A-to-Z Timber Sale a bad idea, and a bad model

The following piece was written by Jeff Juel, National Forest Chair of the Upper Columbia River Group of the Sierra Club, which successfully objected to the Mill Creek A-to-Z timber sale, and appeared this weekend in the Spokesman Review.

What do folks on this blog think about the fact that the Forest Service contracted a private timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to run the NEPA process from start to finish on this public lands timber sale? Or that “an agency contract expert expressed concern about the objectivity of this new process, asking how the Forest Service rationalizes the ability of the contractor to invest upfront without any guarantee of compensation and ‘without artificially deflating the stumpage value or artificially inflating the costs of other service work.’”

If this is the path that ‘collaboration’ is taking on public lands what other significant red flags does this situation raise? – mk

Privatizing our national forests doesn’t mean ownership necessarily changes hands. It does, however, mean control is handed over to a private entity.

The concern about keeping public forests in public hands was one reason why, in August, conservationists objected to a major timber sale in the Mill Creek watershed northeast of Colville: the A-to-Z Timber Sale on the Colville National Forest. In October, the U.S. Forest Service did right by withdrawing the timber sale.

The Mill Creek watershed was heavily and unsustainably logged years ago. Only about 154 acres of ancient forest remain out of 12,802 acres of national forest in the project area. That’s about 1 percent.

Given prior damage to wildlife habitats and watershed values, should further logging occur? If so, how much? Answering these questions requires careful, thorough, and unbiased analysis. Indeed, that’s what the laws protecting our National Forests require; laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and laws informed by nearly two centuries of deforestation on the American continent.

NEPA requires an objective process be completed for every proposed project and decision affecting federally managed lands and resources. Various alternatives are to be explored, environmental impacts thoroughly analyzed and disclosed, and scientific controversies and public concerns fully aired. And it’s the federal agency’s job, in this case the U.S. Forest Service, to prepare the environmental analysis on our behalf.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Forest Service contracted a private timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to run the NEPA process from start to finish, or from “A to Z” as this pilot project is revealingly titled. According to Vaagen Brothers, they’ve already spent about a million dollars.

In an internal document found on the A-to-Z project website, an agency contract expert expressed concern about the objectivity of this new process, asking how the Forest Service rationalizes the ability of the contractor to invest upfront without any guarantee of compensation and “without artificially deflating the stumpage value or artificially inflating the costs of other service work.” The Forest Service replied that it was presented that way by Vaagen Brothers “and supported by the collaborative group… Contractor would recoup its costs by not having to competitively bid on the timber.”

Can the public really expect a logging company’s analysis of environmental risks and benefits to be objective and thorough? Or provide a balanced exploration of the scientific controversies say, over whether logging truly restores fire-dependent ecosystems when the logging company puts up $1 million to kick-start the project?

Having private, local collaborators cheer on the privatizing of our national forests should not be comforting, even if collaborators include environmental groups. This A-to-Z sale of the NEPA process to the highest bidder represents an ominous step towards privatizing our national forests.

To make ethical decisions about our national forests and the environment generally, actual or potential conflicts of interest must be disclosed and understood. For example, it’s not widely known that The Lands Council, one of the collaborating groups, takes annual contributions from Vaagen Brothers Lumber, one of its so-called “business partners.”

Decisions must be made by professionals, subject to strict codes of conduct, after the analysis is completed, not as a vaguely implied condition of the contract granting rights to prepare the NEPA documents. We must restore ethical integrity in our government’s decision-making process in order to restore ecological integrity in our forests.

The A-to-Z also teaches important lessons nationally because Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has touted it as a pilot process in moving legislation (HR 2647), impacting the entire national forest system, through the U.S. House of Representatives. This deceptively named “Resilient Federal Forests Act” is, as noted by the Seattle Times, “an opportunistic remedy that doesn’t pass the smell test, and the Senate needs to douse it quickly.”

This bill would exempt national forest logging up to 15,000 acres from normal NEPA analysis. Citizens challenging illegal and damaging timber sales in court would be required to post a bond upfront, making the constitutional right of judicial redress unaffordable in most cases. The bill would prohibit important watershed improvement by requiring local county commissioners to agree to the decommissioning of unneeded roads on national forests. It would also severely weaken protections for ancient forests in eastern Oregon and Washington, such as on the Colville.

Our national forests help define the Inland Northwest. The A-to-Z Timber Sale and the shenanigans in Congress are a reminder that constant public vigilance is a price we pay to keep our forests standing.

14 Comments

  1. “What do folks on this blog think about the fact that the Forest Service contracted a private timber company, Vaagen Brothers Lumber, to run the NEPA process from start to finish on this public lands timber sale?”

    (the silence is deafening Matthew)

    It doesn’t seem much different than the USFS as a fully captured agency, turning over virtually ALL NEPA contracting in Southeast Alaska to the multinational conglomerate, TetraTech, (Tetra Tech, Inc. (NASDAQ: TTEK) and then, after signing the Records of Decision on the FEIS’, conduct extensive, “Change Analyses” after the public processes are closed — and then doing what they really intended to do in the first place on public lands.

    Nor, does it seem much different than outsourcing agency functions to multinational conglomerate “nonprofit” con-servation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, ( present net assets: $5,762,300,943.00 according to Charity Navigator) With assets like that, what could go wrong — ever again — with our public lands, waters, air, and seas?

    But the problem is, the example you cite of a captured agency is FAR less of a concern than the Department of Defense conducting military training exercises testing Electronic Warfare methods on national forests of the Olympic Peninsula and parks, and staging combat training exercises in urban areas of Puget Sound in Washington state — without even bothering with quaint laws such as NEPA.
    http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34367-exclusive-navy-uses-us-citizens-as-pawns-in-domestic-war-games

    I could cite many more examples, but the pattern here is unassailable: the legislative, institutional, and constitutional facades of the America we’ve been taught to believe in, have been (of course) crumbling, but lately, with increasing frequency.

    There’s a tiny part of me that would love indulging in the luxury and fantasy of public opinion actually correcting the descent of NFS policy (and the rest of US) into the free market fundamentalists’ back pockets of the master class and its minions. Unfortunately, I’ve never been good at accommodating cognitive dissonance.

  2. This is a “pilot” project is it not? Isn’t the idea for a pilot project to test new ideas or ways of doing something? “Stewardship” contracting seems to be much in vogue these days and I remember it, too, began as a pilot project not all that long ago.

    I’d like to think that, with proper over-sight and constraints, NEPA could be done successfully by private entities. Further, I’d guess it could be done a lot more cheaply/efficiently than if the government did it.

    I do have to question the comment about “two centuries of deforestation”.

    I’ve read and thought quite a lot about the relationship of human civilization and forests and concluded that the two are so intertwined that they cannot be looked at as two distinctly different subjects.

    E.g., in the earliest human civilizations, wood was integral to firing clay pots, smelting and shaping bronze, copper, and iron. Wood became canoes, rafts, and ships that greatly facilitated the movement of people and goods in ancient times. The Romans had so deforested the Italian Penninsula that they looked to other lands as a source of wood. While our own Puritans did have religious reasons for coming to New England, their backers saw the forests as a commodity because the production of iron in England was making firewood very scarce and expensive for the peasants (this was the forest that grew back after the Romans took it in earlier times) and was causing social unrest.

    As I understand it, pre-settlement (i.e., pre-Columbus), the forested acreage in N. America was declining. With the Europeans and their introduced diseases, upwards of 95% of the native population died and, with it, their farming and forest management practices (i.e., burning) largely ceased. This led to large acreages of afforestation and, when the Euro-American started their massive push into the Ohio Valley, 2-300 years had gone by. This was enough time for trees ( a rather invasive plant) to become well-established. To the settler, this was “wilderness” and, during the Romantic Period of American history, entered our history texts and lore as wilderness.

    However, the settlers wanted farms, rails for fences, houses, and towns. With the advent of the railroad, huge quantities of wood were needed to build rail cars, fuel the locomotives, and for railroad ties. They begain to clear some of this new forest and the total acreage began to decline.

    By the end of the 1800’s coal and petroleum were becoming prevalent. Wood preservatives were making railroad ties last much longer and the railroads no longer needed to harvest 15-20 million acres a year. Pesticides, fertilizers, and improved crop varieties were making the land far more productive. This also meant the farmer did not have to dedicate so many acres just to feed his draft animals. In other words, farm land was being abandoned and, as noted above, trees are invasive and the forested acreage began to increase once again.

    Since around the 1920’s, the total acreage in the US has remained fairly constant.

    A big point is that, with Smokey Bear, an acre today likely has far more board feet on it than has probably ever existed.

    1491, A Forest Journey, Indian Givers, American Canopy, Changes in the Land, and others are well worth reading. In fact, I think they ought to be required reading for every forestry student!

  3. Seem to me the bottom line is that they “successfully objected to this sale”. So that means no sale and all efforts were wasted? Seem like the Sierra Club made a bunch of assumptions. Were they correct?
    Isn’t it the Sierras Club position to oppose all commercial timber sales on federal lands?
    Seems like we are really good at stopping things that the Forest Service and BLM tries but really poor at making things happen. And you want to know you gets it hurts the most? The local communities. Same old story, no resource, no jobs. And our forests are the worst for it.
    Isn’t this blog about Forest Planning? Seem like the only planning a lot of people are interested in is as Larry use to say, “is doing nothing”.

  4. I am concerned about the whole process! When the Congress tries to manage our natural resources through legislation the results are seldom positive. I can think of a few ways the stewardship act might be beneficial, but hiring outside contractors to complete public participation and NEPA requirements are not within the list. There are somethings that management simply can not delegate. When the Congress enacted the the NEPA requirements they had good intentions, but failed to recognize the impact on the Agencies workload. I have observed and reviewed numerous Environmental Impact Statements prepared by scientists within the Agency, I worked for. They were well written and appeared to be based on sound scientific information. The truth was that the well intentioned scientists preparing the document, have little time to closely observe the detail of the site itself. Consequently, these documents disclose what one might expect in normal situations, but may not apply to this specific situation. In other words, little if any time is spent studying the specific piece of land involved. Most of the documents could apply to any sale or project within the general area. The documentation was more important then the detailed knowledge of the land.
    My second concern is that these NEPA documents are required after we propose a particular project such as a timber sale. These projects are the result of our desire to produce products we can take from the forests. I know Gifford Pinchot defined forestry as the science of growing trees, but we have long since outlived that definition. 70% to 80% of all living species on our planet would not survive without forests. The planet’s forest cover today is slightly less than 50% of what it once was and deforestation is continuing although somewhat slower. The world population is now 7.5 billion and expanding. We now know that on our North American Continent, to maintain our affluent life style requires 20 acres per individual to produce the energy and products we demand, yet if you divide the earth’s land base by today’s population there is slightly less than 4 acres available. We are totally out of balance with earth’s capability. We must stop managing what we can take from the forests and focus on managing our remaining forested lands for health, vigor and diversity, and accept the forest resources as the by-product of proper management. Most scientists today, recognize population expansion as our number one environmental issue and deforestation still ranks number three. It is time we develop a community of forest scientists that have the time and knowledge to meet our human needs of the future in a balanced way. WHAT WE DO TO OUR FORESTS WE DO TO OURSELVES! We must stop looking for shortcuts and focus on quality management of what remains. Recently, a farmer was explaining to me how today when he fertilizes his 2000 acres farm, he has a disc he places in the computer in his equipment, and it applies the exact amount of fertilizer required for each individual acre. I explained that someone had to “READ THE LAND” to develop that disc. That is the kind of detail needed to manage our remaining forested lands. It is the detail our scientists need to properly manage our forested lands that they are responsible for and the detail needed for a quality EIS.

  5. Our government is 13 trillion in debt. Every government agency continues yearly to add to that debt. Most citizens remain oblivious and continue business as usual, until the end, when our government can no longer sustain this facade, there will be worldwide economic catastrophe in which those of us that have any savings, will be the big losers. So the question is how can we continue to allow these agencies continue to spend our future, especially when they should be making a profit, not a loss. If state resource agencies can be run like a business and show a profit, why shouldn’t the Forest Service and BLM? It could be done, there just isn’t any incentive. Maybe trying different solutions and seeing how it goes isn’t such a bad idea. The eventual alternative isn’t pretty.

    • I think focusing on how much an agency puts in the US Treasury alone is problematic. The national forests and grasslands are extremely valuable for the non-market benefits they provide such as clean water, clean air, carbon absorption, recreational use, etc. If these values were taken into account, I think you’d find the Forest Service and other land management agencies provide a huge net economic benefit.

  6. Yes, but you, like many, are ignoring the end result, which is financial. Unfortunately,for all of us , ignoring this, won’t do the resource, our quality of life, or the environment, a bit of good if we cannot sustain the cost of doing business. For our our sake and that of our precious resources. What we are talking about here is reality, not science in it’s minuscule, but what the repercussions are, if we continue with this head in the sands direction. There are two schools of thought: the academic and the practical, which need to come together. That most likely won’t happen until some kind of catastrophe occurs, unfortunately. In which case, who is going to take the blame.? That will ultimatley be up to the citizens/taxpayers.

  7. An important point many in our increasingly urganized society have forgotten is that ALL things (i.e., tangible things) we use must come from the environment. That includes air, water, food, clothing, builiding materials, energy, computers, etc. Yes, we may go to Safeway or to Sears but those stores are merely a point between the environment and the consumer. It is not a question of whether or not we use our environment, it is a question of how we use it. No amount of analysis, legislation, set-asides, and the like can refute that simple fact of economics.

    As an aside to something said above — I am friends with a fellow who works for the Forest Service and has a colleague who once worked on the Siuslaw NF. This person takes more pride in the work he managed to stop than in the work accomplished.

    I once served on the Coast Provencial Advisory Committee (an utter waste of time!). A Forest Service person said he had a road he knew was going to fail (I was never certain if this was a fact or merely hypothetical). He said it was easier to let the road fail than to go through the mounds of analysis and paperwork to fix the problem and prevent the failure. This seems unethical but that is the box he’d been put in. It is sad that we’ve come to this.

    Re. Brian’s comment above — It is sad that so many agency folks do not stay in one place long enough to truly understand the land. Having to move may be great for career advancement and gaining some of the big-picture things but it does little for developing a true and deep understanding of the details of any location. That is the sort of thing the farmer had with the disc that helped him prescribe precisely the amount of fertilizer his land needs.

  8. Re: staying in one place — there is a downside to moving around and not getting to know a landscape deeply. On the other hand, there are many cases of local “myopia” where one isn’t aware of possible advancement and opportunity from practices elsewhere (kind of entire Peace Corps raison d’etre). Good outcomes can emerge from locals and outsiders bringing strengths together for good. Humility helps.

  9. I am not sure they outweigh the advantages of someone who understand the forests and cares about the local community because they are part of it. Of course there is no one answer.
    I wonder if you, Jim, ever consulted with Oregon Wild or Cascadian Wildlands when proposing projects? I don’t think it is too out of place to ask what a local sawmill might think also.
    I also think that the Forest Service and BLM has let Williams Oil do the NEPA research for their proposed 100 mile long clearcut through our forests for the proposed LNG pipeline to Coos Bay.
    To add insult to injury I have also heard that the trees removed for the pipeline will be left for mitigation. Sounds like someone made a deal with the devil, from my viewpoint.

  10. Good stuff, Bob. Thx for the comments. I personally did not meet with OR Wild or Cascadia, but often with Lisa Brown who “represented” many env groups. I also met frequently with industry folks (at least those who stayed after owl plan). We worked things out slowly, persistently over about a 3-yr period to get to a new “normal”. The good thing about Siuslaw today is that they are all in the room together working constructively on mutual interests.

    The difference between Vaagen and Williams? LNG is not a federal proposal; it’s a private, for-profit use of federal lands — FS requires proponent to do NEPA at their cost, but holds decision authority. Vaagen is doing NEPA on a FS project to then become the company that benefits financially. Hmmm… that’s not right. FS can employ a 3rd party to do NEPA, but this shouldn’t be Vaagen, in my view. In this case, appearance of conflict of interest should dissuade FS from using this model. I applaud experimentation, but the premise needs to be unassailable.

  11. The A-Z pilot project, and stewardship contracting in general, are throwbacks to an earlier Socialist era when government forest management sought “to promote the stability of forest industries” by limiting market-place competition between companies in that industry. The 1944 Sustained Yield Forest Management Act, quoted above, departed from liberal, laissez-faire capitalism by authorizing the Forest Service to sell timber non-competitively to mills solely by virtue of their gerrymandered location. This scheme was the first to legalize political corruption in national forest timber sale contracting.

    Today’s stewardship contracting does the same. The subjective “best value” criteria used to award stewardship contracts all but guarantee that politics dominates the process. The Forest Service forces wood processing companies to the collaboration table if they want any chance at being picked as the stewardship contractor. No longer is national forest wood sold to the least-cost, most efficient manufacturer. Now timber is awarded to the corporate schmoozer willing to say what the bureaucracy wants to hear and make the campaign contributions politicians demand to remain in office.

  12. I have always thought there could be merit to a third party doing NEPA. When I retired 22 years ago I thought I would be good at looking at projects from a neutral viewpoint and do what NEPA intended, i.e., layout alternatives to a proposed action and list the effects of the alternatives for the decision maker. I think it was too soon for small 3rd party contracting and analysis. I do think there is a conflict of interest when a proponent does the analysis.

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