Federal lands support diverse economies

Recent research by Headwaters Economics asked whether federal lands are an economic liability or an asset to rural communities (summarized in this opinion piece).

On average, we find that from 1970-2014, rural counties with the most federal land grew much faster than similar counties with the least federal land: population grew four times faster, employment grew three times faster and personal income grew twice as fast. Per capita income grew slightly more in places with more federal lands.

This analysis suggests that, in general, federal lands do not inhibit a community’s economic growth. On the contrary, the research suggests these lands have the potential to contribute to a prosperous rural economy.

You can always pick on the details of economic analysis, but here is what this tells me about the big picture.  While there will always be winners and losers, it’s hard to argue that the presence of federal lands is a big reason for the losers.

6-months after buying Plum Creek for $8 Billion, Weyerhaeuser to close two mills in Montana

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 12.28.05 PM

NEWSFLASH: Mega corporation gobbles up slightly less-mega corporation; chops jobs to increase profits; blames enviros. Film at 11.

There’s a reason the Montana Public Radio story on Weyerhaeuser’s announcement that they were closing two mills and an administrative office in Columbia Falls opens with “One of the world’s largest private owners of timberlands….”

Weyerhaeuser owns 880,000 acres of private timberland in just Montana, and in total they owns/controls 13 million acres of private timberlands. The company is worth $25 billion dollars. As Montanans will recall, they purchased Plum Creek Timber Company in November 2015 for $8 billion, a move that surprised many people in Montana, including our entire Congressional delegation and the governor.

Does anyone think that maybe, just maybe, the corporate executives at Weyhaeuser and Plum Creek knew that these closures were coming?

Some of us weren’t very surprised. I agree with Dave Skinner about very few things, but I agree with much of his December 2015 analysis of something called Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), and specifically how it pertains to the Weyhaeuser-Plum Creek Deal. Give Skinner’s “The New Timber Beasts” a read.

“That Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek are merging might have surprised some Montanans. Not me. Why not? Well, I guess it’s time to remind everyone America’s timber beasts are dead, replaced by a new kind of beast – Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)….

REIT’s must pay 90 percen of untaxed annual profit to shareholders, who are then taxed 15 percent on their capital gain. All things being equal, a dollar in a REIT pays back 35 percent more to an investor than a dollar in an otherwise-identical integrated company. In the Wall Street universe, where billions chase hundredths of a point, that was a big fat hairy deal….

Significantly, America’s all-time greatest integrated timber barony, Weyerhaeuser (Weyco for short), held out the longest … in fact, lobbying Congress for tax treatment that would render the company equivalent to a REIT in terms of tax burden and shareholder return. For that effort, in 2008 Weyco scored a reduction in income tax to 17 percent, saving $182 million. Nonetheless, with REITs paying zero – Weyco kept spinning off mills (and people) in order to get under the REIT manufacturing-asset threshold, converting to REIT in 2010….

REITs aren’t focused on timber, except as a means of generating what stockholders crave – cash.”

Let’s also not forget that just 8 months ago the U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement expired. Almost immediately Canada starting flooding the U.S. markets with lumber and wood products. The fact that the Canadian dollar has been so weak compared to the U.S. dollar also made the dumping of timber into the U.S. much more profitable for the Canadian timber industry.

Did anyone in Montana’s Congressional delegation or Gov Bullock do anything about the expired Softwood Lumber Deal? Nope. Is it a part of their campaign ‘stump’ speeches? No. The Missoulian actually did a very good editorial on the issue last October.

So far – and so very predictable – all the breaking newspaper stories on Weyerhaeuser’s pending mill closures feature Montana’s entire Congressional delegation and Gov Bullock singing the same exact tune: We need more National Forest logging.

Zinke even went so far as to blame Weyhaeuser’s closure on “activists.” Not to be outdone, Senator Daines was positive the closure was the “result of frivolous lawsuits by fringe environmentalists and excessive regulations.”

I was curious about those statements, so on the morning following Weyhaeuser’s announcement I called the lead timber sale planner for both the Flathead National Forest and the Kootenai National Forest. According to the U.S. Forest Service Weyhaeuser has bid on zero timber sales on either of these National Forests.

I also got a message from someone at Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics who wonders if it was even legal for Weyhaeuser to bid on National Forest timber sales in the western U.S. because they export so many raw logs (and jobs) to Asia. I’m looking into this more, but here’s the email I got:

“Isn’t Weyhaeuser barred from buying NF timber in MT because it exports raw logs? I think that Weyco cannot buy national forest logs because it exports its own unprocessed logs. Weyco doesn’t buy NF timber in the west. It does, for example, in Arkansas, but that’s east of the law’s 100th meridian log substitution bar.”

Here’s some else where considering.  For the past two years the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, which includes all the National Forests in Montana and the National Forests in Northern Idaho, met their annual timber harvest goals. A Washington Post investigation into U.S. Forest Service timber sales in Montana (following Sen Tester lying to Montanans on  Montana Public Radio) found that only 4% of all U.S. Forest Service timber sales in Montana were unable to be logged because of litigation. For his ‘whopper’ of a lie, Senator Tester was given four pinocchios by Glenn Kessler, the Post’s “Fact Checker.”

Also, in March 2015, the Flathead National Forests Joe Krueger said this on MT Public Radio:

“A big factor that constrains how much wood products is coming off the [Flathead National Forest] is our existing budget. So that number of 28 million board feet of timber that we’re projecting as our timber sale quantity is constrained by budgets.”

Has anyone in the Montana Congressional delegation introduced a bill or calling on the rest of Congress to increase the U.S. Forest Service’s timber budgets? Nope.

Fact is, for the past two years in Montana the U.S. Forest Service could do an unlimited number of 3,000 acres timber sales on 5 million acres of National Forest land in Montana via a Farm Bill provision [and Gov. Bullock’s secret, no public notice, no public input nomination process). These timber sales would be “categorically excluded from the requirements of NEPA” and there would be no opportunity for the public to object, or appeal, these timber sales.

How much of this 5 million acres of National Forest lands in Montana available right now for ‘fast track’ logging have actually been logged? I’d put the number at about 5,000 to 10,000 acres actually logged, but that’s just a rough estimate.

Have Zinke, Tester and Daines called for more Congressional funding for this potential 5 million acres of Farm Bill logging in Montana? No they have not.

Perhaps it’s time for Rep Ryan Zinke, Sen Steve Daines and Sen Jon Tester to “put up, or shut up” when it comes to their complete failure to give the U.S. Forest Service the budgets they would need to do all the additional public lands logging they claim they want. Perhaps it’s time to admit that global economic realities, NAFTA, boardroom decisions by $25 billion corporations and other economic forces far greater than a handful of “activists” might really be at work here.

The workers who are being laid off and the people of Montana deserve to know what’s really going on here. Hopefully the Montana news media will dig a little deeper in the coming days and weeks and provide some answers.

UPDATE (June 23, 7pm): The Missoulian just posted this follow-up article, in which the Supervisors of the Flathead National Forest  and Kootenai National Forest have this to say about Weyco and Plum Creek’s attempts to (n0t) bid on any timber sales since 2007.

Chip Weber, supervisor of the Flathead National Forest, and Chris Savage, supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest, confirmed that Thursday.

Weber noted there have only been two smaller timber sales offered in the Flathead since Weyerhaeuser absorbed Plum Creek this spring. Savage said neither Plum Creek nor Weyerhaeuser have bid on sales in the Kootenai National Forest since approximately 2007. He estimated 300 million to 400 million board feet of timber have been sold in that time.

“I do know they have emphasized harvesting off their own lands,” Weber said.

Tom Ray, Weyerhaeuser Montana Resources team leader, did not return phone messages Thursday. Just before 5 p.m. he sent an email saying he was tied up in meetings, adding, “At this time we don’t have anything to add to our public comments we made yesterday.”

Montana Public Radio also just posted an in-depth story here.

Remarkably, Julia Altemus with the Montana Wood Products Association had this to say, in spite of the facts uncovered:

“Given the short timber supply and the litigation mess, Weyerhaeuser had to make the decision they made and it did not surprise me.”

One irony Altemus’ “did not surprise me” statement is that back in November 2015 when the merger was announced, Altemus didn’t think it was any big deal, while some of (correctly) sounded the alarm.

FSC Invites Input on USFS Certification

From FSC:

FSC US invites your participation in the second public consultation of the supplemental requirements for FSC certification of lands managed by the US Forest Service. Your review and input in this process is essential for a successful outcome, and we hope you will take some time to share your perspectives with us.

The 30-day consultation period closes on July 3, 2016.

U.S. Forest Service expert explains how your home can survive a wildfire

Dr. Jack Cohen – Fire Science Researcher with the U.S. Forest Service – explains current research about how homes ignite during wildfires, and the actions that homeowners can take to help their home survive the impacts of flames and embers. This video was produced by the National Fire Prevention Association.

“Uncontrolled, extreme wildfires are inevitable. These are the conditions when wildland-urban interface disasters occur – the hundreds to thousands of houses destroyed during a wildfire.

Does that mean that wildland-urban interface are inevitable as well? No! We have great opportunities as homeowners to prevent our houses from igniting during wildfires….There a lot that we can do to the little things – to our house and its immediate surroundings – in order to reduce the ignition potential of that house.” – Jack Cohen

Please watch and share this video. Your home can survive a wildfire if, as a homeowner, you know what to do and take these simple steps to prevent your home from igniting during a wildfire.

Court assumes collaboration represents the public interest

On June 14, the Idaho federal district court refused to grant a temporary restraining order against a timber sale on the Payette National Forest.  The court’s review of the merits of the case was cursory, and instead it focused on the standard for granting an injunction.  A key question is whether the injunction would be in the public interest.

The Payette Forest Coalition had participated in developing the project, and had intervened in the case on the side of the Forest Service.  In determining the public interest, the court noted that, “the Project was developed in a collaboration between the USFS and a diverse group of stakeholders, including the Intervening Defendants.”  The court also stated that, “the collaborative efforts of all Defendants in developing the Project is in the public’s interest,” and finally, “the public has an interest in supporting the collaborative process that was used in this case to develop the Project.”  The court denied the TRO (citing a number of other factors in the public interest as well).

There is no evidence that the plaintiff environmental groups challenged the assumption that this collaboration was in the public interest, which, based on many discussions on this blog, should probably be considered a debatable point.

Wuerthner: Blame the market, not environmental regulation

From High Country News, hcn.org….

June 14, 2016

Blame the market, not environmental regulation

By George Wuerthner/Writers on the Range

Critics of public lands like to say that timber jobs declined and mills closed over the last 20 years because environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act and other laws made the cost of logging skyrocket. This complaint is repeated so often it is usually stated as unqualified truth.

If you believe the rhetoric, the way federal lands are managed has been the problem. If only there were more private owners of the land, local economies would prosper, and there would bestable, long-term stewardship.

If only that were true. But if you compare the mostly private wood-products industry in the state of Maine to the West’s experiences on public land, you find that environmental regulations had little to do with the demise of logging.

Ninety percent of Maine is forested, and more than 93 percent of the state’s land is privately owned, mostly by large timber companies that sell trees to the wood-products industry. If private lands lead to prosperity and healthy landscapes, Maine should be the poster child for the country. And unlike the West, Maine, imposes minimal regulations on private landowners. There are also almost no listed endangered species in Maine to harry the timber industry.

Yet today, the forest-products industry in Maine is a shadow of its former self. In 1980, there were 25 pulp and paper mills in the state. Today, two-thirds of those mills are gone. Since 1990, the state has lost 13,000 of its approximately 17,000 paper-industry jobs, including more than 2,300 in the past five years. The decline continues. Associated wood products companies in Maine have also seen a decline – everything from wood furniture, wood flooring and clothespin producers have closed up shop.

The decline in both employment and production in Maine was caused by the same forces that drastically cut forest industry jobs in the West: foreign competition, which brought in cheaper wood products, technological advances and new automation that allowed computers instead of people to run machinery. High energy prices and labor costs also played a role as plastic and steel moved in to replace wood.

Think about the brightly colored plastic Adirondack chairs for sale at Home Depot now replacing the wooden chairs on which they are modeled. Instead of wood rafters, steel-beam has replaced two-by-fours in some construction, and so forth. The decline in newspapers and print materials has also dramatically altered demand for pulp production. All of these factors are affecting the West’s wood industry as much as they affect Maine.

These days, most of the new sawmills and pulp mills built in the United States are in the South. Trees grow faster there, and unlike the Western United States, they can reach harvestable age in a decade or two. To the timber industry, the longer you have to wait to cut trees, the higher the risk. Your trees might die in a forest fire, a beetle outbreak or some other natural event. So locating your mills in places where you can grow a tree to merchantable size quickly is a smart business practice.

Furthermore, most of the Southern timberlands are flat and accessible year-round. In the steep mountains of the West, road construction costs are far greater, and snow limits seasonal access.

So that’s the picture: The decline of the Western wood products industry – like that in Maine – occurred because of economic realities that favor other regions of the globe. Blaming environmentalists, endangered species protection, or environmental regulations is easy. But blame fails to explain a changing world, or help us understand its nuances.

Unlike Maine, the West has an alternative. Its abundant public lands – in particular its wilderness areas, national parks and monuments – provides the foundation for another future for the region. While not all the changes that come with the “new” economy are welcome – take sprawl and increased impacts from recreational users – they can be managed if we make intelligent choices.

The West boasts iconic wildlands like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks, the Owyhee Canyonlands and the Gila Wilderness. In the end, federal ownership and protection of wildlands and open spaces is far superior to the Maine model of private ownership and maximized profits. Our model gives us the chance to manage forests sensibly, and it offers at least some potential for a more sustainable future for Western communities.

George Wuerthner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Bend, Oregon, and is an ecologist who has published 38 books about Western environmental issues.

Western Governors’ Association Resolution on Revising the Endangered Species Act

Western Governors’ Association Policy Resolution 2016-08: Species Conservation and the Endangered Species Act.

Key areas, according to the WGA, that need to be addressed in the ESA in addition to reauthorization include:

  1. Defining a clear methodology and practice for de-listing recovered species;
  2. Delaying judicial review of a rule delisting a species until the conclusion of the federally identified post-delisting monitoring period to allow state management of recovered species an opportunity to succeed so long as there is a federally reviewed and endorsed conservation plan in place;
  3. Improving regulatory flexibility for federal agencies to prioritize petitions received to list or change the listing status of a species under the ESA;
  4. Establishing a comprehensive system of incentives to encourage state and local governments to develop water, land-use and development plans that meet the objectives of the ESA as well as local needs, both before and after a species is petitioned for listing under the ESA;
  5. Providing adequate tools and incentives that encourage private landowners to engage in species and habitat conservation activities both before and after a species is petitioned for listing under the ESA;
  6. Addressing ways to dis-incentivize litigation that strains federal resources and impedes the Services’ ability to direct resources to truly imperiled species;
  7. Increasing grants authorized under ESA Section 6 – and other federal funding for the recovery of listed species – for: 1) state and local implementation of the Act; and 2) federal efforts to prevent additional listings in active partnership with the states;
  8. Improving the functionality of ESA Section 6 to increase partnerships and cooperation between states and the federal government in addressing ESA issues;
  9. Alleviating the pressure on states to expend scarce funds to address, mitigate and recover endangered and threatened species, at the expense of non-listed species within the state’s jurisdiction;
  10. Providing greater distinction between the management of threatened versus endangered species in ESA to allow for greater management flexibility, including increased state authority for species listed as threatened; and
  11. Providing more extensive state engagement in development and implementation of Section 4(d) special rules or other mechanisms under the ESA that promote species conservation while addressing situations that merit flexibility or creative approaches.

Salvage Logging Can Reduce Danger For Decades

This article from the Payson, Ariz., Roundup, “Salvage Logging Can Reduce Danger For Decades,” mentions a recent paper from the PNW Rwesearch station. It’s not that recent — 2015. I think this is it.

The news article summarizes what some folks on this blog have said:

“The unlogged stands had relatively low fuel loads right after the fire, but the downed wood still ready to burn built up steadily for the next 20 years. The greater amount of wood on the ground remained measurable for 40 years after the burn.

“In the logged stands, the amount of brush and wood and debris on the ground increased right after the fire. That’s probably because the loggers harvested the trunks of the trees, but left behind branches and other debris. After that, the amount of fuel on the ground declined steadily and significantly — without the slow death and toppling of the big trees killed by the initial fire.”

The study looked at fuels, not erosion, habitat, etc.

“Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada,” by Thomas M. Bonnicksen

To further the discussions of fire and forest management in the Sierras, here’s an article of interest, “Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada,” by Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D., Texas A&M University. Thanks fo Dick Powell for passing this along.

I recommend Bonnicksen’s book, America’s Ancient Forests: From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery. Ought to be required reading for foresters — and anyone else with an interest in forest management.