Utah Forests Timber Management and Fire Bar Chart

Utah bar chart fire AltFrom Mac McConnell

“This chart may add perspective to the debate about collaboration, the evils of salvage, and the status of management on our western national forests. The problems lie not in what’s being done but in what’s not being done.”

25 Comments

  1. The chart is pretty impressive and indicates there is a need for management. One point I would make is there is a great amount of forested land which I think is in the timber base that is small and thick subalpine fir. It will be hard to get anyone to harvest these trees. I also suspect, but do not have the facts, that a lot of annual growth is on trees that are not in the timber base and are inaccessible. Nature will take care of these stands through fire.

    The chart does not indicate how much of the annual mortality is from these stands.

    • Richard

      I developed this chart from the sources listed in the chart textbox. I’d welcome your review and verification or corrections.

      David,
      Good point about about accessability. My chart applies to growing stock (merchantable trees 5″+ DBH) on unreserved timberland. Here’s what the FIA says about the data that I used.
      “Timberland
      Forest land that is producing or is capable of producing crops of industrial wood and not withdrawn from timber utilization by statute or administrative regulation. (Note: Areas qualifying as timberland are capable of producing at least 20 cubic feet per acre per year of industrial wood in natural stands. Currently inaccessible and inoperable areas are included.)”

      Just for fun, I assumed that no subalpine fir is operable and ran a custom search of mortality and growth for Utah N.F. timberland using species as a filter. Subalpine fir had a net growth of -2 MMcf and a mortality of 22 MMcf. Adjusting the chart figures by that amount indicates a total Utah NAG of -95 MMcf, Mortality of 116 and growth of 21 MMcf. The chart still says NF timber management is spectacularly bad.

      Mac

    • Good request Richard. I too would like to see that.

      I’d also like to know exactly how “This chart may add perspective to the debate about collaboration, the evils of salvage, and the status of management on our western national forests.”

      At face value I fail to see how this add perspective about collaboration. I also am unaware of anyone claiming that post-fire salvage logging is ‘evil,’ but rather have noticed that some people have posted bona-fide ecological, wildlife and economic concerns with post-fire salvage logging. Thanks.

      • I don’t know about the Utah numbers, but here’s a look at Oregon’s situation: Analysis Millions of ‘zombie trees’ in national forests. This is from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute and is based on FIA data.

        “It’s a tale of two forests,” says Mike Cloughesy, OFRI’s director of forestry. “About 17 percent of the trees on National Forest System lands in Oregon are dead, compared to 11 percent for other public lands, and 8 percent for private and Indian lands.”

        The analysis shows that on NFS lands open to harvest, annual mortality exceeds harvest by more than 400 percent.

        • “Zombie” trees! Ha ha. What will you timber industry folks come up with next?

          Looks like the U.S. Forest Service calls your “Zombie” trees “Animal Inns.”

          And the Forest Service even has a “There’s Life in Dead Trees, Animal Inn” activity book for the kids.

          Also, do you think it might be possible that U.S. Forest Service lands in Oregon comprise a larger percentage of, say, lodgepole pine and whitebark pine, compared with, say, state and industrial timber lands?

        • The website linked here is really quite the study in hyperbole and Orwellian double speak (see snip below). This is the kind of thing that is a disservice to collaboration because it is clearly crafted to promote a particular view of forests – that they only have value as lumber and need to be cut. When this kind of thing is published, it needs to be called out, no matter who is employing the propaganda.

          The science is quite clear on increased wildfire risk concerning dead trees. It doesn’t pencil out. Every firefighter and honest forest scientist knows this, yet it persists. Why? To sway public opinion.

          And zombie trees? Seriously? This is again from a timber industry perspective. This is no different than the rhetoric we are hearing from the leading Republican presidential candidate about Muslims and Mexicans.

          When I make judgement on claims like these, I always look in the mirror and examine my own rhetoric. I recognize I have a bias in favor of nature and of leaving trees and the habitat they create alone, with the exception of Western forests that have been damaged by the Triad of Forest Pain – overgrazing, over-logging, and fire suppression. Knowing that, I try the best I can not to fall into using unsubstantiated claims to promote my opinions. I think it works most of the time. It is embarrassing when it doesn’t and I get caught passing along a “fact” that is no more than a biased observation that confirmed my bias. If we ever hope to develop collaborative solutions, I think a commitment to self-questioning is essential.

          From the website: “Meet the standing dead. Millions upon millions of gray ghosts blackened by fire, ravaged by insects and disease, or dead from lack of water.

          These are Oregon’s “zombie” trees. And according to an analysis commissioned by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, more than 350 million individual trees are standing dead in the 14 million acres of national forestland in Oregon. The bad news? The number of dead trees is expected to increase, providing more fuel for catastrophic wildfires.

          Halloween is a great time to tell scary stories. The story I’m about to tell you is about the frightening number of dead trees in our national forests. It is based on data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program that was collected in 2010 and 2013 across all forestlands in Oregon. This story could have a happy ending, but it may not.”

  2. The sources for these graphs (more coming for each western state) are noted within the graph. USFS FIA data available online.
    This may be old news to some of us who are intimately aware of the on-the-ground situation. Most folks have no idea and could care less, unless there favorite spot burns down. Hoping this info/blog site will continue this effort!

  3. Happy New Year to All.

    Thank you for your interest in, and your thoughtful comments on, my Utah bar chart. In developing my charts, I try to present data from a reliable source in an interesting and understandable format. They are open to your interpretation. I have prepared a number of these charts and they all show basically the same thing. The U.S. Forest Service is cutting about 7 % of the growth on unreserved timberland while six times that volume dies and only a tiny fraction of the mortality is salvaged. Mortality has tripled over the past 35 years as harvest volumes have decreased by 85% (these data are presented in chart form in http://www.wvmcconnell.net/?page_id=1061)

    The economic impacts of this management failure have been well-documented and I trust will not be a subject for debate in this forum. the linkage of unemployment and psycho-social dysfuction, while perhaps even more devastating than the economic impacts, is totally unrecogngized by forest planners or the public. These impacts, and research references, are discussed in http://www.wvmcconnell.net/?page_id=1061. Please take a few moments to explore this infrequently considered aspect of public land management.

    Many view the impacts of public land non-management on people as more significant than the impacts of prudent harvesting with appropriate mitigation on woodpeckers or owls. Others, obviously, feel differently. Collaboration is the melding of these interests to produce a balanced, well-considered approach to the problem. Let’s give peace a trial.

    There is a wealth of information in the charts in my file. If you have an interest in a particular state or region , let me know and, with Sharon’s help, I’ll try to help you. (Sharon, if you veto this offer, it won’t hurt my feelings).

    Mac

  4. In my recent memoir “Toward A Natural Forest”, I describe how the Forest Service, “stewarding a natural world with the best of intentions, managed wildness unto submission and, perhaps, death.” I tried to articulate the dilemma of managing forests for both commerce and ecological sustainability. I worked with, and was trained by, people like Mac all my career. I became a good soldier — until I changed.

    To Mac, and others who share your value system, I would ask: what happened to all that growth and mortality when there was no timber industry? It’s a serious question. I think it is a flawed premise that failing to monetize growth (and mortality) is indicative of poor management. I think it is almost impossible to fine tune and “regulate” large-scale, wild forests to the degree that annual removals equal growth consistently and predictably. The history of the FS in the last half of the 20th century illustrates this. The vagaries of nature, volatility of markets, and many other factors tend to confound easy solutions.

    I agree that, yes, the FS (and others?) are having difficulty navigating effectively in the realm of new biological and social realities. However, all is not lost. But I do not take comfort from those insisting that we should again log our way into a new nirvana. Maybe what’s needed is: (1) convincing a reluctant populace and Congress that public forests are worthy of investment, while (2) monetizing other more valuable and ubiquitous forest-related assets like water and recreation. This might create a new and more realistic economic balance point beyond mere timber.

    • Jim Furnish asks a question worth our consideration: “what happened to all that growth and mortality when there was no timber industry? It’s a serious question. I think it is a flawed premise that failing to monetize growth (and mortality) is indicative of poor management.”

      My response is that before there was a timber industry, there weren’t very many people in the western US, so growth and mortality were irrelevant, as far as human needs went. The timber industry rose as European settlers (for better or worse) and their descendants built farms, railroads, cities, homes, businesses, and so on. Timber was a key resource. It still is and will continue to be — and indeed it ought to be. For example, the use of CLTs for residential and commercial buildings has many benefits, including being a renewable and carbon-dense material.

      Thus, another question is, where will our wood products come from? In Oregon, where I live, 78% of all timber harvested comes from private lands (primarily on the west side of the Cascades), an ownership class representing roughly 1/3 of the state’s forestlands, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. The federal government manages 60% of Oregon’s forests, but produces just 13% of the state’s total harvest (2014); annual harvests are about 8 percent of annual growth. In contrast, private owners harvest about 67% of their annual growth.

      It may sound trite, but it is true that if we don’t cut timber here, it will be cut somewhere else. Since a high of 35% in 2006, the US imports of softwood lumber from Canada has averaged 28% annually (Congressional Research Service, August 2015). I recently bought some OSB for a minor construction project (rebuilt my well shed). The OSB came from a mill in Canada. It was fine OSB, but I wish it had come from a US mill.

      Oregon’s unemployment rate is 5.7%, overall, but still much higher in rural communities (10% or higher, according to the Oregon Employment Department). If the USFS and BLM were able to harvest, say, 20% of annual growth — and to provide stable, sustainable annual harvest levels — lumber producers might be inclined to invest in mills in rural Oregon and other parts of the west, and rural unemployment would decrease.

      Such a modest increase in federal harvest levels can be done while also protecting and enhancing all of the other resources and values.

      In short, an increase in federal harvest levels is needed to bring the “triple bottom line” of forest values — economic, ecological, and social — into balance. Failing to do so is poor stewardship.

      • I’m with Steve on this one. Pre columbian, trees were just weeds for the Indians, to be burnt so the good stuff would grow. They didn’t have the tools or tech to fully utilize the potential of wood’s many uses. But the Indians have certainly adapted white-guy tools to their forests, along with their other techniques.

        The fact is, well managed forests (appealing to humans) are achievable at a positive cash flow. Don’t have to be “industrial” by any means, but the avoided costs of an avoided fire thanks to management are a factor that gets way too little credit.

        As for mortality, I can’t remember the precise number, but once in an Evergreen project, I did a mortality number based on Oregon statistics. It was stupendous, humongous, I think in actual cubic volume a pile as tall as the Sears Tower, or running a solid freight train off a cliff into a burn pit for days. I had others run the numbers because I thought I was wrong. I wasn’t. It’s huge.

      • Steve is spot-on. Before the influx of the Euro-American, the “wilderness” was a landscape peopled by non Euro-Americans – this little factoid seems forgotten by many. As with all other people (even those today), these people liked to eat and, like people always have and always will, managed their environment “into submission” to better meet their needs. Thus, I question what wilderness, pristine, wild, etc. mean; I can only conclude they are words that convey personal values and have little basis in the forest’s history.

        Pre-white settlement, there was likely little timber industry as we would know it today. However, somewhere I read that there were places in the US that had been deforested and the Indians used rivers (maybe even canals?) to bring wood to their growing settlements. I’ve read that Oregon’s coastal streams were used as transport systems for the annual acquisition of firewood!

        Trees are a raw material for several thousand things we use in our daily lives. If we choose to “save” our trees, without a reduction in our consumption of wood, we’ll merely look elsewhere; i.e., Canada where it may take 20 or 50 acres of their boreal forest to make up for an acre of our more productive “saved” forest. I’d suggest we have a problem with ethics.

        At a recent forum, the AFSEEE showed a great film about the Siuslaw NF and the direction it is taking. The film, most of the audience, and the Forest Service leadership liked the Siuslaw’s new direction – restoration, wildlife, and recreation. Jobs, taxes, raw material — not so much. Maybe we ought to be more honest and just declare Canada a colony for its raw materials – that would be a historical truth!

        John Perlin’s “A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization” ought to be required reading.

        As Steve notes, Oregon’s urban economy has recovered from the recent recession while the rural economy (where our public lands are located) is woefully lagging; economic and social values seem irrelavant on today’s federal lands. Using just the annual growth of Oregon’s federal lands, another 25,000 people could find employment!!! At the same time, what could that do for the over-all health of the forest?

        • The discussion about wilderness, Native Americans, and utilitarian vs. intrinsic values of wild things has been going on since Muir and Roosevelt. Dick Powell makes some good points regarding the utilitarian perspective. I wanted to expand on one of those points because they touch on issues I have been researching and personally dealing with for decades – Wilderness.

          First, there is no question that wilderness exists now and always has. The notion that wilderness disappeared thousands of years ago because Native Americans were here before Europeans is based on a contrived definition designed to diminish the value of wild spaces.

          Wilderness is clearly defined in the Wilderness Act. The definition was carefully crafted to endure. Attempts to reject it now are justified the same as they were back when commercial interests originally opposed efforts to protect wild spaces – they want unfettered access to public lands and profit off them without paying the American people for their full value or without recognizing the rights of other living things to thrive undisturbed. The current Bundy Act part II up in Oregon is just a variation on the same theme.

          Wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

          Does this mean that wilderness has never been experienced a human footprint? No. Does it mean that wilderness does not exist if we have evidence that Native Americans once gathered wood there centuries ago? No. Does it mean we can’t have wilderness if there is a road present that we can decommissioned? No. Does it mean wilderness can’t exist if pollution from China contaminates its air? No.

          Whether or not Native Americans had significant impacts on the landscape is really quite irrelevant in terms of how we see wild lands today. What is important is what value we place on wild things and the ecosystems that support them. It is not a matter of “balancing” human needs with nature. It is a matter of recognizing our hubris, acknowledging the rights of other living things, and realizing we need unfettered nature to survive as a species.

          My website linked here goes directly to a page on our website where we discuss some of the individuals who have explored the meaning of wildness. Their words reflect what “Wilderness” really means.

  5. I agree, to bad you could’ve bought real boards, locally produced for your shed. I heard once that Ohio has more sawmills than Oregon. Which is what happens when you only produce one kind of timber, small diameter softwood logs from young stands.

  6. Hard to take anyone seriously who uses the word ‘decadent’ to describe a timber stand, ((Was it a wild night of coke and strippers?) as if it were a ‘sinner’ in need of of some sort of atonement or ‘salvation’, usually by a self-appointed savior. I suppose that’s the purpose of using such a loaded word, to justify the proposed action of the ‘savior’, in this case the salvation of ‘management’. So then what does a forest look like that’s been saved, died and gone to heaven?

  7. Hi Dan,
    Here’s a cut and paste from Mirriam-Webster dictionary

    “Full Definition of decadent
    1 : marked by decay or decline”

    A more precise word for the condition of western timber stands might have been “aging”. I liked “decadent” because it better captures the flavor of the conditions. Semantics aside, what did you think of the data presented in the chart?
    Mac

    • Mac, from my perspective, the chart can not be adequately evaluated because its presentation appears to reflect a particular viewpoint rather than an objective analysis. What is a “western forest?” There are so many kinds.

      The graph’s caption is value-laced. “Decadent timber stands” do not exist unless you want to use the phrase to describe the dog-hair thickets created by overgrazing and logging in some Southwestern ponderosa pine forests. And timber stands are not decimated by natural processes. They respond to them as they always have. However, if you are referring to the impacts of climate change, past overgrazing, and logging, then yes, some timber stands are indeed being decimated, but by human mismanagement and over exploitation of resources, not natural processes.

      As suggested by Dan, the word decadent does betray a bias. Words and semantics matter, a lot. This is why we have worked so hard to remove pejorative references to chaparral as “brush.” This is why people are justifiably insulted when they are referred to by value-laden labels, labels that imply inferiority. Those who have always used the labels, and are not part of the disparaged group, don’t usually get it. “What’s the big deal?” they ask.

      It’s a big deal because words communicate value.

  8. Richard, All of us have our biases and mine are pretty evident, probably because I’ve been there and done that for the past 72 years. I must confess that I was bemused by the thought that two words used in the caption somehow tainted and invalidated the hard data presented in the chart,

    Here’s the caption:

    ‘Mortality greatly exceeds growth on the national forests in Utah where unmanaged, over-dense, and decadent timber stands are being decimated by drought, fire, insects, and disease. Live tree harvest (remedial treatment) is 2% of the annual growth, 28 times more timber dies than is harvested, and 96 % of the mortality is not salvaged.”

    It seems to me that the caption is a straight-forward verbal recapitulation of the numbers on the graph. The numbers in the caption are readily calculated from the base data and the causes of mortality are not in dispute. I probably should have inserted the word “virtually” before the word “unmanaged”. However, it appears that the sole objection to the chart is the use of the two “value-laced” words “decadent” and “decimated”.

    I’d welcome a substantive critique of the data, rather than the presentation, and especially the implications of the data — what does it tell us about the quality of national forest management in Utah?.

    Having said all that let me wind up my rant by suggesting that we all focus on substance rather than style, recognize that we all have our biases, and that just about every word in the language is offensive or value-laden to someone, somewhere, somehow.

    Mac

    Mac

  9. To be taken with a few grains of salt.
    * These forester driven analyses tend to measure merchantable board feet (a subset of the forest ecosystem), ignoring more relevant measures of ecosystem integrity.
    * Mortality is perfectly natural is forest ecosystems.
    * Over large scales of space and time growth and mortality will be in balance.
    * Logging disrupts that balance by causing premature mortality and exporting the “fruits” of mortality off-site, depriving the forest of snags, down wood, and carbon.
    * Mortality tends to be non-linear, i.e., come in waves. After fire and beetles go through, then there are decades when growth exceeds mortality. Perfectly natural cycle.

    • 2ndLaw raises an excellent point in stating that foresters tend to use board feet, or MMcf, as a surrogate for other more relevant measures of ecosystem integrity. These volumetric units ignore the consequences of non-management (let nature take its course) on what some consider to be the single most important component of the forest (and global) ecosystem – humanity. Here’s what I’ve said in other charts:

      “The chart does not show the social consequences of this management failure: idled workers, disrupted families and dying communities, or the economic impacts: industries closed, jobs lost, local governments and school districts distressed, and resources destroyed.”‘

      2ndLaw’s other comments are generally true for unmanaged forests and would have some bearing on the existing situaion if humans were still hunter-gatherers. Logging (harvesting) on public lands does indeed cause “premature mortality” and does export the fruits of the land offsite to human benefactors, the public. In quasi-biblical terms prudent management of our public forests might be termed “Husbanding the land and making it fruitful”.

      For a quantification of the social (and some economic) consequences of non-management on a Florida county and school system I invite you to visit my website. http://www.wvmcconnell.net
      /?page_id=718.

      A final thought that I couldn’t resist. Here’s a non-value-laced quote from Merriam-Webster:
      “Simple Definition of decimate
      Popularity: Top 30% of words
      : to destroy a large number of (plants, animals, people, etc.)
      : to severely damage or destroy a large part of (something)”

      Many thanks for providing me with a forum for my thoughts on what used to be called “multiple use”. If anyone’s interested I’d be happy to post charts for other states, regions and forests: all using MMcf as a surrogate for other values – values that are more difficult to express in graphic form.

      Mac

  10. Wow, I had no idea that forests in this state were diminishing due mainly to fires and disease. I’m surprised that more of this wood is not able to be salvaged. I agree with the other commenters, that they would benefit from active forest management. It seems like they could salvage useable timber and help stimulate grow when needed.

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