Place-based National Forest Legislation & Agreements: Report to USFS

photo by K.D. Swan

As our readers know, there has been a considerable amount of debate on this blog regarding place-based national forest legislation (e.g., the Tester and Wyden bills). 

A while back I put together some tables comparing various bills and formalized agreements, to see how they approach things such as NEPA, restoration, and other matters.  [Here it is, Appendix (comparison tables)]. 

Along with the National Forest Foundation, I also co-organized and hosted a symposium focused on the subject last June, with 80 people attending the event from across the country.  (here is a link with background reading).

I’ve done some further analysis since then.  The purpose of the Report is to (1) describe and analyze the recent emergence of place-based forest bills and the use of formalized agreements in the management of national forests; and (2) present alternatives to the USFS in how it can improve place-based legislation or provide alternatives to such legislation. 

 Here is my draft report in its entirety (USFS Cost Share Report).  Below are my key findings and recommendations:

 Key Findings

  • Place-based bills and agreements are a significant trend in national forest management.
  • Several place-based initiatives share a number of common characteristics and related provisions, including: (a) a frustration with the status quo, (b) the search for more certainty in forest management, (c) a focus on landscape-scale restoration and its relationship to rural communities, and (d) an emphasis on conflict resolution and the desire for more public participation in national forest management. 
  • Several place-based initiatives share similar frustrations with national forest management.  Forest planning processes, funding and budgets, organizational culture, personnel turnover, and a small-scale approach to forest restoration are commonly identified sources of dismay.
  • A defining characteristic of every place-based initiative is the search for more certainty in forest management.  The goal is pursued in numerous ways, including recommended land designations, the resolution of intractable conflicts, the use of stewardship contracting, and legislated timber supply/treatment mandates. 
  • The need for landscape-scale restoration is a commonly identified area of agreement by these initiatives.  This is most pronounced in places where historically low-severity fire regimes have turned into high-severity or mixed-severity regimes (e.g., dry-site forests of ponderosa pine).  Areas in need of restoration work are often identified and prioritized, with associated sideboards such as large-tree retention and road building prohibitions included. 
  • Several initiatives emphasize that a viable wood products industry is necessary for the attainment and financing of various restoration goals, and that industry needs a more certain supply of timber to be competitive and/or to make long-term investments. 
  • Several place-based initiatives are seeking more secure and structured forms of public participation in USFS decision making, such as through the use of memorandums-of-understanding (MOUs) and additional advisory committees. 
  • There are politically viable alternatives to place-based forest legislation, including formalized agreements (MOUs) and long-term stewardship contracts that provide interested parties greater certainty about forest management. 


  • Congress and the USFS should oppose forest-specific (non-wilderness) legislation until a number of fundamental and systemic concerns are addressed, including how such laws would fit into the preexisting statutory/planning framework and how they would be financed. 
  • Most of the challenges faced by the selected cases are systemic, not place-based.  Questions presented by such things as landscape-level restoration and NEPA, stewardship contracting, and funding, among others, deserve a national-level response—not a series of ad hoc remedies and site-specific exemptions. 
  • Long-term stewardship contracts can provide as much or more certainty to the timber industry than a legislated timber supply mandate.  Though imperfect, stewardship contracts are preferable to the dangerous precedent of legislating timber supply on particular national forests.  Congress and the USFS should consider a number of issues related to certainty upon the reauthorization of stewardship contracting authority. 
  • The selected place-based agreements, such as that operating on the Colville National Forest, demonstrate viable alternatives to securing greater certainty than through a legislated timber supply mandate.  The Colville framework is exemplary and deserves study for possible replication or adaptation elsewhere. 
  • Several place-based initiatives are frustrated by forest planning processes that provide little certainty and commitments by the agency.  As the USFS moves forward with its new planning regulations (to be finalized in 2011), it should consider how relevant these place-based initiatives find the zoning of national forests into basic management areas, including those areas prioritized for restoration. 
  • The best way for the agency to proceed with these place-based initiatives and their focus on restoration is to embrace a collaborative, competitive, and experimental approach.  There are at least two exemplary processes and frameworks that should be fully supported, and possibly enlarged and replicated in the future: the Montana Forests Restoration Committee and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act.  These preexisting frameworks offer a possible substitute for place-based legislation. 

4 thoughts on “Place-based National Forest Legislation & Agreements: Report to USFS”

  1. Martin, Thanks for yet another very important contribution to these topics. I sincerely hope that the small handful of people in Montana who are pushing Tester’s mandated logging bill (and the Pew “Campaign for America’s Wilderness” people, who have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Montana for focus groups, polling and slick paid advertisements) give your report a read and very careful consideration.

    But, I’m not holding my breath, as it seems that the Tester bill “collaborators” are just dismissing it, as they have done with any criticisms or concerns tossed their way. Apparently the self-selective Tester bill collaborators know best and they will just continue to exclude those who don’t buy into their framework and will continue to work behind the scenes with Senator Tester looking for more underhanded ways to get their flawed legislation through Congress. Funny and ironic how some of these folks can actually claim to want more “public participation” in national forest management, isn’t it?

    Speaking of which, I heard last week from sources in DC that Senator Tester’s office is attempting an end run of the Senate’s ENR Committee (which opposes key aspects of Senator Tester’s bill, including the mandated logging provisions) by putting pressure directly on Senator Harry Reid to just include the FJRA (as is) in any possible omnibus bill. Since Montana’s Junior Senator can’t have much pull with Sen Reid, I bet that Senator Baucus is also trying to pull strings.

    I’m on a listserve for the Kootenai Forest Stakeholder Coalition. Your report was shared with that list. The head of the Yaak Valley Forest Council just dismissed the findings of your report and actually just referred to you as some random “blogger” (again, clearly demonstrating their well-used tactic of just dismissing any criticisms or concerns expressed about their bill and approach). I guess it’s easier to just dismiss a “blogger” than to actually acknowledge that your report comes from a natural resource policy expert and that the report was commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service.

    I also asked Sen Tester’s staffers (who are also on that Kootenai list) if they could provide an update or confirm or deny this new development about the Harry Reid end-around, but my request for information has been ignored (which has been par for the course over the past two years). “You’re either with us or against us” is alive and well I guess.

    Finally, I would like to point out a few clarifications with the report.

    At one point in the report you state, “The [Tester] bill requires the USFS to mechanically treat timber on 70,000 acres on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and 30,000 on the Kootenai over the next ten years.”

    That’s not really accurate. The 7,000 acre per year figure for the BHDL and the 3,000 acre per year figure on the Kootenai represent the “minimum” mandated amount of logging, er I mean “mechanically treatment.” The bill clearly spells this out in on page 23 and 24. The bill either says “mechanically treat timber on a minimum of 70,000 acres” or uses “mechanically treat timber on not less than 30,000 acres”, etc.

    This is an important difference, as the Tester bill only sets a mandated minimum, but provides no cap to the maximum. In other words, the language of the Tester bill could be used to log far more than just 10,000 acres a year on these forests.

    Of course, it’s ironic that we want to have Congress step in and mandate more public lands logging when just last week the the Western Wood Products Association reported that the Western lumber industry in 2009 posted its worst year for production in modern history, and that the outlook for this year (and the near future) is even more dismal.

    Key findings from their report include:

    * Overall, U.S. demand for lumber in 2009 was less than half of what was consumed in 2005.

    * The amount of lumber used for residential construction is down 76% compared to 2005.

    * The lack of home building in the U.S. contributed to the historic decline. Just 554,000 houses were built in 2009, a 39 percent decline from the previous year and a staggering 75% decline from 2005.

    * Low demand translated into even lower prices for Western lumber products. The estimated wholesale value of the 2009 production was $2.69 billion, down 26 percent from 2008. Five years ago, Western mills produced 19.3 billion board feet of lumber valued at $7.7 billion.

    * Since 2005, output from Western lumber mills has fallen by some 46 percent.

    Seriously, let these numbers sink in for a second.

    Given the fact that overall lumber demand in the U.S. is down 50% since 2005 and housing starts are down 75% since 2005 one really has to question the motivation and economic rationale of those who are calling for Congress to step in and mandate more public lands logging. Unfortunately, just as with some of the recommendations and findings in your Place-Based report, this economic reality will just be ignored by Senator Tester and the “collaborators.” After all, they’ve dug themselves a pretty good hole with their self-selective collaboration and amateurish legislation, but they seem pretty resigned to just ride it out to its fiery end, rather than eat a little crow, admit they were wrong, misguided and uninformed and compromise a little bit with the Senate’s ENR Committee.

    Also, a clarification is needed to this statement in your report, “…WildWest Institute, one of the groups in Montana that will legally challenge S. 1470 if enacted.” That’s not a true statement. Nobody at the WildWest Institute has ever said we will legally challenge S. 1470 if enacted. I would appreciate a correction in the report, if possible.

    Thanks again for yet another important contribute to the debate surrounding public lands management, Martin. Unfortunately, so far, it looks to be falling on deaf ears with the Tester bill “collaborators” and the Montana media, who are predictably ignoring your report. After all, the Montana media (with only a few notable exceptions) all jumped on the Tester bill bandwagon too and those media types never like to eat crow or acknowledge they were wrong either.

    • Matthew,

      Thank you for your comments. They are very much appreciated. Let me respond to two things:

      First, you are correct about the timber treatment language. These numbers are minimums and should be noted as such. What I have stated is still correct, but is incomplete. I’ll change it. (Note, however, that the June 2010 “discussion draft” bill uses different language in this section).

      Second, I’m very sorry for stating that WildWest Institute “will legally challenge S. 1470 if enacted.” That is my mistake and thanks for pointing it out. I also say later in the report that WildWest is “vehemently opposed to S. 1470 and will surely appeal and/or litigate projects that my stem from the legislation.” I will assume that the latter statement is still correct. If so, I’ll change the former statement to read: “WildWest Institute…will legally challenge projects related to S. 1470 if enacted.” Would that be a fair statement? I actually don’t have a citation for that comment, so confirmation would be helpful actually. I made the mistake of presuming as much, since the threat of litigation by your group and the Alliance has shaped much of the political debate surrounding Senator Tester’s bill.

      Thanks again Matthew.


  2. If Tester’s Bill ever goes to court, I predict it will be slapped down, with much fanfare. That is the main reason why I oppose such place-based bills which come from politicians. If they aren’t going to do their homework regarding existing rules, laws and policies, why bother with anything they bring to the table?

    There’s also the possibility that Tester knows the bill won’t pass but will get kudos for “trying to do something”. The Omnibus avenue used to work for both parties but, there is more scrutiny over the preposterous pork that flows that way.

  3. Hello Martin, Thanks for responding.

    Thanks also for making the change to the timber treatment language so the numbers accurately reflect the fact that the mandated logging numbers in S. 1470 are just minimums, and that no maximums exist.

    The June 2010 “discussion draft” that Tester quickly put together to stop the bleeding associated with the release of the ENR Committee’s draft, which Tester flat out refused to release to the media or public like because it removed all of Tester’s mandated logging levels and his 12-month NEPA timelines, is irrelevant.

    Thank you also for changing the statement in your report that “WildWest Institute ‘will legally challenge S. 1470 if enacted.” We have never made any statement along those lines, so I appreciate a correction.

    As for the statement you make later in your report and comment above, “[WildWest is] ‘vehemently opposed to S. 1470 and will surely appeal and/or litigate projects that my stem from the legislation.’”

    The first part of that statement is correct. WildWest is vehemently opposed to S.1470, as written.

    The second part of your statement “and will surely appeal and/or litigate projects that my stem from the legislation” is not true. Again, nobody at WildWest has ever made any statement to this effect. So again, I’d appreciate a correction.

    The fact of that matter is that WildWest has been involved in open, transparent and inclusive collaborative processes in Montana and Idaho for the past five years. The truth is that WildWest hasn’t filed a new lawsuit on a timber sale on a Montana National Forest in over 2 years. The same for appeals. The fact is that appeals and litigation are on a strong downward trend, both nationally and in the region.

    What the WildWest Institute will do is continue to take a close look at land management proposals made by the US Forest Service. We will ensure that the best available science and research is incorporated into those projects and that the U.S. Forest Service follows all laws and regulations when managing America’s public lands. I guess what I’m getting at is there needs to be an actual, real- life land management project to respond to. We take these things on a case-by-case basis. Look at the facts, look at the Forest Service’s analysis. Look at the latest science and research and then come up with the best course of action to ensure that our public forests are protected and restored. Thanks.

    P.S. If anyone gets a chance, they should check out Dr. Power’s latest commentary “The Ongoing Troubles in the Forest Products Industry” available here:


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