Two years after Idaho’s massive 2012 forest fires were brought under control in an area where fire risk had been lessened through better forest management practices, Gina Knudson is leading a collaborative forest restoration group working to make such efforts the norm.
It’s a clear summer morning in Salmon, Idaho, and Gina Knudson is dressed for work in a flower print western shirt, Levi’s and hiking boots. She sits with her morning coffee and a well-worn copy of the Continental Divide Trail map. Looking east from her kitchen window she can see the Beaverhead Mountain Range, where the 3,100 mile trail marks the Idaho-Montana border through the Beaverhead National Forest. Each day before work she plans which section of the trail she’s going to hike next. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Youthful with a ready laugh, Knudson, 46, is an avid outdoors-woman. She fell in love with the Salmon River valley when she and her family moved to the small mountain town 12 years ago. “We moved here because my husband, Jeff, got a job with the Bureau of Land Management. He’s the fire manager in Salmon,” she explains. “We both grew up in the desert of southern Idaho. Our intention was to live here for two years and then move back to the Boise area after he’d gotten his promotion. Our first night here we realized we were probably going to throw that plan out the window. I was completely captivated by this place. It’s not like anything I’d experienced before.”
Salmon, Idaho, is one of the most remote communities in the West, with a population hovering steadily around 3,000. The nearest shopping mall is 150 miles away. Since her arrival in 2002, Knudson has become ingrained in the community. She equates living in a small town to being a member of a small church. “If you don’t participate in the choir or teach Sunday school, or whatever, you’re not really a member. If you’re interested in things and you show up, whether to a city council meeting or to a concert the arts council is putting on, people notice that you’re interested. And hopefully, when you start talking to people they realize you have some kind of life experience that could help their cause or somehow be beneficial.”
The people of Salmon did take notice of the skills that Knudson brought to town. When the local hockey association found out she had grant writing experience, the board of directors asked her help with fundraising. Her participation in city council meetings led to an invitation to fill a vacant seat on the council. And in July 2006, Knudson, who was once a seasonal firefighter and had been working as a freelance writer for a regional newspaper, was invited to fill in for the director of a small non-profit who was taking off for maternity leave.
That temporary assignment became permanent and now Knudson is executive director of Salmon Valley Stewardship (SVS), a non-profit that promotes a sustainable economy and productive working landscapes in the Salmon River region. Among their programs, SVS coordinates the Lemhi County Forest Restoration Group (LCFRG). Members of the group – environmentalists, timber workers, wildlife advocates, landowners and active and retired government forest managers – collaborate with each other and the Forest Service on sustainable management and restoration of the surrounding forests. Knudson leads the group, and her background as a journalist has proven to be a real gem.
“My job is to not have all the answers but to know how to ask questions. There are enough experts in this valley on everything technical. Public land managers, wildlife biologists, fisheries biologists…I heard it said the other day you can’t swing a cat without hitting a fisheries biologist. I don’t know why you’d be swinging a cat, but that’s what they said.”
Humor continues to be Knudson’s strategy for managing the challenges that can come up when leading a collaborative group. “There are plenty of people who know all the answers, but it’s a different deal to be able to get those people to find something they agree on.”
Knudson was very familiar with the conflict that had plagued the valley over land management decisions. She moved to Salmon right after the Clear Creek Complex fire had burned over 200,000 acres of the nearby Salmon-Challis National Forest. “It was the beginning of the Salmon River Valley’s mega-fires and it burned all summer. It was awful. The air quality forced people to leave, and there was a genuine fear the town was going to burn down.” The Forest Service responded by putting together more aggressive fuel reduction projects, but environmental groups successfully litigated against them because the courts found that they weren’t adequately protecting wildlife or old growth trees. There was a lot of frustration and tension on both sides.
One thing everyone agreed on was the ever-present risk that wildfire could devastate the community – and wildlife habitat – as it nearly had in 2000. At 3,944 ft elevation, Salmon is nestled tightly between the Continental Divide to the east and the Salmon River Mountains to the west, and the forests here are in desperate need of restoration. Naturally very dry in summer, the risk of catastrophic fire is compounded by decades of fire suppression and increasing effects of climate change that have left the forests thick with overgrowth and standing dead trees from beetle kills.
Knudson’s first day on the job in July of 2006, she met with the local stakeholders who would eventually become the LCFRG. Knudson recalled the rules of engagement, which were established with the help of Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit that helps diverse stakeholders work together to solve natural-resource management issues.
“ ‘You’re not going to go out and make side deals after the meeting. You’re not going to challenge people’s personalities; you’re going to be respectful,’” Knudson recalled. “People were ready; they just needed that safe place. Without Sustainable Northwest, I don’t know if we could have hit the ground running like we did.”
Only one month after the first meeting, the new collaborative group had chosen their first restoration project at the Hughes Creek watershed of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, in the North Fork Ranger District of the Salmon River. “Selecting that spot was easy,” Knudson explains. “The lightning patterns create our boundaries. We know where our forest fires are going to start. We know which drainages have homes in them, and which areas have been untreated for a long time and are in pretty bad condition.” The decision was sealed by the local volunteer fire department chief and the local Forest Service fire management officer who agreed it was too dangerous to send their crews into the steep overgrown canyons. If a fire had started in that area, they would have had to fight it from the air, which is much less effective.
Over the next three years, the LCFRG worked with the Forest Service and adjacent private land owners on plans for a 13,000 acre restoration project. Then for another three years, local crews thinned woody debris from the forest and improved stream waterways and fish habitat. They finished most of their work just in time.
In July 2012, lightning sparked the Mustang Complex fires which burned – as predicted – in the direction of the Hughes Creek. It was a massive fire, burning close to 340,000 acres by the end of August. When the fire neared the Hughes Creek restoration site, it became more manageable and fire crews were able to go in safely and divert it away from homes and the area’s sole transportation route, Highway 93.
The LCFRG is currently working on a new 40,000 acre restoration site in the North Fork, and are no longer approaching issues as “us vs. them” That’s still a progressive notion in some parts of the country.
“Even though Idaho is right now the second most conservative state in the nation, and Lemhi County is considered one of the most conservative counties in this state, people here have incredibly progressive ideas. It turns your thinking on its head. You don’t have conversations where you can stereotype,” Knudson explains.
“I’ve been out on a rancher’s land and he’s taken me past wolf dens and said, ‘There’s pups there right now. Please don’t tell anyone about this. I wouldn’t want them to get hurt.’ And his cattle are right there.”
She recalls being out in the field with former loggers who look at cuts they worked on in the 80s and they express remorse where they were directed to cut too much.
“I think the rest of the world got the impression that people here only cared about extraction and greed. But I’ve come across these people who never plan to leave here. The last thing in the world they want is to create a situation where their kids couldn’t enjoy the place as much as they have. There is a deep conservation ethic here.”
Knudson feels fortunate that her family has been able to grow up in the river valley and experience the strong connection to the land. She describes how different the feeling is here than in the desert. “On the Snake River plains in southern Idaho the wind blows just to blow. Here when the wind blows it means something is shifting in the atmosphere; there’s a big storm coming. When you walk to work every day, you cross a river, and from that river you can determine what’s going on in the world around you. If the river is muddy that means upriver something is happening. There’s been a mudslide or something like that. It’s a more grounded lifestyle. Nobody lives here for the money. To be able to live in an environment like this is really special, and it’s what some people only get to experience on vacation.”
Knudson’s measure of success is seeing young people who’ve grown up in Salmon, gone away to college, bringing their degrees and skills back to the community. “That is pretty rare for a small town right now.” Now that Knudson’s children are in their teens, she’s hopeful they will make the same choice.
This article first appeared on the website of Sustainable Northwest, where Renee Magyar is communications director.