Melissa Cribbins said she didn’t hesitate when offered the position of executive director of Communities for Healthy Forests, a nonprofit group whose mission is to advocate for forest management that produces healthier forests.
Written by Craig Reed
“I believe in the mission of Communities for Healthy Forests,” she said. “I grew up in rural Oregon. I’ve lived in seven different counties in Oregon and if I’ve learned one thing, it is that we’ve let them down. The talk is all about economic diversification, but we miss the fact that wildfire and smoke knocks out tourism for the summer. Rural counties deserve a better shake.”
CHF advocates for sustainable, science-based pre- and post-fire management practices on federal timberlands to help produce healthier forests and stronger communities. The group is based in Roseburg, but advocates for better forest management on federal lands throughout the Western U.S.
Cribbins succeeds Doug Robertson as the executive director. Robertson, a former Douglas County commissioner, resigned from the CHF post late last year in order to accept the position of executive director with the Association of O&C Counties.
“CHF’s goals match many of my personal goals on the subject of forest health which makes this such a great opportunity,” Cribbins said.
Cribbins, 50, is a Coquille High School graduate. She earned degrees in microbiology and biochemistry from Portland State University and a law degree from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. She is a practicing attorney and a former 10-year Coos County commissioner. She is a member of the Elliott State Forest Advisory Committee, is a past president of the Association of Oregon Counties and has served on the Land Conservation and Development Commission and several other local, regional and national organizations.
“Rural Oregon doesn’t tell its story well enough,” Cribbins said. “We need to be telling our own story about what an actively managed forest looks like while maintaining the habitat and areas in which to recreate.
“I really want to work hard to connect more with federal representatives,” she added. “We need to tell our story to the people who make policy. We should have a seat at the table in order to advocate and to be able to point out when there’s a problem. So many policies are made in Washington, D.C., where the concept might sound great, but on the ground here they’re not working. Anybody who has been in the woods in Oregon knows the brush is so thick, rapid reforestation of burned areas is not going to happen naturally.”
Robertson said Cribbins has the credibility, experience and contacts to carry CHF’s message forward. Dale Pospisil, the CHF president, said Cribbins understands the issues.
“More people are paying attention to the root causes of wildfire in the West and are asking important questions,” Pospisil said. “Melissa has the credibility to provide great answers. We’re excited about having Melissa take the lead.”
CHF was established in 2003 after a tour up the North Umpqua drainage of a forest that had suffered from a wildfire the year before. Both large, dead standing trees and fallen trees and dense brush on the ground were seen. The tour attendees were told none of the burned area had been reforested due to the possible hazard of trees falling on planting crews.
A group of citizens realized the ability of the federal government to restore the burned landscape was challenged by policies, delays, lawsuits and a lack of funding. The group viewed the health of federal forests as critical for the health and vitality of nearby communities. Those citizens wanted trees that burned on federal forestlands to be salvaged and the land replanted which would eliminate ground fuel and decrease the chance of future catastrophic wildfires.
“Douglas County is a great example of what an unmanaged national forest looks like,” said Cribbins, adding that CHF plans to organize several forest tours later this year to show people burned areas that are either progressing as a young forest or not.
She explained private industry has removed burned trees and replanted its timberlands while the federal government has removed “an extremely limited number of trees,” after some of the recent fires.
“We’re not here to pick a fight with the Forest Service or BLM (Bureau of Land Management),” Cribbins said. “We want to support them, but we think policy needs to be changed at the federal level. It’s a federal policy issue in Washington, D.C., of not understanding conditions on the ground in rural Oregon and the West.
“Everybody agrees the fuel loads in the forest are contributing to the catastrophic wildfires and nobody likes the impact of those fires,” she added. “The disagreement is on the reasons for the fuel loads.”
Cribbins said she is optimistic a group like CHF can influence policy changes while admitting it’ll be a slow process.
“I would not have taken this job if I wasn’t confident there could be change,” she said.
Those interested in learning more about Communities for Healthy Forests can visit the website at communitiesforhealthyforests.com or contact Cribbins via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.