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Bill Higgins

Bill Higgins is the resource manager with Idaho Forest Group and is a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative. The interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 at the mill in Grangeville, Idaho, by Bruce Reichert.

Bill Higgins in his office

What do you hope to accomplish with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative?
The national forest is a critical supply for our operation. I've been a member of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative for three years now. It was convened by Senator Crapo in May of 2008. There are 24 members of the group, including forest industry, which I partially represent with some additional industry folks.

My main goal is to increase the level of management on our Federal lands. We're blessed here where I live in Grangeville, next to the Nez Perce and the Clearwater national forests. There are about 4 million acres combined in those two forests. In the past, about 25% of those two forests have been managed at some level. And there are 3 million acres that are already designated wilderness or roadless. I'm serving on the Governor's Roadless Commission, where we are sworn to uphold the roadless rule, but what I'm looking for, and I think what a lot of people are looking for, is we don't want to see wildfire adjacent to development.

"They used to have a mission . . . they don't have a mission. They don't understand what their direction is."
- Bill Higgins on the U.S. Forest Service

Wildfire has its place, and in my view, it's in the back country, away from development. Essentially, the conservation groups are in agreement with the industry that there is a real backlog of growth within the forest that needs to be thinned.

It does seem that things had gotten real bogged down in the Clearwater.
It has been a stalemate. The status quo is not acceptable to anyone. The conservation groups are not seeing the protections that they want to see on wild land deserving of protection. They are not seeing the restoration activities that they would like to see.

The forest industry is not seeing the level of forest management that we would like to see and all of the employment that goes with it and improved wildfire habitat, especially big game. Logging and big game go together.

Clearwater Basin Collaborative Group meeting

You can't get anything accomplished through the court system. That's the wrong way to get things done. Maybe some people who are making their living off of perpetuating conflict, you know, they may see that differently. But folks who are actually interested in improved forest health, who are interested in achieving conservation objectives that are supported by the broad community . . . you can get so much more done in a collaborative way, rather than trying to advance your own special interest individually. It's just so much more effective. I've been amazed by it, to be honest with you.

When I have a problem, I have Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society, Back Country Hunters and Anglers all going to bat for me, and I never thought that I would find myself in a position where, what my opinion was, made a difference for helping those folks accomplish their objectives. But, that is the position that I find myself in.

Do you get feedback from folks who wonder why the heck you're compromising with enviros?
Yeah, there is the uninformed public that says, "Not another acre of wilderness, hell no, no way." And there are the extremists on the other side, and you know, those positions get you nowhere. What I found working with my friends and colleagues through collaboration that we are so much more powerful together.

We were fortunate to get one of the 10 nation-wide projects through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act, and so that's injecting up to $40 million of additional money into our local, Federal landscape. So that's one of the most important achievements to date. But we're working towards long-term solutions.

So what does this mill mean to the community and the region?
The Idaho forest group has four saw mills in north Idaho with the Grangeville mill. We're the largest employer in Idaho County. We have about 160 direct employees here at the Grangeville mill. That doesn't include logging contractors and foresters working for agencies, and lumber truck drivers and chip truck drivers and all those folks, you know. I think you are probably looking at another 300 people or so that are directly employed, supplying the mill.

And there is an indirect multiplier for all of the direct employment. I worked with Idaho Department of Labor to quantify what our industry means to the Clearwater basin. Our industry is about 14% of the direct employment in our local area, and with the indirect employment, you are looking at about 40% of the employment is related to the forest industry.

Bill Higgins looks at the lumber mill machinery.

I came to work for what was Bennett Forest Industries, and is now Idaho Forest Group, here in Grangeville, Idaho. The Bennett family has been in the industry over 60 years here in Idaho, and the Bennett family had a saw mill in Elk City, which is about 55 miles up the south fork of the Clearwater from Grangeville.

Due to dramatically decreased harvest on the national forest, that mill became unfeasible to continue to operate. But the Bennett family was committed to the industry, and when that mill ran its last log in February of 2006, the next day the Grangeville mill ran its first log. It started in February of 2006. The mill is state of the art technology for saw milling in the United States and North America.

What part does the national forest play in all this?
What built these communities and the infrastructure for the most part that we have in our local area was originally the harvest from the national forest. And it's been devastating the last 15 or 20 years to our local communities. Unemployment in Clearwater County is one of the highest in the state. And Idaho County is not too far behind.

We're looking for all of the diversified employment that we can find, but in my view you have to build on what you have. And what we have are, are natural resources that are in need of management, and we can improve the conditions that we have and employ people, as well.

Where does this mill get its timber?
Our saw mill here in Grangeville is using about 100 million feet of timber per year. That's about 90 to 100 log truckloads a day. And we get about one-third of our supply from Idaho Department of Lands, and trust lands that benefit the education system within the state. And we get about 20% currently of our supply from the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. We get one third of our supply from industrial timberlands, and about 10 or 15% from the small industrial, small private non-industrial landowner.

And through our collaborative efforts, we expect to see a higher percentage of our supply coming from Federal lands, which represent 85% of the lands within our county.

So what happened with the federal agencies and timber?
Well, they used to have a mission. And you know, I think that's been a bit of the problem in recent years as they have kind of gotten away from that. They don't have a mission. They don't understand what their direction is, and they are trying to take direction from the public, which really, in many ways, is not workable, you know.

The public are not natural resource professionals, and so I think through our collaborative efforts, we're helping to provide direction for the Forest Service to become a more functional, productive, and cost effective agency.

Why are these Clearwater forests unique?
The Clearwater Country is unique because it's probably the most productive inland forest within North America. It's because of the topography and the way that the storms come across the Cascades, and they back up against the Idaho panhandle, and give us all of that rain and snow that makes the trees grow.

I think we have 11 commercial species, confer species that grow in north Idaho, and it's very diverse, but it's still a fire disturbed landscape. And so you have to make the choice whether you are going to let fire continue to disturb the landscape, and I think that that is appropriate in lots of wild country where nature is running its course. We have lots of country where I think a more appropriate solution is where man tries to mimic the effects of natural wildfire.

Bill Higgins stands in front of bundled stacks of lumber.

The forests are different now than they were 100 years ago. The species composition is dominated by shade-tolerant fir. It's much more dense than it was decades ago, and it's reaching beyond the carrying capacity of the land, and so nature is going to thin it. And it does that through disease, followed by fire, and I think it's a lot more beneficial to society to try to do that in a controlled, managed way rather than letting nature run its course.

What does a well managed forest look like to a forester?
It depends on who the owner of the forest is and what their objectives are, you know. If it's an industrial forest, your objective is to maximize the growth and yield and revenue from your lands. If you are a small private landowner, you may get a portion of your income from the forest, but you may not be managing to maximize the yield.

From the national forests, we don't expect to see them managed like industrial tree farms, but we do expect to see them managed for resilience, biological diversity, and improved wildlife habitat.

There are some good folks working in the Forest Service.
There are a lot of good people working in the Forest Service that want to do good work on the land. And, you know, those folks need to be encouraged. They need to be rewarded. We need a bit of a culture change within the Forest Service that rewards accomplishment, rewards risk-taking, rewards leadership.

"You can get so much more done in a collaborative way, rather than trying to advance your own special interest individually. It's just so much more effective. I've been amazed by it, to be honest with you."
- Bill Higgins

The Forest Service is a very top down organization. That's the nature of public land management that has been hard for me to get my mind around because, you know, usually, it takes zero to one meetings for me to make a decision about anything. But, that's the nature of the government.

So, let's say everyone is on board. It's still a daunting task to manage all these public lands.
I think leadership and direction are primary. And then the state of our Federal budgets is a challenge, but to me, that's secondary. First we have to have the leadership of the Forest Service and the public as lined as where and what we ought to be doing.

For the most part, in my backyard, this timber resource is valuable, and we can pay for a lot of restoration activity. We can pay for the folks to manage the ground, you know. It's not a deficit activity. It should never be a deficit activity within Clearwater country. And that's not necessarily the same story in Arizona or New Mexico.

We can have our cake and eat it, too, you know. If you want to have big game habitat, you have to open up the forest in places, and we can do that through mechanical harvest, and we can have improved game habitat, we can protect the water quality. It's not mutually exclusive.

So, if you could wave a magic wand, what would you change?
Well, we're working on a landscape assessment, me and my collaborative partners and the Forest Service, and, my dream for that is it's a very good product that charts the course for management on a portion of these forests, you know, the front country.

The management objectives in the back country are going to be different than what we see in the front country, and my expectation is that we're going to see a lot more management activity than we have seen in the past. That's going to generate timber to the mills. It's going to increase employment, and we're going to have healthier forests. We're on a roll here. It's not to say that it's easy. It is a struggle. It's a time consuming process to put all of this work into collaboration. But our expectations have always been high, that we're going to accomplish great things. And if you set your expectations low, I can guarantee you, you will achieve them. So we're not going to make that mistake.