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Loggers and Environmentalists Find Common Ground



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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, November 12, 2012

In Calaveras county they're working to restore forest health and put loggers back to work.

It wasn't easy to get diverse parties to work together.

"I remember a meeting in which we were  talking about our economic troubles, it was a community meeting, and it resulted in about 200 people showing up, and lot of people throwing chairs at each other," says Calaveras County supervisor Steve Wilenksy, describing a community meeting more than a decade ago. 

Loggers wanted steady work, environmentalists wanted to protect the forests, but the grinding poverty was hurting everyone.  Some communities suffered unemployment rates above 20 percent. 

Wilensky believed these divisions could be healed, and that the health of the community and the forest are integrally tied.  So he ran for county supervisor.

And he won.  

Then he called together a meeting inviting Mewok tribal council leaders, ex-loggers and mill workers and all the environmental groups in the area. 

He didn't exactly tell them who was going to be there, but "there was no blood on the floor at the end of it.  And we actually were deciding that we wanted to have another meeting and start working on solutions."

Nearby West Point fire chief Jim Carroll says "Wilensky came in brave."  And he says Wilensky's background as a labor negotiator helped him get people to listen to each other.

"He got all the players in a room, and, oh man, they all hated each other, but they treated each other civilly by the end of the evening," says Carroll.  "We started with him pushing the premise what can we all agree on: that the forest is in lousy condition."

Loggers And Environmentalists Working Together 

And so the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group was born. People who'd previously sued each other came together to pursue three goals : put people back to work, restore the forest ecosystem and protect communities from fire.

After hours of meetings, listening, and grant-writing, now the group is doing just that.

On a recent fall afternoon, Robert Smith drives a faded green masticator that chews up small trees and brush. He's clearing fire fuel in a part of the Stanislaus National Forest that abuts several subdivisions. 

Smith owns and operates Smith Grinding, but when the recession hit, he couldn't find work.  He almost lost his home.  

"This area, at one time, had like 23 mills in it, so it was a booming industry," says Smith.  "It slowly has died out all through the  '80s and '90s. And even what was going on in here came to a screeching halt, what, probably 3 years ago.  On a personal level, going out and looking for work, there was none."

As a part of the consensus group, the forest service is now hiring local contractors like Smith to do much-needed clean-up in the forests.  And the consensus group also helped to form a contractors coop, so the group can bid on projects as one unit. 

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Smith says it's given him work -- and he likes the idea of helping the Amador and Calaveras county communities get those jobs.

"We have a lot of people come in and take this work form us, when we have it right here and should be making money ourselves."

Bring Back Jobs

Putting people back to work isn't as simple as just creating jobs. So the consensus group also includes community organizations that teach job readiness; and it works with probation officers to help former prisoners make the transition back to work.

That's how Anthony Destefano got a job with the crew.

"I'm an electrician by trade, but with the building and the economy dropping, I got laid off, and it was impossible it seemed like to get a job," Destefano says.

Destefano says he was unemployed for two and half years, and he got himself into trouble with drugs and landed in jail. When he got out on probation, his supervisor referred him to this work crew .

"I've just been moving forward, doing positive things.  This job has helped me to achieve some goals," he says.

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The section Smith and Destefano just finished clearing looks like the forest floor got a buzz cut underneath the tall oaks, pines and firs they've left standing.

Environmentalist is No Longer the 'Devil Incarnate'

The crew isn't just brute labor hacking down trees and brush.  Part of the training involves scientists teaching them how to recognize species, what to take out and what to leave, says Katherine Evatt, an environmentalist with the Foothill Conservancy.

"We're is reducing the risk of catastrophic fire in our communities, which is also a big threat to critical habitat for spotted owls and other wildlife," says Evatt.

"And it's going to allow us to start to reintroduce fire as a tool in the Sierra," she says, adding that because fire has been suppressed for over 100 years, some parts of the forest are too dense to safely use fire as a natural tool.  

Evatt says the success of the project so far has been because everything the diverse consensus group does has to benefit the community, the economy and the environment. 

"I have positive working relationships with people who maybe five years ago thought I was the devil incarnate," she says. "And a lot of that is about relationships, and that's why these processes, as much time as they take, are successful."

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Can the Collaboration Last?

The project got off the ground with hard-earned grants, but just this month County supervisor Steve Wilenksy says its running fully on it's own steam.  It's supported by the income brought in by forest clearing projects and selling biomass to the co-gen plant that they got reopened.   

Wilensky hopes in the future some income could  come from downstream users. Reducing fire risk in Calaveras county protects the water quality of the Mokelumne River -- which 1.3 million people in the East Bay rely on for drinking water.

"That's a partnership that gets the answer to the question of can it be sustainable.  And the answer is no, not unless people who are benefiting from it actually come to be partners in that endeavor. "

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So far he's brought a lot of unlikely partners together.  

Now the consensus group is working on a study to quantify the money saved by protecting the river. Coca-Cola has a bottling plant downstream, and has already contributed $400,000 to upstream restoration.  The consensus group hopes others will follow. 

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