Collaborative Conservation on the Siuslaw National Forest

By: Amos P. Eno
Posted on:10/12/2016 Updated:01/09/2018

An interview with Johnny Sundstrom, Founder and Director of the Siuslaw Institute, Deadwood, Oregon, on the process behind the Fivemile-Bell watershed restoration project on Oregon's central coast.

An interview with Johnny Sundstrom, Founder and Director of the Siuslaw Institute, Deadwood, Oregon, on the process behind the Fivemile-Bell watershed restoration project on Oregon's central coast.

To begin, I really want to know about the philosophy behind your conservation efforts.

My son and I, and he's no longer with us, worked together a lot. He worked in Kenya and I worked in Russia, and we both worked in Oregon and the western U.S. on these issues – basically on community based organizations and collaborative methods of bringing  people together to work on their issues, and on restoration activities.

The primary aspect in our “philosophy” is to approach these issues on a watershed or landscape level with direct involvement of the communities that are affected. The second most important thing in this approach is recognizing that no one person, academic branch, agency, community organization, or landowner/manager has the complete and correct answer to any of today's complex problems in the natural resources arena. We came through the period of what the media called the Timber Wars here in 70s and 80s in western Oregon. We came through the rangeland conflicts in the west over public land use and allocation. Building collaboration is based on calling everyone together that's interested or involved in an issue or is part of a community of interest to hammer out a solution in which nobody gets everything they want but everybody gets something; and the key value here is mutual benefit. If there isn't some mutual benefit people drop out. So the keys here are collaboration at the community, local, and other levels, and mutual benefit.

Underlying it all is that I believe that we can have both productivity and protection on the same landscapes. As a matter of fact, we have to have both, otherwise we're just creating polarization, we're into a pendulum swing of winners and losers, and upper hand and lower hand, and people staying up nights to get back their position of power if they didn’t get what they wanted. So productivity and protection on the same landscape, not necessarily on every property, not necessarily on every piece of government ground or whatever, but if you take a landscape approach, or as we call it here in western Oregon, the whole watershed approach to natural resources management, use and conservation, then you have to strive for that connection of productivity and protection on the same landscape, which actually equals sustainability. If you don't have both then you are going to alienate enough people to cause the process, whatever you're trying to get done, to just bog down and turn into conflict. I've seen enough conflict.

For a long time I participated in polarization politics; from the Vietnam War to the spotted owl thing going on in this country where we live, before I realized that I didn't have enough time or energy left to continue to be either on the outside or on the inside of an issue fighting for a win, and I started to really trying to work out this methodology of collaboration. So that's it in a nutshell, Amos.

It must be hard to get parties to find a mutual benefit. Is there a technique you've used to smooth the transition?

Well, the way that I start out in the initial phase of an initiative is to call a public meeting. In our country, the two resources that are of most concern are timber and salmon, and so I'll start a process by saying to the people who show up in the initial phases: "OK, let’s talk about 30 years from now. How does this sound: Sustainably harvested timber coming down the roads on trucks and going to the mills, and an abundant fish run going up the creek? Is there anybody here that couldn't like that? That couldn't buy into that as a goal for 30 years from now?"

It'd be a strange person I think in this country who wouldn't want that vision realized. And then we start going, OK, it's almost like an auction going backwards. What do we need to be doing 25 years from now? What do we need to do in 20, 15, 10, 5 years? What do we need to be doing now to get to that goal together? And if the only thing we could agree on as a group of people is to go out and pick up litter and trash along the creeks or along the roads, in the process people start pulling out their wallets, showing pictures of their kids or grandkids, or arguing about whether they should fire the football coach at the high school. Things happen and people break down that us-them, me-you thing to some degree as long as they can do something that has them moving around and talking to each other. So that's the way that I've found works. To get to that first step you have to start way out at the visionary level to satisfy everyone and then work back to that first step that you can take to then build on to go forward and start dealing with the issues.

We have a process that was invented here in Oregon back in the 60s and 70s by a couple of visionary range conservationists. What happened here was there was a BLM range conservationist who was constantly being approached by the ranchers on one side or the agency on the other, and they were always bitching and moaning about the other side. He would meet with one group at 8 o'clock in the cafe down in central Oregon and the other group at 10 a.m. Finally he got fed up with all of this and he said to both parties: "Guys, I can only meet at 9 for our next meeting." And he didn't tell them that he said the same thing to both groups. They all showed up at 9 o’clock, and he said, "I'm glad you're all here. I'm leaving and I'd like for you to talk over these things with each other." And he walked out.

That’s  kind of legendary story, but the thing about what became Coordinated Resource Management Planning is that you start with identifying the goal(s) and you arrive at some kind of common statement of objectives for the project or issue, goals for that section of the landscape, goals for the agency, community cooperation, and other things. You don't start with the problem. Then you identify the obstacles in the way of solving that problem without pointing fingers or blaming anyone, and you finally move on to what needs to be done and determine who is best suited to fulfilling which needs and when.

Putting this in the context of the 5 Mile Bell Project, what was your 30 year goal there?

The 30 year goal there was the fact that it was a large ranch and had been converted from timberland to pasture. The trees had been harvested to clear off the bottom land, and the creeks had been straightened to get the water out of there fast – we get about 100 inches of rain here in a 6 or 7 month period, so flood plains and stream courses and aquatics area huge factor– and their aim was to move that water quickly down into the lake near the ocean. Also the land had been turned into pasture utilizing a lot of imported reed canary grass, which is not a native, fenced, and cattle were run on it after the timber had been removed. However, the economy for large-scale beef production pretty much disintegrated by the early 80s, and to import meat basically Safeway and everybody else had large trucks bringing in cheaper refrigerated meat from who knows where. With the market so competitive, the local timber-cattle company that owned the property wanted to turn over that land to the Forest Service, and actually did a land trade for timber land and the Forest Service ended up with the Five Mile Bell 640 acres, with the ranch running through the middle of it.

We convened a multi-party exercise with the Forest Service under some very visionary people back in the early 2000s to ask “What do we do with this property?” It was a gathering of people coming together from different specialties – from the State Lands Dept., Fish and Wildlife, to forestry, to the ranching community that was left, to recreation interests, etc. – to talk about what to do, and the decision was made that the best use of that land which was upstream of the most productive salmon lake habitat on the Oregon coast was to restore it for salmon spawning and rearing habitat, The creeks there were just not working: The water was moving too fast, it was flushing out young salmon when they would come out of the rock beds in the spawning grounds, and push them out prematurely into salt water mixing areas and the ocean. There was no woody debris for cover from predators, very low nutrient availability. The decision was made that the best use of that land would be to re-create and mimic nature's functions and make it again a high level salmon spawning and rearing habitat.

So that goal was what was arrived at by consensus, and the Forest Service began to move very slowly towards getting the work done. In the meantime, the Watershed Council, the Soil and Water Conservation District and my Siuslaw Institute, with the Forest Service, had formed the Siuslaw Basin Partnership. We had done projects like this on a smaller scale; two other projects where the creeks had been re-meandered through the bottom land and native vegetation had been restored, and it was transformed from commercial to habitat priorities. For this work we won the International Riverprize in 2004, which is given out annually by the Australian-based International RiverFoundation. We were finalists in 2003, and all that international recognition from winning in 2004 gave us a real boost. It got many more people to buy in to restoration on the local level, and got the agency to put more focus on our Project. However, as time went by the parties in the basin partnership - the Council, the District, and the Institute - were out gathering support and looking for grant funding to do the work, and the Forest Service was dragging its feet because it lacked the capacity to do two environmental analysis NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] projects at the same time in this area, and they had two on the table. They were going ahead with the other one and meanwhile, we were ready, and we wanted to go on this one. This is big, we said, this is important, this has major, major potential for our whole coastal area.

Well, that was when we stepped up and offered to do what needs to be done for NEPA environmental analysis groundwork - data gathering. There had been one or two other efforts in the NW where the Forest Service had contracted a NEPA analysis completely, from inventory to final paper work to public comment. That hadn't worked out very well, because the private nonprofits didn't understand exactly how to meet the needs of the Forest Service, and the Forest Service didn't know how to run that kind of project. So what we did was a hybrid, where the Forest Service convened an interdisciplinary team of all the specialists on the District who met monthly on the design of the Project, but at the same time, we (the Institute) got a grant from the Whole Watershed Restoration Initiative, which was a combination of federal and private money for whole watershed work. We got the money to employ local people on the ground as you'll see in the Report, gathering the data under the supervision of the Forest Service specialists. So the silviculturist, the hydrologist, or the botanist, etc. for the Forest Service would supervise the people that we hired and we would train them, or they were already trained to gather the data. We accelerated and reduced the cost of that process significantly, and then moved the Project forward.

We were able then to start work with the funding we had acquired with a multi-party process of implementing the work, and all of the parties are still involved in carrying on that work. It's a ten year project, it will probably total 3 million dollars before it's done, and we have the continuity of the same parties working in partnership and dividing up the responsibilities and the work and funding today.

The other benefit of our approach was that the people whom I hired to do the groundwork and the inventory, being local and not being agency people, were all out in the community; in the churches, the PTA meetings, the bars, the hunting camps or whatever, and fielding the questions of the public. “What are they going to be doing with my elk road? I've been hunting up there for 40 years.” “What are they doing, they think they can just tear up the whole place?” “How come they don't want cattle anymore?”

You know, fielding the questions, bringing them back to the task force, and then the task force would develop answers to the public during the process like: "This is what we're doing and why.” “This is why we can't do what you're asking us to do.” “This is why we’re changing our ideas to do what you're asking us to do." By the end, when we went out for public comment we did not have a single negative comment on the entire project or the NEPA analysis, or the Forest Service’s Record of Decision.

We also invited all of the permit agencies early on in the process to come and look on the ground, look at what we wanted to do, register their comments on the design process, and deal with those hesitations and potential stops that could come out when an permitting agency gets a proposal across its desk and they are just looking at the paper work.

We brought all interested parties out to the project area. We learned early on to bring Division of State Lands, bring the NOAA Fisheries, bring all those people out on the ground when we're going to do a project together here, and get their comments early on and then deal with those comments by either accepting them and changing the design or by proving to them that what they wanted is not really applicable to this situation. So we're able to move collaboration from our partnership, from the work that we're doing, out into the greater arena to bring in the public and the permitters and agencies to buy in to the project so that we are able to get going once we are ready to proceed with no delays and no litigation.

Read the Fivemile-Bell Restoration Project NEPA assessment Report.

Is the Siuslaw National Forest unique among the national forests in its willingness to collaborate on projects like this?

It is incredibly unique, and we have a history here that allowed for this. First of all, it's been a very good place to work for people in the Forest Service. In the timber heyday, from 1960 to 1990, one of our ranger districts sold over two billion board feet of lumber, of logs, and that is as much as the annual unmet Northwest Forest Plan target for the whole Pacific NW is supposed to be these days. And that was in thirty years at the Mapleton District: that was countless trucks and trainloads of logs, veneer, and lumber products moving out of here. That was huge, and it was a thriving economy and the communities were prosperous, and then came the crash - the listing of the spotted owl - and the termination of that era.

But a lot of those Forest Service employees had stayed around long enough and been here that they had kids in the schools, some of them even had parents in the cemeteries. They were attached enough to this area that they passed up the normal requirement for transfer and relocation in order to get raises or move up the ladder. I understand why they used that process, to prevent collusion in the timber boom days, but when we got past the production timber era and we moved into more restoration and recreation, we needed people with long term experience and relationships with the community and the landscape. The backroom deals weren't the problem anymore. So, we had long-term employees that lived here because they wanted to be here and wanted to make this area more habitable for people, and communities, and wildlife. That really helped us when we got going with collaboration, and one characteristic of these folks was that they weren’t afraid to take risks with innovations and new authorities, and they could also explain the Forest Service’s behavior and processes to the local population in their own daily lives.

Another thing is, today the biggest problem with our Siuslaw federal forestlands and their health is the overstocked 40-60 year old legacy from the clear-cutting and replanting days of the boom period. The silvicultural prescription used for re-planting was based on about a 30% mortality rate, but here in this climate and terrain, over 95% of the seedlings survived and led to overcrowded conditions that required both pre-commercial thinning and now commercial thinning producing desirable product. Environmental groups understand this and even participate in determining the lay-out of these sales and the practices involved in their implementation. So we call ourselves the “fast-tree-growing, litigation-free national forest.” Coupling that with a strong commitment to and 25 years of experience with collaboration and multi-party values, we certainly have a lot of benefits and the opportunity to be very unique and successful.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.