Log mill owner examines Libby
By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter
The owner of a small-diameter log mill in Colville, Wash., is considering opening a mill in Libby.
Duane Vaagen met Friday with U.S. Forest Service personnel, local business leaders, and a representative of a local conservation group to discuss the possibility. To make the investment of coming here, Vaagen said, his company needs "some kind of assurance there will be wood."
Vaagen favors a stewardship contract with the Forest Service lasting at least three to five years. Trees from thinning operations on 8,000 to 10,000 acres would be needed each year to feed the portable hewsaw mill, he said.
Vaagen said the stewardship approach, rather than a one-time timber sale, provides the stability that the company seeks in starting a new operation.
However, Kootenai National Forest supervisor Bob Castaneda said the specter of lawsuits from regional and national conservation groups hangs over every timber sale, making it difficult to promise a certain flow of logs. Despite working well with the Yaak Valley Forest Council, he said, the Forest Service would still face threats from more hard-line conservation groups.
"(Local agreement) is not going to be enough to convince them," Castaneda said.
Vaagen, president of Vaagen Bros. Lumber Inc., disagreed with that assumption. He said lawsuits have been avoided in Colville by assembling a community coalition that includes environmentalists.
The coalition has representatives from local government, the Forest Service and environmental groups as well as members of the general community. A professional facilitator was hired to conduct meetings with as much impartiality as possible, Vaagen said.
"I think it will work because environmentalists are involved in structuring the sale," he said. "I don't think the national and regional groups are going to appeal them. I'd rather work with them than fight them. The fighting didn't work for 25 years."
Robyn King, representing Yaak Valley Forest Council at Friday's session, said losing the capacity for wood processing has hurt the local community. She sees potential in Vaagen's proposal, both for its economic benefits and to reduce fire fuel in the forest.
"The type of operation they described is exactly what the forest council wants to see," King said. "We have to build coalitions to talk about our needs, our values, and how we can work together. We can lock our arms locally, agree on values, and get the work done."
Castaneda said he's willing to sit down with groups from Missoula and elsewhere to try to reach an agreement.
"As we've come together there has been some trust developed," Vaagen said of the Colville coalition.
Paul Rumelhart, executive director of Kootenai River Development Council Inc., has been in discussions with Vaagen Bros. for some time. He said Friday that Libby has lacked a timber industry voice such as Vaagen trying to create jobs.
"There has been no industry advocacy in this community for 25 years," he said. "We have to do whatever we can do."
Lincoln County Commissioner John Konzen praised the Yaak Valley Forest Council for its spirit of cooperation in the past.
"To hell with the outside groups," he said. "Let's work with who we can work with."
Like Rumelhart, Kozen said he likes the idea of forming a coalition of all interested parties to talk about a stewardship contract that could bring a mill here.
"You're one of the new breed in the milling operation," Konzen told Vaagen. "I like your operation. If we can at all make it happen, we need to do so."
The company president said the mill he envisions for Libby would begin with eight to 10 "family wage manufacturing jobs," plus 20 to 30 jobs in the woods, and 10 to 15 jobs for logging truck drivers.
"The forest needs treatment," Vaagen said. "This area is prone to fire. We're going to go where the community wants us. We'd like it to be here, but it may or may not work. We just want to open up the dialogue."
Vaagen vice president Russell Vaagen said company officials would like the Forest Service to provide information on the amount of land that needs thinning on the Kootenai, as well as the volume of tree species. Also important to making a business decision, he said, is knowing how much thinning must be done on private land.
Castaneda agreed to provide the numbers, and to look into a meeting with environmental groups.
Vaagen said it's really up to the Forest Service to take the lead in efforts to supply enough timber. Referring to the situation in Washington and other states, he said, "The environmental groups are more on the same page with us than the agency is. That's got to change."