Each year, forests face a growing threat. Millions of acres in the U.S. are destroyed by wildfires. Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California have all seen catastrophic and deadly fires in 2017.
There could be an answer to help prevent these types of wildfires. Both loggers and environmentalists agree that logging could be the answer.
The landscape in Washington and Idaho is unique. For example, a larch tree is fire resistant. When it is involved in a wildfire, only the bark will burn. The tree itself will survive. Other trees, like large fir trees with hanging limbs, are more susceptible to fires.
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Russ Vaagen's grandfather started Vaagen Brothers logging in the early 1950s. Russ is now the Vice President. He said logging has always been about using one of nature's most abundant resources, but now, it is about taking care of it.
"We really need a more cohesive strategy to deal with this so we can protect the communities. But at the same time, we need to protect the natural landscape," said Vaagen.
Mike Peterson is Executive Director of the Lands Council, a group dedicated to protecting area forests. He and Vaagen have become friends.
"We had been fighting each other over timber sales. We had appealed and filed suit on a lot of timber sales. Back in the 80s and 90s, the logging was very different," said Peterson.
In the 1980s and 1990s, environmentalists and loggers were at odds over the issue of protecting the spotted owl. Loggers tried to harvest as many trees as they could while environmental groups filed lawsuits to stop it. This went on for years. Eventually, the U.S. Forest Service decided it was easier and less expensive to stop the timber harvest on federal land. It has been that way for the past 30 years now.
Vaagen and Peterson are now on the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a group that focuses on restoring forests.
"I see us restoring by leaving the most resilient trees, and taking out the ones next to them that are going to burn up in a fire. So there is a good trade off of actually reducing the fuel load, but also making the whole forest stand more resilient," said Peterson.
"We take out some of these trees that are not fire resistant, and we intermix those in the stands, so if fire does come, the trees can survive, like they would have historically," said Vaagen.
Vaagen said he understands people who question his logging business and motive. He said he's trying to build a business that adds value to the forest.
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"I think when we work with conservation organizations, and they see the benefit of management for the outcomes they are looking for. The same things can feed the businesses that we have, why aren't we doing more of it?" Vaagen said.
Vaagen is working on a 50,000 acre project in the Colville National Forest on U.S. Forest Service land. It's a 10-year project called the A-Z project.
There will be more space between trees. That means more sunlight and fewer invasive species. It also means less competition for water and nutrients in the soil. Healthier trees can stand against wildfires.
"I think more and more people are starting to get it. There's always going to be people on both sides who either want to go back to the old days, and do massive clear cuts, or not touch one single tree," said Peterson. "The center of the world is, let's work together in a collaborative like Russ and I do, and figure stuff out."