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In 2010, when Jerry Ingersoll landed in Corvallis as supervisor of the Siuslaw National Forest, he inherited a functional if sometimes uneasy collection of alliances between competing interests.

Now, as he says goodbye to the Siuslaw and prepares to take on a new assignment in Alaska, those alliances appear to be in better shape than ever.

That’s something that Ingersoll — who starts on Monday as second-in-command of the Forest Service’s sprawling Alaska Region — looks back on with pride.

“We could not be successful on the Siuslaw without collaboration, without different voices coming together,” he said in an interview last week at the national forest’s Corvallis headquarters. “It’s really the heart of what we’re doing here.”

The forest and the trees

Stretching along the Oregon coast from Tillamook in the north to Coos Bay in the south and extending inland as far as Marys Peak, the 630,000-acre Siuslaw National Forest was once known as a timber-producing powerhouse, cranking out an annual harvest that averaged upward of 400 million board-feet.

But in the 1980s and ’90s, a series of environmental lawsuits rocked the region’s timber economy by sharply restricting logging on federal forests throughout the Northwest to protect dwindling salmon runs and endangered species such as the northern spotted owl.

The effects on the Siuslaw, where the harvest shrank to virtually nothing, were devastating.

“We went from five ranger districts to two, we went from 400 employees to 150, mills shut down, there were protests — all of that,” Ingersoll said. “I can only imagine the pain folks went through.”

In 1994, with the timber industry battling to overturn harvest restrictions and protesters flocking to the woods to block any further cutting of ancient forests, the Clinton administration brought stakeholders from both sides of the issue together in Portland to hammer out a deal that came to be known as the Northwest Forest Plan.

The idea was to put an end to the timber wars by protecting the last remaining old growth forests while allowing a steady cut of younger trees to feed the region’s log-starved mills. But it didn’t always work out that way.

Under the Northwest Forest Plan, the vast majority of the Siuslaw’s land base was designated “late successional reserve,” meaning it was to be managed for restoration of old growth conditions, not timber production. The harvest goal for the forest was a paltry 5 million board-feet a year.

But unlike many federal forests in the region, the Siuslaw has found a way to not only meet but exceed those goals on a consistent basis. The template for that success was laid down by one of Ingersoll’s predecessors, Jim Furnish, who was supervisor from 1992 to 1999.

Furnish and his successors gradually built the Siuslaw’s annual harvest back up, in part through the use of a collaborative mechanism called stewardship contracting that brings environmentalists, loggers and other diverse interest groups together to plan projects.

Since taking over as the forest supervisor, Ingersoll has tried to keep building on the work of those who came before.

“I don’t think of myself as a change agent,” he said. “If you’re presented with something that’s successful, don’t screw it up.”

Rather than targeting big old growth trees, both traditional and stewardship sales on the Siuslaw focus on thinning second-growth Douglas fir plantations, allowing the trees that remain to develop more old growth characteristics. Much of the money generated by the timber sales is plowed back into restoration of fish and wildlife habitat on the forest.

What makes the system work, Ingersoll insisted, is the trust that’s been built up among former adversaries who have found common ground by working together to achieve their mutual interests.

“For the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve been bringing in 40 million board-feet a year, we’ve been bringing in millions of dollars and we’ve been investing it in restoration — without any protests and without people sitting in trees,” he said.

“This is a cool place to work.”

Both conservationists and timber industry people give Ingersoll credit for keeping the program on an even keel.

Chandra LeGue, the Western Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild, has served on stewardship groups throughout Ingersoll’s tenure and says he’s always been responsive to her concerns.

“I think he has continued the tradition that the Siuslaw National Forest has had of working with a variety of partners to advance restoration across the forest,” she said.

Jim Geisinger, executive vice president for Associated Oregon Loggers, also gave Ingersoll high marks.

“I think he did an exemplary job of implementing the Northwest Forest Plan and the timber sale plan,” Geisinger said. “It’s certainly not what it used to be, but it’s been very helpful to our industry.”

The upper echelons of the U.S. Forest Service seem to agree. In 2015, the Siuslaw was honored for its record of providing a steady timber supply through restoration forestry with the Chief’s Honor Award, the federal agency’s highest level of recognition.

Lines in the sand

Ingersoll has also won supporters for his handling of another contentious issue: how to manage the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

Covering more than 30,000 acres in a 40-mile stretch of coast between Florence and Coos Bay, the Oregon Dunes provide vital nesting habitat for the threatened western snowy plover as well as a host of recreational opportunities, from hiking and camping to zipping around the sand on quads, dirt bikes and other all-terrain vehicles.

But, as so often happens on public lands, multiple use led to multiple conflicts. Tensions between competing user groups have grown worse in recent decades as invasive plants such as European beach grass and scotch broom have gobbled up more and more of what used to be open sand.

“We’ve lost half the dunes in the last 50 years, and if we don’t change what we’re doing, we’re going to lose the other half,” Ingersoll said.

In 2014, Ingersoll convened a stakeholders group, known as the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative, to come up with a plan to address the issue of invasive vegetation and begin to reverse the loss of open sand areas that make this place so special.

But even before that, he waded into the long-simmering dispute between various constituencies that have a stake in the dunes and eventually helped broker a deal that, while it didn’t please everyone, seemed to strike a balance between competing interests.

“He’s just been very fair,” said Jody Phillips, a North Bend resident who sits on the board of Save the Riders Dunes, an influential group of motorized recreationists.

Phillips, an ATV rider and hiker who loves to spend time in the dunes, said Ingersoll was always willing to listen to people with differing opinions.

“Some guys can be pretty biased, especially against off-roaders,” he added. “Jerry is not. He’s very inclusive and he likes to get people involved.”

Summit meeting

Another group Ingersoll has worked closely with is the Marys Peak Alliance, a volunteer organization that works with the Siuslaw to foster greater appreciation for the 4,097-foot mountain 15 miles southwest of Corvallis.

But the original impetus for the group was outrage over the construction of a chain-link security fence around the small cluster of radio shacks and communications towers on the summit. Built in late 2011 with no opportunity for public comment, the fence cordoned off a sizable section of the mountaintop wildflower meadow that was previously open for public use and cluttered up sightlines from the summit of the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range.

It was a serious public relations blunder that could have cost the Siuslaw National Forest dearly in terms of community support in the Corvallis area, and for a time it seemed that it would. But Ingersoll, along with newly installed District Ranger Michele Jones, managed to smooth the ruffled feathers and eventually develop a cordial working relationship with the alliance, which now leads school tours and provides volunteer interpreters on the peak.

“At that time the Marys Peak Alliance was out looking for blood,” recalled Phil Hays, one of the group’s founding members. “Jerry handled that very well, I think.”

Ingersoll’s diplomatic skills came into play again in his relations with the Corvallis to the Sea Trail Partnership, another volunteer group whose goals sometimes conflicted with Forest Service policies.

The idea for a walking and cycling route connecting Corvallis with the Pacific Ocean has been around since the 1970s, but early attempts were thwarted by the challenge of working with a host of public agencies, private timber companies and individual landowners to piece together a viable path over the Coast Range.

The effort was revived with the formation of the C2C Trail Partnership in 2003. After years of painstaking work, the organization wrapped up a series of access agreements for a 62-mile route from the Willamette River in downtown Corvallis to Ona Beach State Park just south of Newport.

But then the effort hit an unexpected stumbling block: Forest Service bureaucracy.

The federal agency had little money in its budget for trail construction and little experience with private trail operators. Federal law also required an extensive environmental assessment before trail construction could proceed.

After several years of preliminary discussions, the C2C Trail Partnership was allowed to apply for a special use permit in January of 2014. It took another 18 months of negotiation before the permit was granted and the group could start building trail on the Siuslaw.

But the partnership’s perseverance paid off, and last fall the group held a dedication ceremony at the Big Elk Campground in Harlan to open the eastern half of the route. (The western half — which will require another special use permit to cross another stretch of the Siuslaw — is expected to open a couple of years from now.)

Ingersoll was on hand for the dedication, offering praise for the persistence — and patience — of the C2C Partnership, and promising to do what he could to expedite the permitting process.

“I know it’s not as fast as the trail people would like, but we will get it done,” he said.

The road ahead

Looking back on his eight years in the job, Ingersoll said that whatever success he’s had has been founded on carefully cultivated relationships between national forest staffers and local stakeholders.

“It’s part of a spirit on the Siuslaw that we can’t do this alone,” he said.

“The only way we can manage these lands the way we want to manage them is with the collaboration of the community.”

He said he plans to take that approach with him to his next posting in Juneau, where he will be the deputy forester for the Alaska Region, which encompasses the 7 million-acre Chugach National Forest and 23 million-acre Tongass.

Angela Elam, the deputy supervisor of southern Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, will step in starting Monday as acting supervisor of the Siuslaw until a permanent successor is found.

But no matter who ultimately lands the job, Ingersoll believes he’s leaving the Siuslaw National Forest in good shape — and in good hands.

“There will be challenges in the future, and they will probably be different challenges than the ones we have today,” he said.

“But I have confidence in the people here,” he added. “It’s not really about me.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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