Timber-Itching or Past-Hankering

Agency must curtail ‘timber-itch’

By Jim Furnish | Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2011 12:15 am

Aldo Leopold, the iconic American conservationist, spoke of once watching “a fierce green fire” dying in the eyes of a wolf he killed, noting “there was something new to me in those eyes.” The she-wolf was not just a varmint, and he came to regret his youthful “trigger-itch.”

Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service must overcome its long-established “timber-itch.” With the agency creating new rules for the vast acreage under its management, and the way we use these valuable resources changing dramatically, we now have no choice but to be concerned.

The division of the Department of Agriculture that once responded mostly to the timber industry now needs to measure its mission not in harvesting trees, but in recreation visits, sheltered wildlife and protected water resources.

But old habits die hard. The agency had long suffered from such a timber-itch when Hubert Humphrey, as a senator and before he was vice president, fought to pass the 1976 National Forest Management Act. It was time to rein in overly aggressive cutting, and elevate consideration of other bedrock values like water and wildlife.

Yet, incredibly, timber harvesting continued to climb, peaking in 1990 at 12 billion board feet (it’s about 2 billion today), until a federal judge intervened, finding that agency officials had “willfully violated the law.” It was the low point for a once-proud agency with a high calling.

Today the agency faces a strong residual urge to cut timber, plus the added challenges of urbanization, energy development, climate change and off-road vehicle abuses. What’s needed now is a progressive planning framework that charts a clear path towards sustainability, water and wildlife protection, and diverse recreational values of the natural landscape as the greatest assets of national forests.

Unfortunately, the proposed planning formula hints at, but does not squarely embrace such a vision. The regulation seeks to protect agency discretion where, instead, clear commitments and accountability are needed. The danger is that the new rule won’t give Forest Service managers the tools to make the vision real. Clarity and specifics are required to do what’s right. While some flexibility is inherently necessary, too much elasticity could snap the agency back to old behaviors that would threaten to give away too much and protect too little.

The agency was not bashful about pursuing aggressive timber harvesting for many decades, stopping only when required by lawsuits. And it should not be bashful about declaring – firmly and convincingly – that those days are over. It is time to embrace conservation and lead the country into the 21st century with this vision in mind. Rather than asking for more discretion, the Forest Service needs to build trust with strong commitments and then keep them.

Americans should look for something new-evidence of a fierce green fire, a passion for exemplary land stewardship. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has spoken with urgency about restoring and protecting water and wildlife values, and the Forest Service needs to deliver the goods.

– Jim Furnish is former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

My thoughts: Recognize that I don’t work in a timber region (not that I think they still exist; there are “used to be timber” regions), but it is human nature to like flexibility and avoid courtrooms and lawyers. It is also potentially less cost to the financially beleaguered taxpayer.

Jim says

While some flexibility is inherently necessary, too much elasticity could snap the agency back to old behaviors that would threaten to give away too much and protect too little.

Jim seems to imply that we might go back to “excessive” logging under the new planning rule. This seems unlikely to me for a variety of reasons, two of which are: 1) most of the itchy people have retired, 2) there is little or no timber industry in many FS places. Also, I don’t believe that national standards are necessarily the policy solution even if you subscribe to the timberphobic worldview.

The concept that making national standards is the only way to make strong commitments and keep them, in my view, tends to disenfranchise all the good work done day after day in collaborative groups- people that care about and understand specific pieces of land. In addition, it tends to reduce the role of local people and local governments. In fact, in my discussions with collaborative groups, they also want the FS to make commitments and keep them.

I don’t know what kind of experiences others have- but in my recent experiences with counties, and state and federal legislators I have found that they are public servants faced with a hard task of mediating conflicting goods (resources, environment, climate, jobs) and who are accountable, through elections, for what they do. To imply that something determined in D.C. as a “one-size fits all” could be better policy carries a whiff of what someone (was it Matt Carroll?) called “domestic imperialism.”

8 Comments

  1. Hey, there was a Republican President and a Republican Congress, and there weren’t any proposals to go back to highgrading, clearcutting and rampant roadbuilding. What makes people think that, under an Obama Administration and a Democratic Senate majority, the Forest Service would go back 30 years and go back to destructive mega-harvesting?

    I tend to think there is a nostalgia to go back to the days when it was easy to be against the evil Timber Beasts. Eco’s used to be able to easily defend their views against that kind of “forest management” but, it’s not so easy to explain why commercial thinning projects are bad for our public forests, today. Same for salvage projects. They have resorted to suing against process, instead of substance, in salvage projects.

  2. “Hey, there was a Republican President and a Republican Congress, and there weren’t any proposals to go back to highgrading, clearcutting and rampant roadbuilding.”

    Exhibit 1: The Western Oregon Plan Revision (WOPR). This related to BLM land but really BLM lands in western Oregon are just like a 2.5 million acre National Forest. These lands are managed under the interagency NW Forest Plan, just like the adjacent National Forests.

    The Western Oregon Plan Revision Proposed Resources Management Plan (PRMP) applies to 2.6 million acres of forest land in western Oregon and includes the following elements:
    • BLM wants to move 460,000 acres of public forest out of protected status so that logging can increase. Both old-growth forests and streams would lose significant protection.
    • 502 mmbf annual timber target is equivalent to 100,400 log trucks per year, or 1 million log trucks over a decade. The actual harvest in the first two decades is expected to be 588 mmbf per year, so the harvest rate really increases by 436% compared to current harvest levels (135 mmbf). (p 4-578-579).
    • 74,600 acres of stands over 80 years-old will be clearcut in the first decade. (p 4-594). 35% of the existing old forest would be allocated to the harvest land base under the PRMP. 27% of the remaining old-growth on BLM lands would be clearcut over the next 100 years. This represents a total of 96,200 acres. (p 4-516).
    • Protection for rivers and streams would be slashed in half compared to the existing Northwest Forest Plan.
    • Logging would be allowed in the outer two-thirds of stream buffers.
    • The “regen” harvest areas are real clearcuts with NO green tree retention.
    • The WOPR will release 180 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere compared to letting these forests grow, which is equivalent to the emissions from 1 million cars driven for over 100 years.
    • 255,000 acres of municipal watersheds currently protected in LSRs and riparian reserves will be reallocated to timber management areas.
    • Harvest of complex older forests (>160 years old) would be deferred for 15 years, then clearcut. This has the effect of increasing the rate of clearcutting of mature forests between 80 and 160 years old.
    • Their ambitious and highly optimistic logging levels would still provide less than 2/3 of the shared timber receipts the counties will receive through the recently reauthorized Secure Rural Schools Act.
    • There’s still no limit on the size or age of trees that can be removed from the old forest reserves.
    • Aquatic Conservation Strategy objectives related to stream processes and functions are eliminated.
    • Even with the deferred harvest of high quality owl habitat BLM plans to log stands up to 160 years old during the first 15 years. (p 4-580, 581). “Harvest of older and more structurally complex multi-layered conifer forests (modeled as stands 160 years of age and older) would be deferred for 15 years.”
    • The PRMP will result in almost 1300 miles of new logging roads.
    • Salvage logging would be encouraged virtually all land allocations.

  3. Thanks, Doug. That’s why it’s helpful to have different parts of the country in one discussion. There was nothing like that around where I work. I wonder what the pattern across the rest of the country was?

    Another example might be that the Sierra Nevada plan amendment was litigated and stands (see story here) as legal (even with today’s viability requirement) so I think that the perceived “badness” of one party’s rule, in some cases, could also be seen as “balance.”

    With regard to Secure Rural Schools vs. timber jobs, to me there is a difference between real jobs, work, and producing products that people use, on one hand; and another economic drain on our not-so-well funded (i. e. deficit) federal budget.

    • Regarding the original Sierra Nevada Framework, in significant acreages, diameter limits went all the way down to 12″ dbh. Prior to the amendment, in those areas, the merchantable trees sizes were limited to trees 10″ to 12″ in diameter, and those trees had to be straight to be cut for lumber. The result would be to either leave all those unmerchantable trees or, to cut those and burn them on the landings, capturing neither the pollution or the energy contained within. Those restrictions effectively shutdown logging in the Sierra Nevada. The amendment allows SOME trees up to 30″ dbh to be cut, effectively subsidizing the removal of unmerchantable excess trees. Remaining stands are ready for prescribed fires but, projects still produce mountains of biomass that are burned on the landings, instead of being utilized for electricity.

  4. Well, Doug, this isn’t Forest Service and this isn’t a Congressional thing, either. The BLM has always done things under a perceived “cloak of invisibility” to eco-issues. They needed to wake up at the end of the Clinton Administration, and place timber importance where it needed to be. While Doug’s list of examples is impossible to for me to support, some items on that list are actually good things. Regulated timber harvest within stream buffers has many benefits. Opening protected areas to beneficial thinning projects can boost resilience and improve wildlife habitat. Timber volume can lead to jobs but, it has to be merely a side effect of good stewardship. Stream buffers need to be right-sized, and site specific. Placing a 300 foot buffer on a stream with gentle terrain doesn’t provide any more erosion protection than one half that size. As long as skid trails don’t enter the stream buffers, erosion is minimized, with extra erosion treatments always available to mitigate problems.

    Pushing for old growth and clearcutting is what the BLM has always done in their timberlands. Shame on them if they thought they could get such a plan through the courts. I have zero faith that individual projects could survive court challenges. The NWFP needs to be updated to reflect what has been learned since it was enacted.

    Just a reminder that the Forest Service in Region 5 has eliminated clearcutting and highgrading since 1993. There is ZERO chance that the Forest Service will change that self-imposed policy, ever.

  5. I think Jim Furnish’s analogy of a green-eyed wolf is a good one. His 1990 benchmark was 21 years ago and the forests he helped “protect” from logging have since become overrun with green-eyed wolves, bugs, dead trees, and wildfires. Recreational opportunities on USFS lands have become further limited, rather than expanded, during this time due to road and trail closures, reduced numbers of game animals, elimination of campgrounds and toilet facilities, fees, and other means of discouraging visitors to these increasingly degraded and decimated landscapes.

    If Furnish’s mythical “timber itch” actually ever existed, maybe the blame should be placed on Gifford Pinchot, Theodor Rooseveldt, and other founders of the Forest Service in the early 1900s — THEIR obligation (and promise) was: “National Forests are made for and owned by the people. They should also be managed by the people. The are made, not to give the officers in charge of them a chance to work out theories, but to give the people who use them, and those affected by their use, a chance to work out their own best profit” (Pinchot 1905: 25).

    Did Pinchot secretly suffer from Furnish’s mysterious “timber itch?” If so, wasn’t that problem addressed in 1960 with the Mutiple Use and Sustained Yield Act (MUSY)? There it was stated: “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States; but it is not the purpose or intent of these provisions, or of said section, to authorize the inclusion therein of lands more valuable for the mineral therein, or for agricultural purposes, than for forest.”

    And: “It is the policy of the Congress that the national forests are established and shall be administered for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes. The purposes of sections 528 to 531 of this title are declared to be supplemental to, but not in derogation of, the purposes for which the national forests were established as set forth in section 475 of this title. Nothing herein shall be construed as affecting the jurisdiction or responsibilities of the several States with respect to wildlife and fish on the national forests.”

    The current sad states of our federal lands were both predictable and preventable. The related degradation and decimation of many of our rural counties, communities, and industries as a direct consequence of the adoption of multiple passive management actions of our federal government since 1960, were also predicted and should have been prevented.

    It is the “vision” and management actions of former USFS employees such as Jim Furnish that have directly led us to the current sorry state of affairs. Personally, I would much rather listen to — and follow –the common sense conservation ideas of Pinchot, as refined by MUSY in 1960, than the misguided nonsense of destructive “visions” and “itches” that the Furnishes of our world seem privy to.

  6. No other federal agency is so embroiled in the conflicting passions that define America – a nation whose voracious consumption of natural resources has no peer and whose commitment to protecting the environment is codified in law. Add to that a host of complex environmental laws the competing demands of sportsmen and the litigious nature of Americans and you have the embattled atmosphere in which the Forest Service must operate……

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