“Our Languishing Public Lands”

This essay is worth reading and discussing:

“Our Languishing Public Lands: The Economic and Environmental Benefits of Decentralization,” By Robert H. Nelson  |  Posted: Wed. February 1, 2012. Also published in Policy Review.

http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=3244

I did not find a discussion on this 2012 article elsewhere on this blog. Apologies if I missed it.

Nelson devotes much attention to economics:

“Not surprisingly, the Forest Service’s decision to abandon its historic economic objectives under multiple use management has led to corresponding declines in economic benefits achieved, as shown by the Forest Service’s own calculations. The 2001 Forest Service financial analysis described above also detailed the trends during the 1990s in the economic “present net value” (pnv) derived from all national forest outputs. As the Forest Service reported, the “all resources pnv” for the whole national forest system—covering all the forms of use—fell from more than one billion dollars in total values realized in 1991 to about $300 million in 1998. Most of this sharp economic decline was due to the precipitous drop in timber program pnv, but the abandonment of former timber sale activities did not yield any new gains in the pnv of recreation or other uses to balance things out. Ecosystem goals, however vaguely defined, increasingly were the ends in themselves—and the (lesser) economic outcome was a mere byproduct of the more important new ecological objectives.”

 

 

31 Comments

  1. “Most of this sharp economic decline was due to the precipitous drop in timber program pnv, but the abandonment of former timber sale activities did not yield any new gains in the pnv of recreation or other uses to balance things out.”

    While the focus of Nelson’s article is on economic loss to the government, more important by far is the decline in forest health and the loss of the social benefits to workers, their families, and communities. http://www.wvmcconnell.net/?page_id=718 examines these in some detail.

    The immense and generally unconsidered social impacts of non-management are almost totally ignored by environmental apologists or, indeed, by the managing agencies.

  2. There is no evidence presented that the timber program as constituted was either economically sound or ecologically sustainable. We know, c.f. the TTRA, that much of that timber was sold far below cost and hence was heavily subsidized, and that the rate of extraction was having significant negative impacts on forest ecosystems.

    If you disconnect economic trendlines from ecological realities, you can draw a chart showing anything you want. Doesn’t mean the land will sustainably support that economy.

    • Robert Nelson is popular in the world of libertarian think tanks, in part because he doesn’t let his lack of background and understanding in forestry, ecology, or science in general, impede his usually theologically-tinged writings. For a good example of content-free philosophical rambling, “The Gospel according to conservation biology” is as good a start as any. http://www.independent.org/publications/article.asp?id=2702 He rails constantly about “biodiversity” (almost always put in quotes, perhaps to emphasize its presumed invalidity) as a quasi-religious invention, but doesn’t acknowledge or even seem to be aware of the very tangible measurements and applications of biological diversity in the scientific literature. But at least he does seem to hold “environmentalists” and foresters (not a mutually exclusive group by the way) in approximately equal disdain, noting that “Forestry professionals are ill equipped by training to address the normative, even philosophical and theological, side of forest policy making.” (Multiple-use forest management versus ecosystem forest management: A religious question? here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1389934113001202) So, be happy with your biltmore sticks or tree-hugging (whichever your persuasion), guys and gals, and leave the power thinking to Robert Nelson and the think tank crowd.

  3. So, Travis and Guy are fine with below cost non-management of everything? Is that it? There’s no responsibility to the commonweal, the poor schlubs paying taxes to support USFS dysfunction? Anyone notice the PILT thing stuffed in the “Farm” Bill, another one-year extension? Anything wrong with THAT little picture? What do you kids say about that? That county and local governments should settle for trying to chisel taxes out of an economy that has access to 50 percent or less of a land base while maintaining infrastructure for 100 percent of it?
    Sorry, but with 17 trillion and counting cranking away at future generations, the time of reckoning for misguided policies that eat money for no reason is near.
    As for ecosystem services — the problem with those is, again, you can’t realize them in any rational way. I have NEVER seen an honest formula for the calculation of such “services” on a unit basis. Never mind that, say, clean water is just as likely to be the product of a well-managed, profitable multiple-use drainage as it is a “pristine” one — as long as the holy pristinity doesn’t burn in the worst possible way at the worst possible time with the worst possible weather following closely behind.

  4. There is plenty of evidence that when managed correctly, our forests can and do provide both economic and ecological benefits for our society and the world. Look at privately owned forests in the US. Granted their priority is strong to economic benefit, however these forests, both Industrial and non-industrial alike produce the vast majority of what is consumed in the US for home construction, paper and other products. This is also done on a sustainable basis and with focus on wildlife, water, fish and other considerations.
    That being said, there is no reason that our national forests cannot do the same so that we all benefit from them.
    Good stewardship in my mind, is not locking everything up and waiting for the next natural disaster to happen. Unfortunately, our national forests, especially in the West, are being managed (or not) in just this way. Folks who advocate this type of “management” are fooling themselves into thinking that minute entry for “habitat improvement” is all that is needed. Meanwhile these national treasures are burning up at alarming rates and once gone can take hundreds of years to recover. The loss of the wildlife, habitat, soils, trees, the air we breath are all impacted for a long time. Never mind the millions of dollar wasted on fighting fires needlessly when they could be prevented if these forests were actively managed for all benefits. The fact that much of this is political in nature is shameful at best.
    I believe it’s long past time for the eco-rhetoric to stop and all parties on both sides to come together and seriously figure out how to have both the economic and the ecological benefits for man and nature alike.
    Global demand for wood is projected to continue to increase over time. North American forests are managed under the highest scientific standards, forest practice rules and BMP’s and, sustainably I might add. Only 10% of the worlds forests are “Certified Sustainable”, almost all in North America, and none being our national forests. What better place to produce this renewable resource than here? I would prefer that the folks with the “lock it up” mentality would focus on the other parts of the globe where there are no such standards instead of constantly tying the hands of the foresters, scientists and others who have the best interest of all at heart.

  5. The economics of federal timber sales were destined to decline in any event because the big trees and easy money were being rapidly depleted from 1950-1990. Blame for the decline is often heaped upon the conservation movement, but the real reason for the decline is overcutting.

    The fact of overcutting also undermines the often heard notion that we can go back to the good old days and enjoy some kind of economic resurgence if we would just let industry have their way with our public forests.

    • 2nd Law

      Re: “the real reason for the decline is overcutting”
      –> Do you have access to any facts to support your claim?
      –> Did you look at initial inventories, annual harvests, annual losses due to damage and add annual growth to that year by year and reconcile that with subsequent inventories?
      –> Can you substantiate that net growth was less than zero for a long enough period to cause gaps large enough to significantly change the long term allowable cut?
      –> Can you substantiate that regeneration was insufficient to insure sustainability?
      –> Do you have facts to disprove the reliability of the USFS sustained yield modeling tools and forest inventory used to determine allowable cut?
      –> After 1990, harvests on our National Forests dropped immediately by 80%, are you saying that that was because there were suddenly no more trees to cut? Are you saying that all of those trees that burned up in the RIM fire were established after 1990?

      Re: “undermines the often heard notion that we can go back to the good old days and enjoy some kind of economic resurgence if we would just let industry have their way with our public forests”
      –> I know of no attempt to let industry have their way with our public forests. The USFS has certain acreage which has been set aside from harvesting. The lands supposedly available for harvesting are severely restricted due to EPA requirements and BMPs. The USFS can not ignore any of those factors which significantly decrease its allowable cut below what it was prior to 1990. It certainly can not over cut regardless of any evil industry influences. Please consider that evil industry influences to over cut are self defeating as the industry would cease to exist without a sustainable harvest.

    • As I see it, the only ones having their way with our National Forests are the radical environmentalists, the mis-guided (and uninformed) public who believe them, the lawyers who make a lot of money and the media supporting their message. These people say doing nothing is the best way to manage the land. This is not what I would call a conservation movement. Believe it or not, foresters are conservationists who also believe in sustainability.
      Unfortunately, this management strategy (belief?) is costing the nation with massive losses of the timber resources, habitat, wildlife, soils, rare plant life, lowered water quality and our air as every year we see increasing millions of acres burn unnecessarily. Oh yes, let’s not forget the impacts to local communities and the people who live there, the loss of jobs (not just timber jobs either) and to tourism and recreation activities. The list of negatives is extensive.
      These hypocrites, hiding behind the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and other laws, and say they want to preserve and save these very things (and reduce green house gas emissions too!), are the very ones who are destroying all of it to the tune of millions of dollars a year fighting fires. And no telling what the actual $$ losses are for all of the other things mentioned. Stewardship at its best I’d say.
      ……..And the courts don’t require an EIS for the do nothing option? Sanity is definitely in decline………

      • Eric, Can you please provide us with actual, real world examples of “radical environmentalists” “say[ing] doing nothing is the best way to manage the land?” I’d hate for anyone to call you a “hypocrite” (as you do above) or a liar because you have just made something up, so some real world documentation would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

        • Mathew:
          Unfortunately, one only has to read the the newspapers every fire season to get all of the “real world” documented examples you could ask for. Pick any state in the West. These losses are real world. The impacts to the environment are real world. The impacts to the communities and the lives of those who reside there are real world.
          The Forest Service has had it’s hands tied every step of the way when trying to manage these lands to reduce the hazards. Instead of managing on a landscape basis, they are limited to piecemeal efforts which do nothing to alleviate the real issues. This has been going on now since the late 1980’s and getting worse every year. I’m not sure where you’ve been if you’re not aware.
          It should be obvious that management in the courts is not a viable solution (unless you’re a lawyer or someone wanting to raise money for your (“green lobby”).
          It’s the foresters and scientists who continue to recommend active management in these areas who seem to be serious about preventing the losses I mentioned in my previous post.
          People who stand in the way, citing “protect the environment” while the environment goes up in smoke to me are radicals and hypocrites. The liars in all of this are the folks who want the perception of doing something positive when the true intentions are questionable. The facts don’t lie.

          • Thank you Eric for providing about the type of reply I expected. Once again I’ll ask you, Eric, to please provide us with actual, real world examples of “radical environmentalists” “say[ing] doing nothing is the best way to manage the land?”

            I also agree that facts don’t lie. Problem is, I see very few documented, or verified, facts in what you’ve written here. Thanks.

            • We can play the game all day long on the tit for tat you seem to be looking for Mathew. I can’t cite a specific person, on a specific date, at a specific time and don’t have the time nor the desire do so for you or your group since you’ve asked in terms of “us” so you can chalk up a win for your side if that floats your boat. It changes nothing in what I described previously.
              I can tell you that it’s foresters, scientists and managers in the Forest Service who clearly see what needs to be done and are held back by the same people I described before. Actions speak louder than words and we now have over 30 years of that experience. The reality is that the forests in this country are not healthy and are burning up while others (like you I assume, since you defend them) want to play word games and obfuscate, do your best to cloud the issues with legal gamesmanship and avoid the hard decisions needed to make them healthy again. Fiddle while Rome burns eh? ….And to what end?

              • A couple of Eric’s statements seem to summarize much of the discussion I have seen on this blog.

                “People who stand in the way, citing “protect the environment” while the environment goes up in smoke to me are radicals and hypocrites.” The other point of view (supported by some science) is that fires and burned areas are frequently not bad things for the environment.

                “I can tell you that it’s foresters, scientists and managers in the Forest Service who clearly see what needs to be done.” An alternative view is that what needs to be done on public lands should be determined by the public through the procedures prescribed by Congress.

                The idea of ‘languishing’ also seems popular here. There is another view that economic return is not the only measure of value, and that estimates of non-market values are suspect. All of the rewritten Forest Service planning regulations since 1995 recognized the lesson that present net value (required by the 1982 regulations) is of little value in deciding the use of public lands.

              • Eric, from your comments, e.g. “the only ones having their way with our National Forests are the radical environmentalists, the mis-guided (and uninformed) public who believe them, the lawyers who make a lot of money and the media supporting their message”, and “It’s the foresters and scientists who continue to recommend active management in these areas who seem to be serious about preventing the losses I mentioned”, it seems you feel that a) you have a good understanding of science and scientists, and b) scientists are generally in agreement with your viewpoint. I would suggest that neither is especially accurate. There are numerous scientists (including many with extensive training and experience in forest management/ecology, wildlife, fisheries, soils, entomology, pathology, etc.), and we can toss in some economists too, who feel strongly that the continuing approaches of the timber industry and (often, though not always) the Forest Service are detrimental to the overall and long-term good of our publicly-owned national forests. Some feel otherwise of course, but most are respectful of differing viewpoints.

                • Reply to Jon:
                  1. Fire is a natural part of the environment, in the West especially. I agree that fire, when used prescriptively, is a good thing. I also agree that fire can be a good thing in certain natural events. The fires we are witnessing nowadays are not good for a many reasons. I don’t believe that many, if any, scientists would be in favor of the type fires that have ravaged the Western US in recent years.
                  2. It’s great to involve the public. I’m all for people being involved and aware of their public lands and how they are being managed. Unfortunately, the public is sorely uninformed and basically apathetic on the management of our national forests (amongst other things- cynical huh?) so rely on their public servants to manage them with their best interest as the priority. The problem is our public servants who are tasked with this job are controlled by politics. Congress is also uninformed in many ways and is unwilling to deal with these important issues because of the poisoned environment they all work in. It is idealistic at best to expect results other than what we have had over the years. Procedures prescribed by congress will result in the same thing we see on everything else……………………gridlock.
                  3. Our public lands are languishing. One only needs to look at the incredible loss of resources including timber, water, soil, habitat and air quality, not to mention the real cost in $, lives, property and more. We can sit by and debate procedures, policies and ideologies, but the reality is that when it’s gone it’s gone-damn the pnv calculations!

                • Hi Guy:

                  I am under no illusion that all scientists or foresters or anyone else for that matter has the same take on things as I do nor do I believe I implied as much (I said that it is the “foresters and scientists who recommend active management”). There are many viewpoints (too many I think to get anything positive done sometimes) on these issues.
                  Sometimes the waste is hard swallow along with some of the lame justifications for it (especially if they are political). Obviously, I can get pretty passionate about saying so. I believe there are many who think the same as well.
                  As far as the science goes, I do believe I have a good grasp on it, the pros and the cons. 32 years as a practicing forester, engineer and land surveyor should give me that. I am an avid hiker and backpacker. I have worked from Alaska to California and have travelled through most of the Western states. I am aware of the issues……..
                  Lastly, I’m not sure what you mean by the “continuing approaches of the timber industry”. Can you enlighten me? Thanks.

              • There are lots of “foresters, scientists and managers in the Forest Service” who will tell you that regaining natural fire regimes in Western forests is one of the best things that could possibly happen for those forests.

                • Travis:
                  There are lots of “foresters, scientists and managers in the Forest Service” who will tell you that regaining natural fire regimes in Western forests is one of the best things that could possibly happen for those forests.
                  If these “natural” fires are so great maybe they’d all agree too that we should stop spending so much money and risking lives to put them our. Just let them burn……..really?
                  I doubt that there are many who would advocate for the type of “natural” (catastrophic) fire I was referring to

                  • Eric: Given the different forest types, ecosystems and site specific factors at play in our “Western forests” (which comprise tens of millions of acres, massively different climates and much different tree species, etc) can you please tell us what, in your opinion, “natural fire regimes in Western forests” actually look like? And do you believe that “catastrophic” wildfires have no place as a “natural fire regimes in Western forests?”

                    • Matthew:

                      Previously the “natural” fires that mainly occurred were slow moving ground fires that kept the competing grasses, shrubs and understory trees whittled down so that the dominant species (usually Douglas-fir or Ponderosa Pine) remained, well-spaced. Fires did not cover hundreds of square miles at a crack. Forests recovered relatively quickly.
                      Management of these now 2nd, and in some cases, 3rd growth stands has been diminished over the years. These forests are overgrown with a dense understory of secondary tree species, woody shrubs and grasses.
                      With this added fuel, drying and warming climates and insect infestations, the type of natural fires that used to occur have become very hot, destructive fires which cover many more acres over a short period of time. Hot enough, they will volatilize all of the nutrients from the soil and kill almost 100% of the standing trees. Even the seral dominants cannot survive these fires. In the aftermath the land affected takes much longer to recover. Older forests that are adjacent to these younger, overstocked stands are at risk as well.
                      I don’t believe these types of “catastrophic” fires are beneficial because they destroy too much. The forests these fires are occurring in need to be managed back to their previous form so that fire can again be part of the natural order. Prescriptive burns, thinning and brush removal needs to take place on a larger scale to address this problem. If not these large hot fires will, in my opinion, get worse and more frequent. In that case we all lose.

                    • Previously the “natural” fires that mainly occurred were slow moving ground fires that kept the competing grasses, shrubs and understory trees whittled down so that the dominant species (usually Douglas-fir or Ponderosa Pine) remained, well-spaced.

                      So, Eric, if we are to even assume that your opening statement is correct (and there is new research and studies calling even this into question)….

                      What types of fires occurred “naturally” and historically in lodgepole pine forests? How about forests comprised mainly of spruce, such as we see in large parts of Colorado? How about the upper elevation sub-alpine fir/Engelmann spruce forests that cover millions of acres around the West?

                      Did those forest types also ‘naturally’ and historically see only “slow moving ground fires that kept the competing grasses, shrubs and understory trees whittled down so that the dominant species (usually Douglas-fir or Ponderosa Pine) remained, well-spaced?”

                      Or, perhaps did those forest types and ecosystems ‘naturally’ and ‘historically’ see “catastrophic” fires that burned at a moderate- to high-severity/stand-replacing, etc? And if, in fact, those forest types and ecosystems saw ‘natural’ and ‘historic’ fires that burned hot what does that say about much of your opinion expressed here?

                      Also, do you know what percentage of the forested acres in the western US are even comprised of ponderosa pine? We’ve discussed this a few times on this blog over the years and it seems that except for a few places ponderosa pine ecosystems comprise very little of the forested acres in the west, and pretty much most of the ponderosa pine forests have seen heavily logging, development and communities spout up among them. So, are ponderosa pine forests even a good gauge to apply across the region as we look at our pretty diverse western US forest landscape? Thanks.

                    • Matthew: My PhD was in the study of catastrophic wildfires and Indian burning patterns in western Oregon, covering the period 1491-1951. There is little or no evidence that catastrophic wildfires — excepting, possibly, the Millicoma burn of ca. 1770 — were a part of any “natural” fire regime. Rather, they seem to be more closely related to white settlement and the decimation of local Indian populations and their traditional practices.

                      In 1899 John Leiberg personally surveyed a major portion of southwestern Oregon for the Department of the Interior, resulting in the following report: “Cascade Range Forest Reserve from Township 28 South to Township 37 South, Inclusive, Together With the Ashland Forest Reserve and Forest Regions from Township 28 South to Township 41 South, Inclusive, and from Range 2 West to Range 14 East, Willamette Meridian, Inclusive.”

                      Leiberg made meticulous observations, going so far as to count the tree rings of various species in local sawmills just then being set up in that region, and personally observing (and likely interviewing) Klamath Indians still living in the area. His photographs, maps, and tables remain some of the finest scientific research conducted during that time and cover a wide number of forested areas in the western US. Here are a few sample quotes from his SW Oregon report that address your questions:

                      (p. 277) The largest burns directly chargeable to the Indian occupancy are in Ts. 30 and 31 S., Rs. 8 and 9 E. In addition to being the largest, they are likewise the most ancient. The burns cover upward of 60,000 acres, all but 1,000 or 1,100 acres being in a solid block. This tract appears to have been systematically burned by the Indians during the past three centuries [ca. 1600 to 1855]. Remains of three forests are distinctly traceable in the charred fragments of timber which here and there litter the ground.

                      (p. 288) On the lava plateaus flanking the crest of the range in Ts. 34 and 35 S., R. 5 E., grassy places created by fires before the advent of the white man have, in course of time, become covered with thick stands of lodgepole pine, now mature and giving way to stands of noble fir and alpine hemlock.

                      (p. 299) The forest consists of stands of alpine-hemlock type. Ninety per cent of it is composed of lodgepole-pine reforestations. Some of these stands date back to Indian occupancy, others are the result of fires set by the white man. All of the forest is fire marked. Reforestations after fires are invariably composed of lodgepole pine. Repeated conflagrations and total destruction of the forest bring grass and sedge growths. Fires in the townships have been fewer during the past four or five years [1895-1899] than formerly, and most of the grassy tracts are slowly reforesting.

                      (p. 305) This region was burned periodically during the Indian occupancy, as the many different ages represented in the lodgepole pine stands prove. But when the white man came into the region the areas in this particular township was covered with a uniform stand of the species. During the past forty or forty-five years [1855-1899] the timber has been burned in many locations and the subsequent reforestations have again been burned. The region is too high in altitude to permit the growth of much brush. After a fire one of three things happens: either lodgepole pine comes in as the first forest growth, or grasses and sedges form a thin, interrupted sward, or the ground remains bare of all vegetation. It is impossible to predict beforehand which one of the three phases will appear.

      • I agree, Eric. I welcome a point of view that marginalizes the extremes. Those three Acts should be mandating beneficial treatments in our Forests, instead of supporting the “whatever happens” dogma we often see from preservationists.

        I particularly think that yes, we do need an EIS and full NEPA for things like Let-Burn zones and ideas like “bio-corridors”, where people want quasi-Wilderness (when the land doesn’t fully meet Wilderness standards).

  6. Every year on our public lands enough trees die to supply several small family owned sawmills in just about every watershed, if we were to harvest less 30 per cent of those dead trees. Due to current environmental laws and the position taken by the corporate environmental groups we harvest almost none. Our local communities continue to decline.

    • Harvesting 30% of annual dead biomass might have a manageable impact. But you’ve then got to have permanent logging roads to every point of that watershed – unless you’re suggesting the timber would be valuable enough to helicopter-log. Never mind the environmental impact of all those new logging roads, let’s talk money – the Forest Service can’t afford to maintain the roads it has now, let alone build new ones everywhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *