Don Brunell Commentary: Colville Healthy Forests Project Is Model for Federal Legislation


Who says Congress is so gridlocked that nothing is accomplished?

Consider what happened last December when the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation streamlining regulations for projects reducing wildfire risk, restoring healthy forests, and removing diseased and dead trees.

The Senate passed the “Root and Stem Project Authorization Act.” It is co-sponsored by Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana, and Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California, who often disagree on key issues. Feinstein is a former San Francisco mayor and Daines was a Montana businessman.

Earlier this month, congressmen Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) and Scott Peters (D-California) introduced the House companion bill. Newhouse represents the central Washington farm belt and Peters’ district encompasses parts of San Diego. Both areas have been blanketed by choking wildfire smoke in recent years. That smoke is loaded with thick layers of CO2 and other greenhouse gases plus ash.

The “root” of the roughly 60,000 wildfires which burn 8 million acres in the U.S. each year “stems” from a forest health crisis. In 2018, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources found 2.7 million across our state contain diseased and dying trees — wildfire hazards.

This year, the U.S. Forest Service estimates it will spend $1.53 billion fighting wildfires leaving little money for thinning, planting and debris removal. It prompted federal lawmakers to search for new approaches. They found one on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington.

In 2018, the Forest Service’s funding was insufficient to thin densely packed timber stands until a broad-base group called A to Z collaborative formed. It is a working coalition of conservationists, local government officials, business leaders, and foresters aided by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, who grew up in Kettle Falls. They agreed to a 54,000-acre forest restoration project.

Rodney Smoldon, Colville Forest supervisor, said the agency didn’t have the capacity to do all the necessary work to sustain forest health. Typically, the forest spends about $65 per thousand board-feet for such a project. Under the A to Z Project, the cost is closer to $10 to $15 per thousand board-feet.

After an exhaustive environmental review, the Forest Service awarded a contract to Vaagen Brothers Lumber, a fourth-generation Washington company. Vaagen expanded its operations in Colville to produce cross-laminated timber (CLT). Once wasted wildfire wood is now converted into state-of-the-art building materials. 

Cross-laminated timber has many benefits. It is fire-resistant, stronger than conventional timber, reduces atmospheric carbon, offers more flexibility for seismic movement, and can revive depressed economies in rural timber communities.

CLT not only emits less carbon dioxide during manufacturing but finished wooden buildings help sequester existing carbon for longer periods. Buildings made with CLT result in a 25% to 30% reduction in global warming potential compared to similar buildings built with traditional materials.

The Root and Stem Project Authorization Act authorizes the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to propose and enter into stewardship contracts and agreements prior to completion of environmental review. Hopefully, it will reduce time-consuming administrative appeals and costly litigation.

The preparation of the environmental analysis may be included as a service item (i.e., paid for with timber receipts) in the stewardship contract or agreement, provided that the eligible entity contracts the work to an independent third party and the agency retains decision authority for the environmental analysis and the project.

Creative cooperative approaches are needed for the 27,000 Washingtonians employed by our forest products industry. They are essential to improve air quality.

The bottom line is when elected officials can solve problems cooperatively and find ways to generate revenue to support essential projects, it is a “win-win.” It also restores confidence in government.

With our national debt mushrooming (approaching $32 trillion) lawmakers would be wise to come together as often as possible.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at