recreation — from mountain bikes to dirt bikes — and raising up to $2 million from donors to put 2,200 acres of private land east of Republic, Ferry County, into a forest-conservation program. And it largely has timber-industry support.

The efforts still are being massaged, and all sides concede they're just getting started. But few dispute something remarkable has happened. Former enemies are working so well together that they're jointly trying to bring others along.

"The environmentalists here aren't just in it for themselves," said Russ Vaagen, of Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Colville, Stevens County. "They're not trying to lock us out of the woods. They want us back in. But they've got things they want to achieve, too."

Friedman, who helped raise $16.5 million from private donors to set aside the 25,000-acre Loomis Forest in 1999, said this "Columbia Highlands Initiative" is part of an effort to maintain lasting wildlife corridors that could link the Cascades to the Rockies.

Ranches are being subdivided and sold for housing, and climate change already is altering the ecology of this landscape. "We need these corridors for climate adaptation," Friedman said.

For example, carnivore biologists will traipse through the North Cascades this summer, hunting for evidence of grizzly bears. Grizzlies are known to reside in the Selkirks, but the most recent sighting anywhere near the North Cascades was on a ranch between those two areas, Forest Service biologist Bill Gaines said.

But in what is one of the state's most politically conservative areas, where environmentalists and forest users have fought in and out of court for decades, getting support from locals — a necessity for a wilderness designation — requires cooperation.

Since 2002, Friedman's group and others have met regularly with timber officials such as Vaagen as part of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. That group has collaborated on more than two dozen forest-stewardship projects, agreeing on plans to thin sections of overgrown forest with small chain saws, drag out downed timber by hand, and build new culverts under failing roads.

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And Conservation Northwest has agreed to support a near tripling of logging in Colville National Forest.

"I think they're trying to tell the world, 'This is real. We can work together,' " Vaagen said.

Important people have taken notice. Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell last year took part in six months of round-table discussions about how to satisfy diverse groups of forest users.

McMorris Rodgers "applauds the coalition's efforts to find common ground through a collaborative and locally driven approach," and "she looks forward to reviewing a final proposal," her office said in a written release.

In a written statement this summer, Cantwell also complimented this collaboration, adding that "when the time is right, I will be honored to introduce wilderness legislation in the U.S. Senate."

Typically, new wilderness proposals spark political fights that take years to resolve.

Of course, many believe there's still work to do in Northeast Washington.

"They've done some groundbreaking stuff, but that coalition has been a teeter-totter between environmentalists and timber companies," said Eric Weatherman, a resident of Kettle Falls, Stevens County, who is organizing groups that take vehicles into the backcountry to have a greater voice in the debate. "Our opinion is it should be a triangle, not a teeter-totter, and the third piece is recreational users."

Motor-sports enthusiasts, too, have proposed increasing wilderness, but by about one-sixth as much as Friedman's group.

Still, rancher Bryan Gotham, who grazes cattle on national-forest land in an area that would be off-limits to motor vehicles under Conservation Northwest's proposal, said the enviro-timber coalition "is making great strides."

He owns land adjacent to the national forest that Friedman's group is hoping to raise money to protect with conservation easements. But he said some of his cattle-raising neighbors remain skeptical about whether more wilderness would change how they move their cows around the forest.

Federal wilderness areas generally prohibit motorized and nonmotorized vehicle access, as well as construction of new buildings or permanent structures, although exceptions sometimes are made for pre-existing uses such as grazing permits.

And until ranchers are more satisfied, Vaagen said he remains cautious.

"We support new wilderness on the Colville," he said. "But until the issues with the grazers are resolved, I can't hard-and-fast say I support every boundary line."

Jasmine Minbashian, a special-projects manager with Conservation Northwest, said she recognizes not everyone will agree with the proposal.

"We imagine this will spark a lot more conversation," she said. "But we hope some of that can be resolved rather quickly."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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