Tidwell: 5% of timber projects were litigated this year

Greenwire article from last week….

5% of timber projects were litigated this year — chief

Just over 5 percent of timber sales on national forests were litigated this year, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said this morning.

Of the roughly 315 timber sales and stewardship contracts offered, 16 were challenged in court and delayed, Tidwell told the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.

The hearing was to discuss the 2015 wildfire season, in which more than 9 million acres have burned, costing the Forest Service $1.7 billion in suppression.

Panel Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) said the Forest Service needs to more aggressively thin overstocked forests using logging and prescribed burns.

Tidwell said the Forest Service expects to achieve 97 percent of its timber sale target this year.

Collaborative forestry projects have enlisted support from conservation groups that have been willing to defend the agency when it is challenged in court, he said.

The House recently passed legislation, H.R. 2647 by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), that seeks to reduce the amount of litigation hindering forestry work. It would require litigants to post a bond to cover the government’s anticipated legal costs, which would not be reimbursed unless the litigant succeeded on all the claims in the case.

Litigation has been a significant impediment in the agency’s Northern Region, which includes parts of Washington, Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. A report released in spring by researchers at the University of Montana found that in recent years, “litigation has encumbered 40 [percent] to 50 percent of [the region’s] planned timber harvest volume and treatment acres.”

“Appeals, lawsuits and especially the threat of lawsuits has paralyzed and demoralized the Forest Service and created perverse incentives to ‘do nothing,'” Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) said at a June hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee.

But a bigger impediment to selling timber this year was lack of bidding, Tidwell said. More than 50 timber sales this year drew no bids, a consequence of “very difficult markets,” he said. Some timber sales were too large to draw bids and had to be reconfigured to garner industry interest, he said.

“We have to do a better job to make sure we’re in sync with not only the market but what the purchasers need,” Tidwell said.

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) said the issue has less to do with markets than it does with the difficulty of purchasing federal timber.

“We’ve got a lot of mills in my district that need fiber, but they’ve kind of given up on going to the Forest Service to get wood because it’s too onerous,” Benishek said.

Tidwell this morning also praised Congress for giving the agency new categorical exclusion authority in the 2014 farm bill for timber projects up to 3,000 acres in size to respond to and prevent attacks from insects and disease. He said the agency is currently pursuing 20 projects using that authority.

The Westerman bill would allow categorical exclusions on projects up to 15,000 acres under certain conditions. It would also set deadlines for the completion of National Environmental Policy Act reviews for post-fire salvage projects.

The Obama administration said it strongly opposes the measure.

Tidwell said he supports categorical exclusions to the extent that they allow the Forest Service to maintain the trust of the public.

“When we’re talking about using categorical exclusions, it’s a good tool for small projects,” Tidwell said. “But we have to be thinking much larger.”

He emphasized the need for evaluating treatments on hundreds of thousands of acres at a time to achieve greater administrative efficiencies and restore forests at a landscape scale

8 Comments

  1. Of course, Tidwell doesn’t want to talk about the lack of manpower and expertise to do timber projects on a larger scale. I also wonder how many Sierra Nevada projects were rejected by industry due to the 20″ dbh diameter limit. If I was in charge of Sierra Pacific Industries (with their virtual monopoly on USFS Sierra Nevada timber sales), I might reject most of these new tiny tree timber projects, waiting for the inevitable large wildfires and the salvage projects which follow, cutting those larger dead trees. They sure have PLENTY of their own trees between 10″ and 19.9″ dbh to cut, if they need to. They are in a unique position to affect the views of Congress and the Forest Service about the future of our Sierra Nevada National Forests. Yes, it is an unfortunate situation but, that is the reality of the current “environment”.

    • Larry, Chief Tidwell HAS talked about staffing levels. So has Secretary Vilsack. I mentioned this in the September edition of The Forestry Source:

      In August, the US Forest Service issued a report, entitled “The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work,” which spells out the need to pass this bill or similar legislation. The report notes that, while fire suppression consumed about 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget in 1995, that percentage may reach 52 percent this year.

      “Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39-percent reduction in all non-fire personnel,” the report states. “Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent, equating to reductions of nearly $700 million from non-fire programs compared to today’s funding levels. That means that in just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress as part of its appropriated budget will be spent on fire programs.”

      The report goes on to say that, as more of the agency’s resources are spent on fire suppression, fewer resources are available to support other agency work, including programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.

      “In effect, the numbers mean that the Forest Service has nearly a half-billion dollars less (in 2015 dollars) than it did in 1995 to do all of the other work of the agency,” wrote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a USDA blog post on August 5.

      • He sure hasn’t talked about expertise, though. It is very clear that the Forest Service isn’t going to be creating jobs that attract highly qualified timber employees, even if funding problems are solved. They simply don’t value the work of temporary employees in timber. It is up to OPM to fix this situation, further limiting the amount of hours that temps can work, each year. This has gone on for decades, and no one in a position of power in the Forest Service cares. They assume that ANYONE can be taught how to do timber work, using the fast food model of managing its temporary workforce. Federal McForestry! It’s not only timber temps that suffer, too. Other temps do critical jobs in wildlife and “Ology”.

        Giving the fire folks a “blank check” isn’t going to fix the problems. They will continue to be “pennywise and pound-foolish”. IMHO, the entire system needs to collapse, so that a new Forest Service can be built. One where even the lowest grade employee can earn a living wage, and have some job security. One where third class employees no longer exist. One where experience and skills are cherished and rewarded. One where every employee has a career ladder.

        • Larry, this is from a Q&A with Tom Harbour, the USFS’s Director of Fire and Aviation Management (The Forestry Source, July 2015). He was talking about the fire staff, but I’ve heard Tom Tidwell talk about the need to groom future leaders….

          Q: The QFR mentions the need to address the changing wildland fire workforce. What challenges are you facing in this area?

          Harbour: I am so impressed with the quality of the new folks that we hire, with their intelligence, their abilities—they’re just phenomenal. But we face the challenge of better training and equipping them. We’ve got to be more cognizant, as the old salts hang it up and retire, of the critical knowledge that we need to pass onto the new generation. I’m not worried at all about the intellectual or physical capabilities of these new young folks, I’m worried about how we give the knowledge that they need about the world that they’re going to face, about the issues that they’re going to have to deal with in the future. We’re working with an apprentice program to try to help speed that transition. We’re trying to give them more leadership opportunities, more leadership experience. We’re trying to figure out how we better connect people, how we help them to be more communicative, to be more conscious not only of the natural environment, but also the social environment they’re in. The folks we have coming up will face daunting challenges, and I want to help them.

      • “Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39-percent reduction in all non-fire personnel,”

        How much of that 39% were Personnel, IT, Mechanics and Road Maintenance employees, who were phased out or consolidated? I’ll bet the percentage of bigwigs has gone way up, since 1995, too. The Forest Service continues to be top-heavy. One of the rarest of employees is the permanent GS-3,4 and 5 timber markers. Does that 39% include temps? (Oh, yeah…. I forgot that they aren’t “real” employees)

  2. I’d really like to know how much VOLUME and ACREAGE the five percent of litigated projects contain.
    Sounds like Tidwell cooked the numbers in compliance with what the Obama Administration wants — Bern baby Bern.

  3. So strange, given the rhetoric we often see on this blog, and certainly elsewhere from politicians and the timber industry.

    So, last year 5% of the U.S. Forest Service’s timber sales were litigated, meanwhile 3 times that number of timber sales (over 50, or at least 16%) went through the NEPA process and then got ZERO bids from the timber industry.

    Strange, isn’t it? That just can’t be true…can it?

    See also: http://missoulian.com/news/local/montana-wood-products-industry-concerned-about-expiration-of-canadian-trade/article_bc5a6749-72d4-5ee8-902c-41d6c55db42d.html

  4. If I were a mill owner, why would I bid on timber that I need tomorrow if there is a very good possibility that it may take several years of litigation before I could actually harvest it … that is, if I got to harvest it at all? In other words, could I depend on the fed’s to live up to their end of the contract/sale bargain so I could plan for my raw material flow?

    I’ve been told that, when the fed’s ended Ketchikan Pulp’s long-term contract in SE Alaska, the timber industry was greatly diminished. Thus, when the fed’s put up a sale, it is oftentimes much too large for the few remaining mills to even consider bidding on the sale. [I recently saw an old newspaper article that said the Ketchikan Borough actually lost population after that contract was closed and that shippers, rather than serving a prospering community, were kept busy for a time shipping household goods to the Lower 48.]

    At least on the surface, it appears HR 2647 might be a step in the right direction. It might stop litigation that has no chance of succeeding and allow much needed work/sales to proceed. It often seems that some litigation that has no chance of succeeding succeeds anyway; e.g., fire-damaged timber is allowed to rot to the point that it is no longer usable. Thus, even though the litigant loses, they still win because they get what they want. It sounds like HR 2647 will cause them to at least lose their bond.

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