Timber numbers in revised forest plans

If there is one thing the Forest Service should have learned from the last round of forest planning, it is that they should put realistic projections of timber volume in their forest plans.  These numbers are going to create expectations for the timber industry and Congress that will translate into pressure to produce that amount.  It’s when they try to plan timber programs and sales that are more intensive than are appropriate for other resources (i.e. wildlife) that they often end up in litigation.

Unfortunately, what I’ve seen in the few revised plans that have gotten this far looks like a continuing tendency to declare as many acres as possible to be suitable for timber management (defined as growing a regulated crop of trees), and to be evasive about how much future volumes would be reduced because of the presence of at-risk wildlife species (and the standards and guidelines required to provide their habitat).

In addition, there is a greater emphasis on the role of agency in budgets in determining the amount of timber that will be produced, to the point that forest plan alternatives may differ as much in their assumed budgets as they do in actual management direction.  This is despite the fact that forest plans do not make budget decisions.

I get the feeling that there is a lack of transparency developing about the real tradeoffs involved in national forest management so that the Forest Service can once again promise everything for everyone, and then give itself the most flexibility to find timber sales on the largest possible suitable land base.

Here is an article on how the Flathead National Forest is addressing these questions in its plan revision.

12 Comments

  1. I see no problem with a National Forest stating the maximum sustained yield, as the Flathead did:

    “With a timber base of 500,000 acres, the Forest calculates there’s a sustained yield limit of about 116 million board feet of timber annually calculated over a 200-year timespan, if the lands were only managed for timber.”

    The Flathead also notes that the max. sustained yield isn’t about to be harvested:

    ‘But there’s two other limiting factors, wilderness and budgets aside. They’re grizzly bears and lynx, both of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.”

    And while these seem to be realistic targets (reasonable portions of the 116 MMBF):

    “Under Alternative B, the Forest calculates it could harvest about 38.4 million board feet and under alternative D, 63.5 million board feet annually. In alternative A, which maintains the status quo, the Forest calculates it would harvest about 52.4 million board feet annually.”

    …. the forest harvested just 21.6. MMBF in 2015.

    • Speaking of the Flathead, here’s an article published yesterday:

      “Salvage timber project scaled back”
      tinyurl.com/jk8mrpq

      “The draft decision, signed by forest Supervisor Chip Weber, would involve commercial timber harvest on 834 acres, less than two-thirds of what the forest had initially proposed as its preferred alternative in June. The project is expected to produce 4.3 million board-feet of timber, about 15 percent of the forest’s average annual yield.”

      “Project manager Matt Shaffer said the alternative the forest ultimately selected arose after the initial scoping period, during which concerns arose about impacts on protected wildlife.

      “In general, they thought it reached the right balance between minimizing negative effects to bears and minimizing sedimentation increases, while still providing some wood for the local economy,” he said Monday.

  2. I have seen some of those plans. Most of the time the Forest Services hands are tied. Often they have less than 10% of the forest left where some timber harvesting might be allowed.
    Maybe someday we could reach the point where we realize we can harvest timber about anywhere and not disrupt the integrity of the forest and maybe at the same time help “restore” some of it to a more healthy, and diverse forest. I guess it is called forest management.
    I think we are seeing the results 20 years of “hands off” forest management. I can’t help but thinking about how the FS now supports a multi-billion dollar fire fighting economy. (and their product does literally does goes up in smoke.)

  3. It seems that the ASQ is thought of as the only timber available but there are lands that are managed for other than timber values where harvest can take place. Almost 30 years ago I argued that the forested lands on the Sawtooth National Recreation Area should not be in the timber base. I lost the arguement but know that no timber has been since been cut to meet the ASQ. Timber has been cut to enhance recreation and other esthetic characteristics including fuels reduction. Why put forested lands in the timer base just to increase the ASQ and then know the ASQ could never be maintained? On the otherhand, just because the lands are not suitable for timber production does not mean they cannot be cut for other resource values and thus, increase the BF harvested.

    I know this does not solve the problem on big timber forests but should be a consideration.

  4. Thanks for a good post Jon.

    I couldn’t help but notice the money quote in the article you linked to about the Flathead NF’s forest plan revision.

    Turns out the money quote is actually about money as the U.S. Forest Service clearly says the largest limiting factor to increasing logging is a lack of funding from Congress. But hey, at least those same Congress people can blame environmentalists for just about anything, right?

  5. When I was Deputy Chief for NFs, the FS produced the 2000 NFMA planning rule (dropped by Bush admin). A little noticed provision required forests to justify the “commercial forest” acreage where timber was economical and primary — a dramatic departure from 1982 regs to be more consistent with ecosystem mgmt principles. Timber could be harvested in many areas, provided that it achieved env goals without impairment. This resonates with PNW “ecosystem services” paper cited in another post.
    NFs are NOT “timber lands” — they are FORESTS that must be managed for the full suite of values, of which wood products are but one.

  6. So there’s two examples. In one, timber produced was less than 1/3 of what was desired (and probably even less of what was available). In another, the amount from some suitable lands in 30 years was 0. This kind of information should be used in determining whether lands are suitable and how much volume to expect in the future.

    Here’s the current criteria for whether lands that grow trees should be suitable for timber production (FSH 1909.12 61.2) – keeping in mind that “timber production” is “the purposeful growing, tending, harvesting, and regeneration of regulated crops of trees …”

    “In making this determination, the Responsible Official should consider the following to determine if timber production is compatible with the desired conditions and objectives of the plan:
    1. Timber production is a desired primary or secondary use of the land.
    2. Timber production is anticipated to continue after desired conditions have been achieved.
    3. A flow of timber can be planned and scheduled on a reasonably predictable basis.
    4. Regeneration of the stand is intended.
    5. Timber production is compatible with the desired conditions or objectives for the land designed to fulfill the requirements of 36 CFR 219.8 to 219.10.

    I think a close look would show that timber harvest is appropriate in most places only as a tool to produce ecological conditions, may compete with some desired conditions, can not be reasonably predicted and/or may not be needed after initial restoration. Traditional Forest Service thinking is that everything is suitable until they find that it isn’t. Under the new planning rule, that thinking should be reversed, and suitability should depend on making that case some sustained rate of logging is ecologically necessary. (And then maybe they can design a budget process to pay for these treatments instead of using timber volume targets to drive the amount of logging that occurs.)

    • “…suitability should depend on making that case some sustained rate of logging is ecologically necessary.”

      Yes, but also economically and socially necessary (especially locally) — multiple use, multiple needs.

      • Timber production booms and busts with the business cycle, so it tends to destabilize local communities, not support them. A diverse economy based on quality of life provided by conservation of public lands is much more likely to provide stable economic values.

  7. Timber harvest limited to what is ecologically necessary would be consistent with multiple-use. Timber harvest based on what is economically and socially necessary would probably NOT be consistent with the requirement for ecological diversity and integrity. (I don’t know what economic or social “necessity” means, since more always seems to mean better, but I assume your point is that this would be more than what is necessary for ecological integrity.)

    • Jon, what does “ecologically necessary” mean? Who defines it? Do we consider ecological necessity when we plant and harvest wheat or rice? No, we need these foods, and we try to produce them with minimal ecological harm.

  8. The 2012 Planning Rule requires ecological integrity and defines it in terms of natural range of variability. A “regulated crop of trees” would meet that requirement only where such things grew naturally. (No such requirements apply to growing annual crops on private land.)

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