Tongass Socialism

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Although Ross Gorte has retired from the Congressional Research Service, where he made a career of critiquing fiscally irrational Forest Service timber management, his analytical skills are undiminished. In a report published this month by Headwaters Economics, Gorte and co-author Ben Alexander show that there has been no “transition to a second-growth economy” in the Tongass timber program. The Obama administration has promoted second-growth wood as the lynch pin of its Tongass political strategy. But, as Gorte and Alexander report, the FS budget and sale numbers show the transition has proven to be all rhetoric and no substance.

The cost and revenue figures should shock the conscience of any fiscal conservative. In the most recent five-year period of data (FY 09-13), the Forest Service spent $100 million more on its timber sale program than purchasers paid for the trees. And that’s selling 87% old-growth volume. The finances of second-growth, which no one wants to buy at any price, will prove even more fiscally ruinous (e.g., this pile of rotting logs from the Ocean Boulevard second-growth logging project where the FS paid the purchaser to cut the trees, not a single one of which ended up as a useable wood product).

None of this old-growth logging promotes “forest health,” decreases “fire risk,” “improves” wildlife habitat, or serves any other “restoration” or “ecosystem services” objective. This is pure, unadulterated, old-fashioned clearcut logging. Timber jobs in southeast Alaska number 281 (0.9% of the private sector workforce), while tourism and recreation employ 6,700. Tongass timber sale spending is all about the 100+ FS employees who make their living planning, selling and administering logging, even as FS recreation staff levels decline.

I could go on. Read the report. Here’s hoping that Ross gains even more traction as a private-sector advocate for land management fiscal sanity than he did within government.

5 Comments

  1. Andy, are you using socialism as a bad word 😉 ?

    Somehow I don’t think 100 FS employees have enough political clout to keep up a timber program.. so it seems to me like something else is going on.

  2. A transition to a small-log industry will take some time, since the only “large” mill remaining in SE Alaska cuts mainly large logs. As the Headwaters reports states, there isn’t much left of the former industry:

    “Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce show similar trends and values. According to this
    source, southeast Alaska timber industry employment—in growing and harvesting, sawmills, and
    wood products manufacturing from timber cut on state, private, and federal lands combined—
    declined from 1,222 jobs in 1998 to 240 jobs in 2012, or 1.1 percent of total private employment
    that year. The largest declines were sustained in growing and harvesting jobs. Regional selfemployed
    trends in timber-related activities are difficult to determine because of data limitations,
    but there were 41 self-employed individuals in the timber sector in 2012, or 0.5 percent of total
    self-employed people in the region that year. Private sector timber jobs and self-employed
    individuals together accounted for 0.9 percent of private jobs and self-employed in southeast
    Alaska in 2012. (County Business Patterns, Nonemployer Statistics)”

  3. Here’s more on the Tongass Troubles:

    Forest Service defends slow path away from old-growth harvests

    Excerpt follows:

    Now, there’s broad agreement that the Forest Service should switch to harvests of less sensitive and less controversial second-growth. The debate now is about the rate of that transition and how much additional old-growth is logged while it’s happening.

    Bonnie, speaking to reporters Wednesday in Juneau, said there simply aren’t enough young trees reaching marketable age in the next few years to keep the industry going without continuing some old-growth harvest.

    “Those trees have to be old enough or large enough to be economically viable, but there hasn’t been timber harvest on the forest long enough” for sufficient second-growth volume to grow, Bonnie said.

    Bonnie also warned there are costs to speeding the transition by harvesting new growth earlier than planned.

    Alaska Forest Association executive director Owen Graham echoed that concern.

    “This is what drives me as a forester crazy,” he said. “Jeez, don’t cut them now — they’re just about to enter their period of fastest growth.”

    By waiting the planned 10 to 15 years, there will be much more timber to harvest from the same acreage, Graham said.

    Bonnie also said the industry needs time to retool to mill smaller-diameter trees. It can’t do so profitably now on the limited volume that’s available, he said.

    The discussion of the Tongass transition Wednesday was spurred by a report issued by Trout Unlimited making the claim that the transition had “stalled.” The group based its claim on an analysis of four years of Forest Service budgets and said the agency was spending to much money preparing timber sales and should instead be spending it on more viable industries such as tourism and fishing.

    The Trout Unlimited report was prepared by Headwaters Economics of Montana, but the report’s authors later told reporters the budget data they reviewed did not include sufficient detail to determine whether the Forest Service timber sale program was focused on old or young growth.

  4. Typical example of how the Forest Service continues to engage in the wrong debates! Here again we are arguing over tools and techniques rather than management goals and objectives. Economics will kill us ever time until we begin the debate at the proper starting point! I have observed years of this conflict, and for some reason leadership never learns! Timber harvesting and prescribed burns are simply tools.

  5. Never heard of environmental groups complaining because we spend to much money on stream restoration, which is a solely subsidized endeavor. Anyone ever hired a helicopter to put logs in a stream at $7,000/hour?
    Only 240 jobs in timber in Southeast Alaska and a hundred Forest Service workers? Most not be much going on there, not even on the harvesting of old growth side of things.
    Surprised that there aren’t mills cutting both large and small trees.
    Maybe the Forest Service has only giant timber sales and they are all bought by one mill, reducing competition and innovation.
    Of course this report is by Headwaters.

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