Secretary Vilsack Letter

photo by Nick Gevock, Montana Standard

Not exactly breaking news, but this is mid-semester, misery-index at 8.5,  so I get a pass:

Excerpts from a letter recently sent to Senator Tester from the Secretary of Agriculture. 


As with any new program or pilot, providing sufficient funding will be critical to allowing the Forest Service to prepare and implement mechanical treatments using stewardship contracts, timber sales contracts, and other means, Since there are many high-priority programs throughout the National Forest System, we cannot shift funding from other regions to fund these treatments. Thus, I support the inclusion of language in this proposed legislation that states it will not impact funds from other regions.

I’m curious as to what such legislative language would/could look like?  Any relevant examples?  Did these provisions matter?

No matter which approach is taken, I understand the legislation would establish performance standards for 70,000 acres of mechanical treatment on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and 30,000 acres on the Kootenai National Forest over the next 15 years. I believe these goals are ambitious, but sustainable and achievable.

Contrast this to the Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman’s testimony last December 2009:

 S. 1470 in particular includes levels of mechanical treatment that are likely unachievable and perhaps unsustainable. The levels of mechanical treatment called for in the bill far exceed historic treatment levels on these forests, and would require an enormous shift in resources from other forests in Montana and other states to accomplish the treatment levels specified in the bill.

Of national significance, perhaps the most important question related to Tester’s bill is the precedent that would be established in legislating timber treatment mandates on national forests.  So even if the Secretary finds such timber treatment mandates in Tester’s bill “sustainable and achievable,” what might those treatment mandates look like in other proposals if such legislation is now politically acceptable. 

I also remain convinced that if such mandates become law, timber interests engaged in various collaboratives will use them as leverage in their bargaining positions.  Why wouldn’t timber interests strike the same posture? And ask for the same things as provided for in Tester’s bill?

Back to the Secretary’s letter: 

 However, the holistic package of mechanical treatments, wilderness designations, and job creation, along with the collaborative approach and hard work of the stakeholders in Montana, and your work directly with the Forest Service, ensure that this legislation can serve as a model for similar efforts elsewhere.

A model to be replicated?  So does this mean that the USFS will now support place-based forest legislation in principle?

If the agency supports the Senator’s place-based legislative approach to National Forest management, what does this mean for other place-based proposals in the pipeline, like Senator Wyden’s Oregon forest Bill (S. 2595)?

24 thoughts on “Secretary Vilsack Letter”

  1. Martin- I bet inquiring minds will want to know the total acreage of the Kootenai compared to the B-D. I found this site. At first glance, 2,000 acres per year, or 4700 acres per year do not sound like very much for a total number of acres treated for each forest, if that’s what that figure is supposed to represent.

  2. Martin’s post begs asking the question: Does the Obama Administration have competent forest policymakers? Setting aside whether the Tester bill is a good idea, what explains the completely opposite statements of Undersecretary Sherman and Secretary Vilsack regarding “sustainable and achievable” vs. “unsustainable and unachievable” treatment acreages. Is there any analytical basis to either statement? If so, what changed in that analysis? If not, are these policymakers just making it up as they go along?

    Mark Rey and Jim Lyons were smart and competent. The current crew, not so much.

  3. The 70,000 acres in 15 years on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge represents 2.5% of the “forested acreage”(not total) Sharon. Yea, I guess that sounds pretty sustainable. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, for the last five years the BDNF has averaged 500 acres harvested/year. At that rate it’ll take them 50 years to log 1% (that’s one!). Thats not even multiple use. One could almost say it violates the multiple use Act. Your national forests are being managed as national parks.

    As far as how it affects budget? Would it be a subsidy? If the state of Montana owned those lands, they’d be making a $1.50 in revenue for every $1.00 in cost. How can the state make money but not the USFS? How can they do it cheaper? Does anyone accuse the state of “environmentally degrading” their land? Nobody ever wants to talk about this.

    Most of this would be “salvage”. I’m no policy wonk, so maybe someone can tell me if it’s true that some money from the “salvage program” can really stay on the forest to fund further work? I don’t mean KV funds. The worse thing ever was for the USFS “revenues” to get sent to disappear into the rat hole of the treasury. They built out most of the forest development roads by paying for it with “purchaser road credits”-letting the stumpage pay for improvements. Why not something similar to keep the money on the forest.

    Are not “place based legislation” attempts just a symptom of the frustration and seemingly growing disconnect that “locals” feel with their local Forest Service? The recent BDNF revised forest plan was “dead on arrival”. It landed with a thud. Certainly Pinchot sold the “reserves” to the locals by selling them on the idea that the reserves would benefit them. The reserves would be good neighbors. And that’s the way it was until the 80’s. It’s certainly not surprising that these place based efforts are popping up. It’s certainly not surprising moral is low at the USFS.

    Finally, the Helena Independent Record had a good story yeaterday. It seems the Helena Nat. Forest “sold” several timber sales that would salvage MPB killed trees along roads. I think they said they “sold” the stumpage for an average of $7.00/ton. The back of my bar napkin says thats around $150/acre that the loggers “paid” the USFS. The Vail Daily had a recent story announcing the USFS had just signed a stewardship contract that would “pay” the logger $1200/acre to remove the trees. Same MPB killed lodgepole. Granted the Colorado sale treats WUI acres alongside residences, which I’m sure is much more expensive. Maybe Sharon can get us some figures on recent White River Nat. Forests “road clearing” contracts. The difference is Helena has a sawmill 30 miles one way and Colorado’s nearest mill which just closed is 200 miles one way.

  4. I can find some figure for roadside hazard tree removal.. but can’t convert acres to stumpage.

    Also see Montrose mill press in new post above.

    • Nope, not in all cases. I’d say in some cases that “place-based legislation” is a fear-based attempt by the timber industry, politicians and some well-heeled conservation groups to use their political power to do what they want…to damn with the public process, current economic realities, the latest science and research and our federal public lands legacy.

      • Matthew- I think one could argue the same about any natural resource related legislation- say wilderness- for example, if you leave out the timber industry from your statement.

      • Yes, Brian, Tester’s bill came to mind. Sharon, perhaps so, although I’m not sure that Wilderness legislation is “fear-based.” Also not sure there are many Wilderness-only proposals floating around out there anymore. Seems like most bill involving Wilderness these days are Quid Pro Quo bills that attempt to dance around NEPA or make it more difficult for normal American’s (who equally own these public lands) to have a voice in there management. Of course, a lot of that is done under the term “collaboration.”

      • Here is an ordinary everyday Wilderness bill with no quids pro quo or are they “quid pro quos”?

        Fear of oil and gas extraction or OHV’s must be in there somewhere- elsewise, why would you think it important to become wilderness?

      • Apologies for the delay in responding.

        Matt, I kind of thought you might be referring to Tester’s bill. Good eye.

        If you replaced the term “the timber industry” with “a few timber companies” I would agree with your statement, though probably from an opposing point of view.

        Limited to my own experience, I can only compare Tester’s bill to the first two Harry Reid Nevada bills, Utah’s Washington County bill, and Dianne Feinstien’s Desert Protection Act of 2010.

        At least in the NV, UT and CA bills, all of the stakeholders were involved from the beginning, and they had the support of the local counties.

        Compared to those, Tester’s bill was a sham collaboration and thus a sham compromise.

      • Brian, You’re correct. I should have said “a few timber companies.” Four timber mills to be exact.

        Fact is, I know people in the timber industry who are disgusted with not only Tester’s FJRA, but the exclusive process used to develop the Beaverhead-Deerlodge part of the proposal.

  5. What follows is some information compiled from US Forest Service records regarding historical logging on the Beaverhead and Deerlodge National Forests. People can verify this info here:

    The info will clearly demonstrate how Sen. Tester’s S.1470, which would Congressionally mandate a MINIMUM of 7,000 acres of logging per year for ten years on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, would compare with historical logging on these same forests.

    (Note to Sharon and others: Please, when referring to Tester’s FJRA, don’t just use the 7,000 acre figure per year on the BHDL and the 3,000 acre figure per year on the Kootenai. The actual language of the bill clearly states that the 7,000 and 3,000 acre figures are MINIMUMS. The bill language actually says nothing at all about maximums. Therefore, in order to be fair and accurate anytime we talk about the logging mandates within Tester’s bill we should say “a minimum of 7,000 acres on the BHDL and a minimum of 3,000 acres on the Kootenai.”

    From 1959-1996 the Beaverhead NF averaged 1621 acres of logging per year. The greatest acreage logged on the Beaverhead NF in that time period was 4168 acres in 1987. The Reagan years average on the Beaverhead NF was 2697 acres of logging per year.

    From 1954-1996 the Deerlodge NF averaged 1592 acres of logging per year. The greatest acreage logged on the Deerlodge NF in that time period was 4332 acres in 1971. The Reagan years average on the Deerlodge NF was 1916 acres of logging per year.

    The average acres logged per year for the Beaverhead and Deerlodge forests combined from 1954-1996 was 3213 acres/year. The average acres logged per year on these same forests during the Reagan years was 4,613 acres/year.

    The most acreage ever logged in a single year since 1954 on both forests combined was in 1971, when 7013 acres were logged. The next highest total was in 1966 at 5813 acres. These years were also prior to our nation having environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act.

    Remember, Sen Tester’s bill would Congressionally mandate a MINIMUM of 7,000 acres of logging per year for ten years on the BHDL NF. That amount of logging per year is not only more than double the historical average on these forests, but it’s the most amount of logging ever, except for one single year.

    There is near universal agreement between the timber industry, Forest Service, conservationists, economists, scientists and the general public that the logging levels on National Forests during the logging hayday of the 1960s, 70 and 80s were completely unsustainable and misguided.

    However, despite the current and on-going economic crises and resulting “Lumber Depression” (lumber demand down 55% and new home construction down 70%) Sen. Tester’s bill would have Congress step in and mandate a MINIMUM level of logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge NF that FAR EXCEEDS anything this forest has ever seen…at an estimated taxpayer cost of $100 million.

    Furthermore, it’s quite clear that because Tester’s bill contains a number of “unfunded mandates” money would be taken from other national forests in Montana and the region and given to the BHDL NF to conduct this mandated logging and complete NEPA requirements for these large logging projects within the arbitrary 12 month NEPA timeline, which Tester’s bill imposes. Keep in mind, that with the USFWS’s new critical habitat designation for threatened bull trout (both present on portions of the BHDL NF and the Kootenai NF) consultation with the USFWS regarding bull trout would also have to take place within that arbitrary 12-month NEPA timeline.

    This is just yet another concrete example of a serious concern many of us have that’s based on the actual language contained within the bill.

  6. Regarding the Vilsack Letter.

    I heard about it on Monday when a DC-based reporter called and told me about it. The letter seems more politics than substance, which given the current state of our country and our political system would, of course, be no surprise.

    Martin and Andy both bring up excellent points. To me, the “money phrase” in the Vilsack letter is the actual phrase about money, which Martin also highlighted:

    “As with any new program or pilot, providing sufficient funding will be critical to allowing the Forest Service to prepare and implement mechanical treatments using stewardship contracts, timber sales contracts, and other means, Since there are many high-priority programs throughout the National Forest System, we cannot shift funding from other regions to fund these treatments. Thus, I support the inclusion of language in this proposed legislation that states it will not impact funds from other regions.”

    Seems to me as if everything else in the letter is just politics and fluff. The statement above clearly says, “no dough, no go.” Perhaps, instead of focusing on some of the other concerning aspects of Tester’s bill, the Obama Administration is now just trying to focus on the money aspect and the fact that Tester’s FJRA will require the Forest Service to spend much more money on BHDL and Kootenai timber sales (at a time of historically-weak lumber demand) than the agency actual has. After all, it would be easier for the Obama Administration to say we can’t do Tester’s bill because of a lack of funding for it, rather than say we can’t do it because it has too much logging, or we don’t like your NEPA timelines or other troubling aspects in Tester’s bill.

    Regardless of what’s actually going on, this whole process should raise serious red flags for anyone who cares about America’s public lands. What we have here is a poorly drafted piece of legislation, which has gotten criticized from nearly every quarter that isn’t a part of Tester’s staff or one of the “collaborators.” Yet Tester is still trying underhanded methods to get his bill passed, the same methods that Candidate Tester blasted Senator Burns for using. We continue to hear rumors of Tester’s staff trying to pressure Reid to just include the FJRA in any must pass piece of legislation following the elections during the lame duck session.

    Is this anyway to manage America’s public lands? Do we really want to let some junior senator from Montana use these questionable political methods to forever change our federal public lands legacy?

  7. Also, just noticed that it was kinda funny that Derek mentioned the recent Helena IR article, but he failed to point out the main point of the article…that bark beetle activity on the Helena and BHDL NF’s is waning.

    Bark beetles threat waning?
    By EVE BYRON Independent Record
    Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    As the effort to remove beetle-killed trees along forest roads gets under way this week, it appears that the number of mountain pine beetles in trees on the Helena and Beaverhead/Deerlodge national forests is declining, which could signal that the epidemic has peaked here.

    Greg DeNitto, the group leader for forest health protection at the regional national forest office in Missoula, said a survey of trees on the two forests during the summer showed fairly high beetle mortality. Forest Service experts theorize that three circumstances may have impacted the rice-size bugs, which kill pines by drilling under the bark in the summer and eating their way around the tree during the winter, interrupting the flow of nutrients.

    “Especially around Helena and Butte, that outbreak has been going on for a number of years, and essentially they’re running out of food, so the population is declining,” DeNitto said on Monday. “We don’t have a lot of information or data, but we also suspect that an early cold snap last October, and then the cool, wet summer, also contributed to the decline, or at least had some effect on the population by disrupting the beetle’s normal progress.”

    • I saw this in the Natural Resource

      Region’s Forests Face Beetle Damage: Trees in aging federal forests across OR & WA are at greater risk for spruce and mountain pine beetle infestations, according to a new study by the US Forest Service. Due to warming temperatures in the West, and aging overcrowded conditions that reduce health of federal and state forests, increased bark beetle-caused tree mortality is projected in the coming decades. Particularly threatened are Oregon’s coastal fog belt where spruce occurs, and interior mixed conifer public forests, where lodgepole and ponderosa pines occur.

  8. The “minimum acres” argument is overblown. It’s VERY easy to manipulate the project boundaries to get the acreages you want. For example, you can bundle a plantation TSI project along with the thinning units to reach the desired acreage. The Forest Service would very much like to have “shelf volume”, to guarantee a steady flow of projects over several years. It does them little good to greatly exceed those targets.

    Again, I am not a fan of the Tester Bill, as it trades wilderness for…..ummm….nothing…..nothing at all. Those Forests already have the legal authority to plan projects without making a deal with eco-groups (then fighting it in court!).

  9. Thinking about S. 1470’s “mechanically treat” acreage minimums reminds me of my first post-forestry school job, circa 1979. The White River N.F. hired me as a seasonal, GS-5, mountain pine beetle-chasing sawyer. Our crew’s task – “beetle-proof” lodgepole pine stands with mechanical treatment (note to current Colorado residents — “how’d we do?”).

    Half-way through the season, our 4-person crew was falling well short of the district’s acreage treatment target. Turns out that dense lodgepole is a bitch to thin, cutting 5,000 or more stems per acre.

    A solution was found by district brass. We were re-directed from the lodgepole stands to the district’s many campgrounds. There we were told to find one dead ponderosa pine for each acre. Cut the single pine = acre treated = target met = budget assured for next year.

  10. Implying that the minimum acreage will be far exceeded to maximize timber volume is a bit much. If acreage is the benchmark, the Forest Service will find a way to meet that figure, and not much more, preferring to have projects lined up. It does no good for the Forest to far exceed the minimum acres in a given year.

    Sure, put a reasonable maximum on acres! That won’t impact those Forests whatsover, IMHO. It’s a non-issue that is being used to spread fear and distrust. Of course, if Tester’s Bill isn’t passed, there will be no minimum OR maximum limits.

    The reality of the situation is that if Tester’s Bill DOES get passed, it WILL be litigated against. I’d rather avoid that nasty, wasteful scenario and stick with defending site-specific science on individual projects, leaving the wilderness issue to fend for itself.

  11. Andy-I’m imagining an online course-discussion. A History of FS Reform Efforts :Ideas, implementation, Lessons Learned for the Future.

  12. Here’s a little quote from a story in timber Buysell about the last sawmill in Montrose Colorado.This is your tax dollars at work where the timber industry was shut down. Compare this to the above prices on the Helena. This is how 30 million dollars are spent.

    “At present, the mill is getting its timber from loggers who contract out with the Forest Service to remove the dead trees, but the way the Forest Service is going about it is unfair to the mill, he said.

    “They’re paying loggers about $1,200 to $1,400 an acre to remove trees, and if you convert it to dollars per thousand board feet, they are paying loggers $200 to $250 per thousand board feet to remove timber,” he said”.

    …Now thats what I really call “below cost timber” sale. On the Helena the loggers are “paying” the USFS $6.00/ton which equates to around $36/ thousand board foot.

    I love this one: “Loggers aren’t paid for taking the timber until they have removed it from the forest, he said, and if they can’t sell it, many simply store it on vacant land”.

    here’s a link to the whole story:


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