Melissa Cribbins was named Executive Director of Communities for Healthy Forests on Jan. 1, 2023, succeeding former Douglas County (OR) Commissioner, Doug Robertson. In her first conversation in her new role, Cribbins gave us a picture of her approach to leading CHF into the future.
Communities for Healthy Forests: So, congratulations on being the next executive director.
Melissa Cribbins: Thank you very much, I’m very excited.
CHF: How do you describe the way this all happened?
MC: So Doug Robertson, the former executive director, reached out to me and said that he had accepted a new opportunity and was wondering if I was interested in having a conversation about CHF. We talked a little bit about what CHF does. It fits in my wheelhouse.
This is something that I’ve worried about for a long time, and part of the conversation we need to be having about forestry practices generally. I’ve been frustrated because we’ve told rural communities that they need to transform their economies beyond natural resource extraction, that we have to be diversifying.
However, you can’t tell a community to rely on tourism and then have the skies be filled with smoke for three months of the year. It doesn’t work. We are putting businesses out of business. We are letting restaurants sit empty, and we’re letting these communities down, frankly.
We really need to be looking at this holistically and having those hard conversations about what responsible forest management looks like.
There are always these discussions about how that approach is not scientifically based, but the science is out there. There are many studies that support the concept of removing dead and downed wood from forests in order to prevent future catastrophic wildfire. That is just responsible forest management.
CHF: You said this is in your wheelhouse. How is this in your wheelhouse?
MC: I grew up in Coquille, which is in Coos County, and my family is a timber family. My father was the first generation not to work in the woods.
He was a veterinarian, but everybody before him in my family had owned timberlands, had managed timberlands.
I graduated from high school the year after the spotted owl was listed as endangered and saw the impact of shutting down the timber economy on the town that I grew up in. It was definitely not easy. Coquille had two major mills and Georgia Pacific shut down in ’91 and laid off approximately half the town.
So as a county commissioner I have worked with different state organizations that work in this area. For example, I’ve been on the Elliott State Forest Advisory Committee now for a little over four years. I’ll definitely be on it for another year.
Fire is one of the things that we talk about. It’s catastrophic wildfire, and what it means for these communities. It’s a public safety issue.
CHF: You talk about being from a timber family, so where does the balance come? How important is it to engage people that may not be huge champions of the timber industry to get the conversation going?
MC: On the east side of the mountains, they’ve done several forest collaboratives, and those forest collaboratives are where they bring together both sides on the issue in order to try to come up with some agreed upon solution to managing the lands. Because when we sit and fight, we just don’t manage the lands. And that’s not good for anybody. That’s not solving any problems.
When I engaged in the Elliott State Forest process four years ago, it was for that specific reason. It’s the closest thing we have to a forest collaborative on the west side. They brought together county commissioners, people in the timber industry, people from fish and wildlife conservation groups, and people from the environmental community to all sit down together and try to figure out what the future of the Elliott looks like. And that’s 65,000 acres that sits between Coos and Douglas counties, and it’s some of the best timber in the Coast Range and some of the best habitat in the Coast Range.
So you get into this question of how can you manage for multiple uses? How do we have timber harvest while still managing habitat, while making sure that streams are still in good shape and we’re allowing for recreation in the forest?
None of us should be looking at a single use anymore. That’s really not what these public lands are about. They’re about multiple uses, but that means that everybody has to come to the table and agree to be part of the conversation and not come in expecting to get everything they want.
That’s what I’ve been impressed with on the Elliott process is that everybody’s walked away with something less than they want. Everybody’s had to give in. I think it’s really similar to the forest collaborative model that they use on federal forests. And it’s interesting to see people willing to compromise now after 30 years of clearly not compromising.
CHF: Where is that shift coming from? Do more people agree that our forests are not healthy? Are they ready to do what’s best for the forest?
MC: I think the shift is coming from that. I think people are also tired of the decades of litigation that we’ve been in. The public is definitely tired of the decades of litigation. They’re tired of it and they’re not championing it the way they did at one point. I think any organization looks at the numbers and when you realize that public sentiment is turning against you, it’s harder to ignore it over time. And so people want responsible forest management solutions. They’re tired of the smoke. The last five years of wildfire smoke have been exhausting and draining to people.
I have met numerous people in Coos County that have moved there from Medford or Grants Pass or somewhere out in the valley and have moved specifically because of the wildfire smoke and being tired of not being able to be outside all summer. Or they have children who get the negative health effects of wildfire smoke and they just don’t feel responsible raising their children in that environment.
CHF: Federal forest policy is really something that has been talked about a lot by communities for healthy forests. How optimistic are you that you can help with influencing federal forest policy for pre-and post-fire management with the goal of improving the health of the forest?
MC: It’s a complex topic. I don’t think that you ever want to go into it believing that you’re going to change how the Forest Service and the BLM have been doing business now for a long time. On the other hand, it’s not just CHF trying to change how those agencies are managing federal forests.
We have to be really honest. A multitude of factors are coming together right now to make this the right time for that conversation. We’re seeing the impacts of climate change, which are increasing, which increases the amount of fuel loads that are out in the forest. We’re seeing the ongoing impacts of wildfire smoke.
One of the things we know is to truly look at forest science, it takes 100 years to really look at it and understand where it’s going. Not so much with fires and the impact of all the particulates and what’s feeding the fires. We have the answers to that. We know what the cause is, and a change in federal forest policy would make a difference immediately.
CHF: What kind of change are you talking about?
MC: CHF is educating citizens and policymakers on common-sense changes to improve federal forest policy and preserve our federal lands from destruction by uncontrolled wildfire. Our goals are to ensure that the best available science is applied to these federal forest lands to ensure that our communities are not subjected to endless wildfire smoke every summer. We want our children to be able to play outside, and our citizens to be outdoors and enjoy the beauty of our western landscapes.
We recognize that the current situation with wildfire is both a public safety and public health issue, and we urge the federal government to address it. We believe that this is one of the biggest threats to our forests that currently exists, and we encourage the federal government to take immediate actions to resolve this situation, instead of continuing to allow the destruction that rocks our rural communities.
CHF: It feels like there’s some optimism on that front. But what about people out there that just want natural recovery and are fighting some of these efforts because they don’t think that it’s the right position for the BLM and the Forest Service to be taking?
MC: There are people who will always be opposed to forest management of any kind, and they will always be the loudest voices. We need to be getting together as communities and discussing these issues and also having enough education so we all understand what we’re talking about rather than just buzzwords driving the conversation.
I see part of CHF’s job as being an educational role to help communities understand what responsible forest management really looks like. We’re not talking any more about clear cuts. We’re not talking about taking hundreds of acres of timber and just cutting it all down and never replanting.
There are so many people that don’t even realize that we do replant trees (on private timberlands). We replant them after fire, we replant them after harvest. It’s important, and it’s part of the cycle of responsible forest management.
So I see CHF playing a role in helping to have those conversations, being a trusted resource where people know they can get impartial, fair information and where they can go to better their understanding of forest management.
CHF: What about giving a voice to people, connecting with communities and organizations throughout Oregon and the West? Folks who don’t necessarily come at this from a political standpoint.
MC: Yeah, I agree. This is a Western United States issue and I think this is more than a pure forest management issue. It’s a public safety issue. It’s a public health issue.
If I build a house, I shouldn’t be worried that my neighbor’s irresponsible forest management is going to cause me to lose my biggest asset. I shouldn’t be worried that my neighbor’s irresponsible management of their forest is going to cause my children not to be able to go outside and play during the summer. There are certain things that you should not have to be concerned about as a neighbor.
The more we talk to people about those issues and help our federal delegation to understand that Oregonians are frankly tired of the wildfire smoke, of the burning down of whole communities. It’s past time for something to change.
It’s not good for habitat either. The number of animals that are killed in a forest fire is astounding. And frankly, we can protect habitat, we can responsibly manage forest, and we can protect communities and people that live in these communities. All of those things are what CHF should be advocating for.
CHF: And the science supports that?
MC: Yes, the science supports that.
CHF: What do you want people to know about you or about CHF or about what you hope to accomplish?
MC: When we talk about CHF, I think the important thing is that people realize that we are there to elevate their voice. We’ve heard loud and clear that people are concerned about wildfire smoke. We want to make sure that the rest of Oregon knows that and the federal delegation also needs to know.
So do people in the Western United States. It doesn’t do us any good to sit here and talk to each other.
Melissa Cribbins is currently a practicing attorney and a former three-term Coos County Commissioner. She also sits on the Elliott State Forest Advisory Committee. Cribbins graduated from Coquille High School, then went on to get Bachelor’s degrees in microbiology and biochemistry from Portland State University and a Juris Doctorate from Gonzaga University. Cribbins has served on the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC), is past president of the Association of Oregon Counties, Energy Trust of Oregon, and Rural Development Initiatives (RDI), and is a previous member of the EPA Local Government Advisory Committee, as well as serving on many other local, regional, and national organizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org