New effort forms over Olympic National Forest

SEATTLE (AP) Several environmental and timber groups are forming a partnership to find ways to boost timber harvests in Olympic National Forest while also improving forest health.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer on Tuesday announced the formation of the Olympic Peninsula Collaborative. The Democrat from Gig Harbor says the partnership brings the groups around shared goals and attempts to avoid previous bitter disputes between the timber industry and environmentalists over the use of Northwest forests.

"I've always said that we don't have to choose between economic development and environmental protection," said Kilmer, who grew up in Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula.

The collaborative will look for ways to increase timber harvests and provide economic benefits to communities through restoration thinning and other timber treatment while also improving forest habitats and environmental conditions. Members said it's still early to say what the specific projects would entail, but they're optimistic about having an open-minded discussion.

"We have basically opened the doors to talk," said Connie Gallant with the conservation group Olympic Forest Coalition. "We do not want to see a return to those (forest) wars by any means."

She said thousands of acres of dense forest on the Olympic National Forest provide poor wildlife habitat and could be improved by carefully designed thinning and habitat restoration projects.

The Olympic National Forest, which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, is home to protected species, including the northern spotted owl.

Kilmer said discussions would work within the confines of federal environmental laws and the federal Northwest Forest Plan, which governs millions of acres of federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Matt Comisky, Washington manager for the American Forest Resource Council, said the current approach to managing the forest isn't meeting the economic and social needs of local communities, or the environmental needs of the forest.

He said the amount of timber currently harvested from the forest is only a fraction of what it once was.

More than a dozen groups are on board, including the Olympic Forest Coalition, the Mountaineers, Simpson Lumber Co. and the American Forest Resource Council.

The collaborative is modeled after other partnerships in the state, including one on the Colville National Forest in northeast Washington.