Jan. 26, 2019 | Cle Elum | Guest Contributor Craig Ditman
CLE ELUM – Craig Ditman, a retired Forrester residing in Cle Elum, WA has some profound and common sense insights that could greatly impact fire suppression, forest health, and Central Washington economics.
The Forest Service was established in the first decade of the 20th century to protect and manage federal forest lands, mostly in the west, that had been reserved in the last half of the 19th century. Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the Forest Service, declared that the forests were to be managed for the “greatest good for the greatest number.” For the first few decades the Forest Service’s mission was fire prevention and suppression but timber was sold in some impressively large long-term contracts.
The federal timber sale program grew to support accelerated home construction and a booming post-war economy. The timber industry, in spite of its competitive nature, cooperated in forming timber-interest associations to encourage timber sales in increasing volume across the country. By the 1960s and 1970s one could be forgiven for believing that the industry had too much influence on the Forest Service. The FS was developing an industrial-style maximum wood growth attitude that would eventually be the undoing of the federal timber sale program.
Large preservationist groups
Such as the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and others had become alarmed that so much timber was being harvested and so much ground was being treated. The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 were a result of this alarm and the preservationist groups’ effectiveness in convincing Congress and the general public that a crisis was underway on our national forests. Wilderness areas were established and the NFs were mandated to inventory and review current roadless areas that might be eligible for Wilderness designation.
From the industry was generally negative and counter-productive at best. The Western Timber Association with its office in San Francisco and its most important members operating in California was one of the more aggressive industry associations and lobbied for “liquidating the old growth,” ostensibly because younger trees grow faster and therefore produce more wood. When the large old trees are cut and sold (the feds sell timber at competitive bid) successful purchasers enjoy the benefits of manufacturing high-quality wood products from large wood and the federal government enjoys the benefits of very competitive bidding for a valuable product.
This couldn’t last.
“Liquidating the old growth” removes what most national forest visitors like most –large old trees – and replaces them with smaller trees in more rapidly-growing but less charismatic forests. The Endangered Species Act eventually gave the timber program’s opponents what they needed to all but eliminate the federal timber cut. Spotted owls, marbled murrelets and a parade of “old growth dependent” species provided the ammunition necessary to sue to limit timber harvest to the point that most federal timber-dependent primary processing plants simply went out of business. A timber sale program that had been running at 11 to 12 billion board feet per year nationwide settled at around two or three billion and has stayed there for more than 20 years.
About half of the timber sale volume sold had originated in the Forest Service’s Region Six. That’s us, Washington and Oregon; we and Region Five (California) have taken the brunt of the carnage but nationwide, the collapse of the federally-supported timber sale program and near-cessation of federal timber management have dealt a death blow to many local economies and contributed to many, but not all, of the huge forest fires burning so much of western forest land every year.
So what do we do?
Polarization doesn’t help. There’s no way we’re going back to the 1980s and 90s federal timber cut. “Zero Cut” on the federal forests as promoted by the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club isn’t helpful either, obviously. Why don’t we try something smart like let the forest products industry go for maximum wood growth on industrial lands and manage for something else on the National Forests. I believe a forest management regime whose goals are beauty, fire resilience, forest health and positive support for local economies would go a long way to satisfying most voters.
While many would say …
A forest that includes stumps can’t be healthy, many more would, I believe, agree on what a beautiful forest looks like:
- A mix of tree sizes small to large, enough space between them to minimize fire crowning on any but the windiest days
- Aggressive understory fuel management
- A timber cut something like half to two-thirds of 1980s levels.
Such a timber program would provide good-paying woods and mill jobs and money to the feds for active forest and fuel management. The cut-versus-growth relationship could be managed so that average tree size increases while tree mortality decreases.
Our best defense against forest pathogens and fire is still tree stocking control: we simply have too many trees on the ground. A smart timber sale program could address that problem and in the process increase average tree size, reduce fuels, maintain roads, provide jobs and stabilize communities..
How do we get there?
Certainly not by whining about the lost past and not by blaming others. That hasn’t worked yet and won’t in the future. There is broad sympathy for the need for more primary processing plants, specifically one in central Washington, to handle the wood coming off national forest fuel management harvests. I visited with DNR Director Hillary Franz before and after her election and she understood that what is called the “forest health crisis” can’t be effectively addressed without the inclusion of the federal lands, where most of the problem resides. She understands the need for more mills to handle the wood that must come off the national forests. Her agency would benefit from a more economic mix of mills and timber sale bidders across the state.
Until the late 1980s, the Forest Service actually returned money to the federal treasury.
That money originated on timber sales. It may be unrealistically optimistic to expect positive cash flow from future federal forest management but a return to harvesting an intelligent volume of attractive commercial timber could add a significant volume of cash to help pay for the huge job of improving forest health conditions on millions of acres of federal forest.
Collateral benefits to improving forest health would be jobs, of course, and a decrease in annual acres burned. Not only improved fuel conditions but the presence of operators in the woods would have an important effect on public agencies’ ability to make initial attack on fires before they reach catastrophic proportions. If we are actually concerned about global warming why wouldn’t we encourage any effective means to minimize the occurrence of the huge fires across the landscape?
What we need now is broad support
For improved forest conditions and the means to achieve them. That means forest management that goes a long way to paying for itself with the sale of attractive forest products. We need to resist any proposal to engage in industrial-style timber management to maximize wood growth on public land. We certainly need to resist continuing the present trend of non-manage-ment on the vast majority of federal forest acres. We need to manage our forests in a manner that most of us will agree is smart over the very long term.
Beauty, fire resilience, minimal tree mortality, clean water, healthy wildlife populations and strong support for all economies – local to national – must be our goals on federal forest land.
Those goals will only be achieved through cooperation across social and political lines. Let’s begin a conversation right here in Kittitas County with nobody excluded. We need Democrats, Republicans, private employees, public employees, and all of our elected representatives to participate.
After a cross-section of Kittitas County locals agree on where we’re trying to go let’s invite both US senators, all WA US Congresspersons, state legislators and appropriate agency heads to meet with us here in Cle Elum to consider options and start moving the future in a smart direction. The key here is to include as many mentalities as possible to maximize the possibility of success in meeting our goals: beautiful, productive, healthy forests, a sawmill in central Washington with the certainty of a timber supply adequate to actually attract somebody with the wherewithal to build and operate it, and a lot less smoke.
Those goals are going to be difficult to achieve.
Our most important obstacle is likely to be the Forest Service itself. Many of the timber-competent people have retired and haven’t been replaced. The FS’s ability and possibly their will to put together a strong timber management program may be difficult to recover. When the new Chief listed her initiatives for the agency, personnel matters were at the top of the list, actual land management was near the bottom. What we need is a strong push from both houses of Congress to get the Forest Service moving.
This isn’t a forest industry initiative.
The forest products industry doesn’t get much love, and that for good reason. This isn’t a Republican initiative and it’s certainly not a Trumpist, short-sighted win-at-any – cost, us-vs-them initiative. We all breathe the same air, we all use wood and given the opportunity most of us enjoy recreating in a beautiful, healthy forest. I strongly believe honest, intelligent people can tackle our public forest management difficulties and design a future where everybody wins.
From: Craig Ditman
Subject: USFS Timber Management
Date Jan 20, 2019
Craig Ditman is a retired career forester residing in Cle Elum, WA