Private timber harvest is up, but federal harvest still lags behind

2014-08-15 Ashley Bach

If recent news coverage and town hall meetings are any indication, anger is growing in rural communities over the lack of timber activity in Northwest federal forests.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has actually done more than most federal lawmakers to try to reform federal forest management, but that didn't stop him from getting an earful from constituents at a town hall last week in Eastern Oregon. This was in a rural area (Grant County) that had not just one but two wildfires burning while the meeting took place.

For some of the town hall meeting, Walden was joined by leaders from the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire update (from the Forest Service) drew more general concerns about forest management and environmental constraints.

(Resident) Sharon Livingston called for a common sense approach.

“If you allow cattle to eat some grass, and the loggers to log some trees, we wouldn’t be in some of these situations,” she said. “It’s time we took back our county, and our government here.”

Residents asked why the Forest Service couldn’t cut more timber to keep pace with the forest’s continual generation of new material that is fuel for large fires.

Steve Beverlin, deputy forest supervisor for the Malheur, noted the cut is on the rise as the 10-year stewardship contract swings into high gear. The harvest – 29 million board feet just a couple of years ago – grew to 55 million board feet last year.

“We’re at 65 million board feet this year, and next year we’re at 75,” he said.

(Rep. ) Walden acknowledged the change, but added “it’s not enough.”

“I think the point is, the forests continue to grow, and die, and burn,” he said. “The question is, how do we clear the legal underbrush so we can actually get things done.”

Vernita Ediger, executive director of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, agreed the current vulnerable state of the forest results from “years of inactive management, and you can’t change that overnight.”

However, she said the collaborative group is working for change in a way that will help the forest ecosystem and the communities. She urged people to get involved.

Both the Missoulian (Mont.) and the Albany Democrat-Herald (Ore.) noted this week that the timber industry is showing some promising signs in their states. In Montana, mill hiring and wages are up and lumber prices are solid. In Oregon, the timber harvest in 2013 reached 4 billion board feet, the largest harvest in seven years.

But the harvest on federal lands is severely lacking in both states.

The Albany Democrat-Herald blames inaction in Congress and opposition from environmental groups.

Much-ballyhooed deals to slice through the entanglements surrounding our federal forest remain stalled in Congress — no big surprise there, considering the overall impotence of our current congressional session. In the meantime, rural communities that depended on a sustainable and responsible harvest of lumber from federal forest lands continue to languish.

And federal forest land badly in need of thinning languishes as well, increasing the risk of devastating fires. (The current fire season, as perhaps you have noticed, is shaping up as another budget-buster.)

The federal government did propose logging some Southern Oregon forests that were swept by wildfire last year. Environmental groups have gone to court to block the plans; the groups say two dozen northern spotted owls are at risk.

The larger harvest on state and private land is especially good for the paper's home county in Western Oregon, Linn County, but not so much for many other parts of the state, according to the Democrat-Herald editorial board.

The numbers add up to good news for Linn County, but other Oregon counties — their landscapes dominated by federal land — don’t get to share equally in this bounty.

No one realistically expects the timber cuts on our federal lands to approach anything like the levels of the 1960s and 1970s. But no one benefits from essentially locking up our federal forests to logging — not our forests, not our counties and certainly not the people in those counties who used to be able to count on those lands for their livelihoods.

In Montana, constant legal action from environmental groups is what's stopping the federal timber harvest, according to Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association. 

Altemus told the Missoulian that the key to kickstarting more active management on federal lands is cutting down the number of environmental lawsuits.

While state lands are hitting their quota, Altemus said, production off federal lands remains poor. Lawsuits continue to tie up timber production, she said, leaving the industry 60 million board feet short of capacity.

“That’s at a minimum,” Altemus said. “We’re not running at full capacity and we haven’t been for years. With so few sales off federal lands, the rates are going astronomically high, and that drives up the prices of what the mills will pay for stumpage.”

The rising prices are cutting into profit margins, which could slow or reverse the industry’s recovery. It may also nullify any gains made by the recovering housing market, she said.

Altemus said the industry currently employs 7,000 workers in Montana, including loggers, contractors, haulers and mill workers. That’s down from 19,000 employees in the 1980s, and the state’s 26 mills have been reduced to seven.

“It’s frustrating because the Forest Service is trying,” said Altemus. “Whatever they’re managing to get out the door is going to court before the ink is dry on the record of decision. The litigation numbers are climbing higher. Something has got to change.”