U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region has met 89% of their timber sale volume target over the past 15 years

If you listen to most western politicians – regardless of political party – talk about the U.S. Forest Service’s timber sale program you’ve likely heard them describe it as a failure. Many of these same politicians give the general public the impression that next to zero logging is taking place on America’s national forests because of countless lawsuits from “extremists” and “obstructionists.”

The other day, to dig a little deeper into this issue, I contacted the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region’s public affairs officer. I told her I wanted to compare the annual timber sale volume attained by the U.S. Forest Service in Montana and north Idaho with the timber sale volume targets set by the U.S. Forest Service, which are based on the funding the agency receives from Congress.

After the Forest Service’s public affairs officer and myself shared a chuckle about how terrible the U.S. Forest Service’s websites are, especially if you want to explore some of these issues in more detail, I was directed to this website.

I was told, “Look at the Periodic Timber Sale Accomplishment Report (PTSAR) reports. The 4th quarter of each year is the final report for that particular fiscal year. Line T and Line U give the planned and completed targets.”

So, that’s what I did to come up with the chart above. There’s lots of ways to look at those numbers I suppose. One way is to say that overall, during the past 15 years, the U.S. Service in the Northern Region has attained 89% of their timber sale volume targets, which again are based on funding from Congress. 89% seems like a B+, if we were grading papers in school, and far from a failing grade.

Another way to look at those numbers is that in 7 of the past 15 years the U.S. Forest Service has attained between 94% and 117% of their timber sale volume targets. When is the last time you heard a U.S. senator or representative from Montana or Idaho celebrate and share numbers like this with the general public?

Also at the link provide by the Forest Service, there’s a section about “Uncut Volume Under Contract” and “Timber Sale Program Statistics.” That information was also very interesting to me, but I noticed that no link was provided. I was told by the Forest Service public affairs officer “Those links are disabled right now as the reports contained errors so we removed them.” I have to wonder what errors those reports contained and how long the errors were in those reports. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the timber industry objected to not only the specifics of what was contained in that “Uncut Volume Under Contract” report, but also perhaps objected to its presence in the first place. Hopefully the errors are corrected soon and the links go back up on the Forest Service website.

In March of 2015, the Flathead National Forest’s Joe Krueger was interviewed on Montana Public Radio about their on-going forest plan revision process. One question was specifically about the Flathead National Forest’s projected timber sale volume in their new forest plan. Krueger had this to say:

A big factor that constrains how much wood products is coming off the [Flathead National Forest] is our existing budget. So that number of 28 million board feet of timber that we’re projecting as our timber sale quantity is constrained by budgets.”

Which brings us back to those western politicians, especially the ones who hold the U.S. taxpayer’s purse-strings and divvy up the federal budget. While practically every time any of these politicians talk about logging on National Forests they will blame lawsuits from “extremists” and “obstructionists” environmentalists for the (supposed) lack of logging, when is the last time you heard the Montana or Idaho congressional delegation call on the rest of Congress to greatly increase the U.S. Forest Service’s timber sale budget?

Seems to me that since the U.S. Forest Service in the Northern Region has managed to attain 89% of their targeted timber sale volume over the past 15 years that our political leaders should be much more honest and share this fact with the general public, and perhaps if they want to increase logging on National Forests the politicians should look in the mirror and put money where their mouth is.

NOTE: This post has been updated to include the total annual timber sale volume target in CCF, in addition to the percentage of that volume that was attained in any given year. As you can see, the timber volume targets themselves have changed over time.

In fact, the 2016 target is 72% higher than the 2002 target. And in general, the target has increased steadily over the past 15 years. This should put the 89% attainment in even greater focus, as the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region has attained 89% of their steadily increasing timber sale volume targets over the past 15 years.

Also, corrected was incorrect date for FY 2006. Originally, I listed 44%, but upon further review that 44% was only the attainment for one national forest in the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region, not the total attainment for the region, which in FY 2006 was actually 76%. I apologize for the error, which was in part caused by the fact that for some reason the Forest Service chart for FY 2006 lead with the individual national forests, not the region-wide totals, as all the charts from the other years did.

25 Comments

  1. It seems you have done what any ethical journalist would be obligated to, but precious few accomplish: professional due diligence. Unfortunately, very little fact checking occurs in much of what passes for news production in the past decades.

    There exists a widely recognized Code of Ethics posted by the Society of Professional Journalists summed up by its central premise, “Seek truth and report it.” But unless it is widely and assiduously practiced, we Citizens are reduced to the current state of affairs whereby “alternative facts” become the Newspeak upon which our worldview is based.

    In other words, just because a politician repetitively and vociferously claims (…a dubious proposition) and it gets repeated by industry and their proxies ad nauseam , is it “news”? Is it something upon which to defend as factual truth?

    Well that depends upon who says it. If an elected representative said “it” (a dubious claim), or industry spokesperson, more often than not these days, it gets stenographically repeated and dignified as unquestioned (and unquestionable) “fact.”

    For example:
    So when the news media get handed a news scoop with all the official sources to validate as actual “fact” — such as the recent PEER report documenting systemic professional agency misconduct of timber sales executions on two (of two) ranger districts on two (of two) recent large timber sales on the Tongass National Forest — through an official Washington Office investigation noting millions of dollars were lost in revenues to rural communities; and providing factual documentation noting there has been a long-documented history of largescale timber theft on the Tongass with extremely little agency oversight coinciding with massive scale back of Federal Law Enforcement assets…

    Some notable outcomes occurred in the news media.

    1) the national “press” (that is, newsprint and digital news) wouldn’t touch it.

    2) the statewide press didn’t touch it.

    3) the regional press didn’t touch it.

    4) the local press didn’t touch it.

    5) the regional public radio news (known as CoastAlaska) produced an incredibly brief, 1 minute and 45 second synopsis but attributed the Washington Office investigators’ conclusions of verified fact as mere allegations of an “environmental group,” (PEER: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility)

    6) that brief report, however, showed up under “statewide” news rather than under regional category, and the CoastAlaska consortium of public radio news didn’t even feature the story as local news.

    At all.

    Unfortunately, there’s much more evidence than this to demonstrate not only agency ethical and professional misconduct — but the ethical and professional misconduct of news media on coverage of regional timber issues with a notable story on the demonization of environmental advocates.

    This is precisely why discussion of professional ethics matters, and in all likelihood why Sharon regards discussion of professional ethics on NCFP as “unkind.”

    Some facts are indeed unkind, especially when they undermine ones’ worldviews and the very foundations of ones beliefs and loyalties.

  2. Matt – one interesting data layer to add to your table would be the market prices for those same years. “Timber volume sold” is the measure of FS prowess of “success”, but that is predicated on someone buying a timber sale to actually cut the trees and remove them for processing. I wonder if the “low” years for Region 1 is related to high timber prices, resulting in less volume being sold.

    As Larry points out, this topic is fraught with multiple variables, which makes a simple explanation difficult. Still, you have made an effective move to enhance our conversation…thanks!

    • Tony, Thanks for the feedback. For certain, that’s another data layer that would be interesting to add. The now removed, perhaps being reworked, section on the USFS website “Uncut Volume Under Contract” sort of gets to that issue too.

  3. Nice try Matt. Problem is that, as you pointed out, the timber sale volume targets are set by the U.S. Forest Service, which are based on the funding the agency receives from Congress. “Targets” are a far cry from the actual needs of the F.S. to properly manage the resources. The federal budgeting process is a convoluted process that takes the forests’ dollar requests (which are based on existing resources and capacity not on needs) and “adjusts” them to conform to political realities. The result is timber harvests that are far less than the ASQ and 8% of the annual growth, closed recreation areas, unmaintained roads, and distressed communities and families.

    IMO ,the Service is doing a fairly good job with the money they get. It It is doing itself a dis-service by congratulating itself for meeting targets that have no relationship to actual needs. Perhaps the public affairs officers should publicize management failures in the hope that the congress (and the public) will realize that all is not going well with the national forests.

  4. Matthew- thanks for doing this! With Derek off doing other things, there has been no one to look into the obscure FS reporting system.

    I wonder what the story is.. why there was 117% some years and 64% another year. I wonder how much the targets themselves changed over time.. was that in the report? If so, I wonder why they changed (giving more timber $ to other regions?).

    I don’t know that a reason for not providing info is that the timber industry doesn’t like it.. there is plenty of difficulty in accessing all kinds of information in the FS. Remember all the posts we had in the category “People’s Database?” (new readers can check it out in the widget to the right).

    Maybe we should ask the New Administration, when they get settled in, for “the People’s Annual Report” where we could access the data we would like to see easily.

    • For four years in a row, back in 1989 to 1992, our Ranger District met all its timber targets, and substantially more, with salvage volume. The green sale program was pushed back, having almost every available acre under some sort of contract that included salvage rights. We cut 300 million board feet of salvage in those four years. Their current ASQ is around 5 million in thinning.

      Currently, in Region 5, timber targets are driven by areas that are ‘capable and suitable’, under the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan and its Amendment(s). Cable and helicopter terrain is mostly ignored, in the green sale program, in the Sierra Nevada.

    • Hi Sharon,

      RE: “I wonder how much the targets themselves changed over time.. was that in the report?”

      Yes, that was in the reports and I went ahead and updated the chart up top to include the total annual timber sale volume target in CCF, in addition to the percentage of that volume that was attained in any given year.

      And, yes, the targets themselves have changed over time. In fact, the 2016 target is 72% higher than the 2002 target. And in general, the target has increased steadily over the past 15 years. This should put the 89% attainment in even greater focus, as the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region has attained 89% of their steadily increasing timber sale volume targets over the past 15 years.

      Again, when’s the last time you heard a politician or the timber industry use these facts when talking about the Forest Service’s timber sale program?

  5. Matt – thanks for sharing this information. One comment I would like to make is that while an average of 87% is good when discussing an overall program, the reality is having such large swings (64% one year, then 99% the next) is very difficult on the timber industry. If businesses don’t get enough wood in the low years, they may not still be around the next year when volume is high. Additionally, just looking at timber outputs is just one part of the equation. For most regions, there is more capacity for processing than what is being offered. This means that some businesses are not running as efficiently as they could, increasing overall costs.

    • Thanks for the comment Molly.

      I guess I’d point out that “such large swings” being difficult on the timber industry may, in fact, be the timber industry’s own doing.

      Too bad the link to the reports on “Uncut Volume Under Contract” had errors and had to be removed, because that might contain some additional slivers of light. For example, might a timber mill or logging contractor have national forest timber sale volume under contact but sit on the sale in hopes that lumber prices might increase the following year? Yes, you betcha.

      I’m also not sure it’s the federal government’s responsibility to provide a consistent and high volume of (FILL IN THE BLANK) to any private industry.

      Also, regarding “For most regions, there is more capacity for processing than what is being offered.” While this might be a true statement there are lots of factors at play here, including international lumber markets, the housing market, paper markets, etc.

      Also, is there any evidence what-so-ever that the timber mill capacity in any given region was based and established on ‘sustainability?” Or was, at least some of the capacity, established on making a quick buck over the short term?

  6. One thing that Matt failed to mention was that these volumes include firewood and Christmas tree permits as noted by the 7,499 sales in size class 3 (<$300). Tie up a couple big sale in litigation and remove the aforementioned volume and the outlook is drastically different.

    Nice try.

    • Nice try Smokley.

      But I clearly link to this official U.S. Forest Service site.

      And at that link went to the “Periodic Timber Sale Accomplishment Report (PTSAR),” which the Forest Service describes as “The regional summary displaying each National Forests current fiscal year timber sale program of volumes advertised, bid, and awarded.”

      The year-by-year charts clearly indicate “All Sales ,Convertible Products, All Sales” and “REGION TOTALS Convertible Products.” Honestly, not sure how much clearer I could’ve been.

      • Oh I realize and understand your method. What you may or may not realize is that those volumes the FS is reporting (and by proxy you are reporting) contain firewood and Christmas tree permit volumes.
        Remove the volume from Line “R” and see how your numbers shake out…4.0 mmbf in Xmas trees and firewood in FY16 or 15% of the annual cut. I would bet the industry and political figures would hardly agree this is actual volume.

        • Howdy Smokley. Again, anyone can look at the US Forest Service reports, which I linked to. The U.S. Forest Service identifies that reports as the “Periodic Timber Sale Accomplishment Report” and further explains that it is “The regional summary displaying each National Forests current fiscal year timber sale program of volumes advertised, bid, and awarded.”

          Also, if we did what you are suggesting, wouldn’t we then also need to re-adjust the U.S. Forest Service’s “Fiscal Year Target” as identified on Line ‘T?’

          • Nope…Line T is the “Fiscal Year Target” which is SAWLOG volume. It’s been a long-time bone of contention that the USFS includes the sale of Christmas tree and firewood permits in their annual sawlog volume. It’s just an easy way for them to cook the books and show they are meeting annual timber targets. I don’t even know how they calculate mbf per Christmas tree.

            Would you like me to re-run your numbers? If won’t be even close to meeting there annual targets.

            • Hi Smokley. Were do you see proof that “Line T is the ‘Fiscal Year Target’ which is SAWLOG volume?”

              I’d also like to know more specifics regarding your allegation that the U.S. Forest Service is “cooking the books.” If that’s true, it certainly seems like a national news story and/or something that should be part of a Congressional inquiry, with consequences for anyone involved in the alleged “cooking of books.”

              Thanks.

              • Matthew

                USFS has/had been converting pulpwood, which has 0 board feet of lumber, from poundage or tons or cords and reporting it as mbf since the 70’s at least. I can’t say if that is still the practice. In addition, the conversion factors for true sawlogs from cubic meters or cubic feet to mbf depends on log size and defect so as time has gone by the average used has changed as log size has dropped over a given locale. At one time I could have told you what the USFS pulpwood conversion factor was off of the top of my head. A quick google didn’t bring anything up.

                Consider the added cost to the buyer of physically scaling logs. Because of that a great deal of private industry in the south has gone to measuring tonnage at the weight scales instead of stick scaling. Consider that cruised estimates of standing timber volume to be sold can not be obtained by physically scaling the sampled trees. Scaling can’t happen (whether the contract is for stumpage or pay as cut) until the timber is harvested and is measured one log at a time. So for any timber sale you have multiple sources of sampling error for the volume offered for sale. It’s not like counting inventory on a shelf. The buyers understand this and have the opportunity to cruise the timber themselves, if it is a stumpage sale, so there is no deception on anyone’s part from that point of view.

                As a result, the conversion factor used is an average of prior history. Here is a case in Alaska where actual exported scaled volume was about a two thirds of what was estimated from a cruise using estimated cubic meters converted to mbf. See Slide #20

                Since cubic volume is the most consistent metric common to all sizes of trees (timber, pulwood, Christmas trees, firewood and other products) throughout all seasons (sap up versus sap down) and species (specific gravity), the Feds seem to have made or are making a switch to cubic feet. I’m sure that Larry and others can provide more detail. This switch will eliminate the problem of converting pulpwood and etc. to mbf

  7. Here are your real numbers. Average of 46%. Not even an F.

    FY Percent of Target
    FY2016 58%
    FY2015 84%
    FY2014 79%
    FY2013 44%
    FY2012 55%
    FY2011 59%
    FY2010 71%
    FY2009 77%
    FY2008 68%
    FY2007 56%
    FY2006 1% *
    FY2005 10% *
    FY2004 9% *
    FY2003 7% *
    FY2002 10% *
    Average 46%

    [* MODERATOR NOTE from MK: The numbers posted here for FY 2002 to FY 2006 are not correct and Smokley has been asked to correct them, but so far has not. The numbers posted for all other years are also not correct because apparently Smokley believes the U.S. Forest Service has “cooked the books” so Smokley apparently is devising his own method of figuring the percentages.]

    • Smokley, so where is your proof that these are the “real numbers” when the U.S. Forest Service reports clearly show those aren’t the ‘real numbers?” Also, where’s your proof that the U.S. Forest Service is “cooking the books?” Finally, I’m pretty sure you, regardless of what you are attempting to calculate here, that you miscalculated the stuff from FY 2002 to FY 2006. Maybe look those over again more closely. Thanks.

    • Smokley.. this is confusing.. are the targets assigned to Regions and then they can produce the volumes with some choice of sawlogs, Christmas trees and firewood?

      So they are “timber” targets but not specifically for sawlogs? So the Region is not actually assigned “sawlog” targets???

      Thanks!

  8. I used the targets you reported in the figure above, which for 2006 (and i believe 2002-2006) are different then that reported on the website you cite.

    All I’m saying is that Christmas trees and firewood DO NOT represent volume nor are they a metric of forest management. Nor should that volume be included in the timber target that was funded from congress.

    • Smokley, once again I’d just like to ask you to verify some of these allegations you are making.

      Please note that those 2002-2005 reports were in mcf, and the next years were in ccf. If you don’t make the conversion, which I suspect you didn’t, your numbers would be way off.

      I also believe your FY 2006 calculation is way off, or perhaps you looked at the wrong part of the chart. It’s impossible that the U.S. Forest Service only met 1% of their timber target that year.

      Please, if you’re going to post those numbers here as some sort of an accurate fact you will need to re-calculate them. Thanks.

  9. Matt
    Your critics will nitpick the numbers and totally ignore the true issue of Congressional funding as the key issue on most UsFs program “failures”, whether firefighting or thinning or timber sales. Good job Matt.

  10. This information is readily available for all regions as well as what has or hasn’t been harvested by who.
    The timber industry has consistently requested more funding for the forest service.
    To suggest that the timber industry has control over what is published is giving it much more influence then exists in reality.
    What these figure represent is really much more complex than just meetings quotas. I have seen the total sale quota for a year for some forests sold in one sale. You either bought it or forget buying logs from that district that year.
    Of course almost all the sales are large volume thinning sales and you better have deep pockets and a modern small log mill to match or you are out of the picture.
    I have also seen where the timber sale was poorly planned and didn’t sell thus reducing the volume toward the quota.
    Even if the forest service sold 100% of their current quota wouldn’t mean there isn’t much more that could be done.
    And yes, some planned sales are delayed due to lawsuits.

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