Beware of the Ghost (Timber) Industry!

As I’ve said, in some places (perhaps most?) the timber wars are so over. As much as some people think “the timber industry” is big and scary.. in many places you would look hard to find it. And where you find it, it is only a dim reflection of its former self. Perhaps, like a ghost, the industry exists, but just like we don’t run our lives with a strategy of ghost-avoidance, we shouldn’t be developing policies to avoid having a functioning timber or biomass industry. In my view, we should do what we jointly decide needs to be done on forested lands, public and private, for a variety of mutually chosen reasons, and help facilitate that financially by selling the products where feasible- oh , and by the way, providing jobs in Elk Country and other parts of rural America where jobs are scarce.

At least where I live, “commercial” is not a scary word; quite the opposite. It’s even “green.” See the link here.

Here’s a recent and well-researched story about the bark beetle problem in Colorado from the New York Times.

Loggers bidding for Forest Service contracts to clear out beetle kill typically anticipate that a second payday will come from selling the wood, defraying some of their costs. But when the housing bubble popped, lumber demand dropped off and production numbers at Western sawmills tumbled.

Considering there is only one large sawmill in Wettstein’s zone, it normally processes much of the beetle-kill wood. But Colorado-based Intermountain Resources LLC defaulted on some of its loans and was forced to shut its doors in May.

The mill, which is currently in receivership, is accepting wood again, but it is only working through about 75 percent of the timber it once did, said Pat Donovan, the court-appointed receiver for the mill.

The wood pellet industry has also taken a dive. Just several years ago, converting beetle-kill wood into pellets that could be used to heat homes or co-fire coal plants was eyed as an ideal way to dispose of some beetle-killed timber.

The recession and cheaper natural gas play a role

But pellet plants in Wettstein’s area suffered a blow last year when natural gas prices dropped. Market conditions forced both the Confluence Energy facility and the Rocky Mountain Pellet Company Inc. plant — then the only pellet mills in Colorado — to close up shop from December to May. While both plants are open again — though Confluence Energy is only up at half-mast — future operations hinge on demand and natural gas prices.

The outlook may not be bright. A fireplace products trade group that tracks how many pellet stoves are sold to retailers (though that may not translate into homeowners buying them) indicates that in 2009 sales were down 67 percent from where they had been in 2008. Making matters worse, the federal tax credit for purchasing pellet stoves — allocated from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars — expires at the end of the year.

With less revenue available to offset logging costs, contractors’ asking price to clear an acre of beetle kill is on the rise. Where the Forest Service used to be able to find loggers willing to clear an acre of beetle kill for $1,500, now it can cost as much as $3,500 — meaning the Forest Service can do less with its existing pool of funds.

19 thoughts on “Beware of the Ghost (Timber) Industry!”

  1. The conversation may be more productive if we focus less on the word “commercial” than on the real ecological consequences that flow from extractive activities.

    “Commercial logging” is shorthand for a host of mostly negative effects on ecosystems. In many cases, a broader suite of public goals can be met with non-commercial treatments that focus on treatment of small material that lacks economic value, while retaining the larger material that contributes to complex residual structure.

    Commercial treatments also cause many unavoidable adverse effects from mechanical removal, including roads, landings, skid trails, excess slash creation and disposal, weeds, heavy equipment damage to soil and understory vegetation. Sometimes these negative effects are offset by clear and compelling restoration benefits, sometimes they are not. This can help us make appropriate choices between commercial and non-commercial treatment methods.

    In my mind, “commercial” logging is not inherently negative, but commercial vs non-commercial is a distinction that matters. The agencies need a better framework to evaluate the positive and negative effects of different restoration methods. The agencies conflict-of-interest in economic outputs often leads them to ignore non-commercial options and to conduct confusing NEPA analysis that is biased toward commercial extraction.

  2. “There’s the potential for a great deal of public funding for private enterprise.” That pretty much sums up the mountain pine beetle agenda.

    The dead trees are worthless; i.e., their cost of removal and processing is less than anyone will pay for the final product. If the trees are to be removed, government will have to foot the bill because . . . well, because no rational person will.

    Under what circumstances is it good public policy to do so? If the dead trees are a nuisance, such that the cost to the public associated with remaining in the woods exceeds the costs of removal, then it makes sense for tax dollars to pay the freight.

    That’s not likely the case. There’s little, if any, evidence that leaving the dead trees standing increases fire risk. When green these lodgepole pine forests posed as big, or bigger, a risk of fire.

    What’s really at stake here, as evidenced by the make-up of the Blue Knight Group, is the real estate value of private land in Colorado’s ski area country. It’s tough to sell high-end recreation homes surrounded by dead trees.

    It’s not uncommon for the rich to seek subsidies from the poor. Here the rich want the rest of us to cover the tab to clean up their backyards of unsightly dead trees.

    • Andy knows more than I do about how these areas will burn. But the beetle epidemic is having a huge impact to recreational trails, and will have for many years to come.

      The links below show a very depressing powerpoint presentation that was given to a recent workshop sponsored by the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition (COHVCO). The FS is enlisting OHV and other trail users in trail clearing efforts, but the job before us is enormous.

      Did I mention that I haven’t mentioned the impacts to dispersed camping? Many agency folks are pretty concerned… Check the pic of the tree falling next to the tent. Scary!

      • Apologies to all. The photo of the campsite isn’t in the powerpont.

        Kent Foster’s presentation at the COHVCO workshop included a “before and after” photo. The “before” was a shot of a campsite under some beetle killed Pine taken in the am on the way to a trail clearing project. The “after” showed the same campsite the same day, but one of the trees had fallen right next to a tent.

        Like I mentioned, many FS people are concerned, and with darned good reason, in my opinion…

      • Publicly-financed dead tree removal should be used where the public benefits exceed the financial costs. Obviously, that’s not a simple dollars-and-cents calculation. Insofar as there are too few public dollars available to remove all the worthless dead trees, spending has to be prioritized.

        Private interests will try to direct the spending to their benefit, i.e., to clean up the scenery around high-end ski resort communities. That will come at a cost to spending on trail clearance where the benefits are more widely dispersed and the interest groups less well-organized.

        Here’s hoping that recreation users can unite on trail clearance even as they fight over who gets to use the cleared trail.

      • Andy- In my opinion, that’s one of your all time great quotes “Here’s hoping that recreation users can unite on trail clearance even as they fight over who gets to use the cleared trail.”

        It is a well known human trait that we tend to put our disagreements aside when emergencies strike. You can disagree it’s that kind of experience but many Coloradans feel differently.

      • Andy- what would be your priorities for hazard tree removal? We’ve got roads (of different kinds), trails, campsites and powerlines throughout the west.

  3. I have to point something out Sharon.

    If you are going to write here:

    “In discussing RECENT projects, we CONTINUE to hear rhetoric about how “commercial” timber sales are assumed to be bad, and about the role of the Forest Service.. for example this quote (emphasis mine)”

    Then please don’t “prove” your point about “recent” and “continue” by pulling a quote from something I wrote in September 2003, over 7 years ago. Seems like a fair request, eh?

    Unfortunately that’s what you have done here. As I tried to point out last week in a comment that got lost in transition, the quote you have highlighted was in response to the Lolo National Forest’s Mineral CE timber sale. The sale was pulled by the Forest Service in 2004 because of public opposition. The sale called for “commercial” logging in a previously unlogged (and roadless) part of the Lolo National Forest that sits adjacent to the Rattlesnake Wilderness Area. This area is likely 12 to 15 miles (as the crow flies) from the nearest house. The sale also would have logged along a popular hiking trail leading right into the Wilderness.

    Two years ago I wrote a piece about this logging project and also some elk hunting I do in this same area every year. It’s available here

    Finally, I should also point out that the term “commercial” is actually the term used officially by the US Forest Service when they design projects, at least around here. For example, a typical “fuel reduction” project might be one part “commercial logging,” one part “commercial thinning,” one part “non-commercial thinning” and another part “prescribed burning.”

  4. Where I live in western Idaho, we have lost vast acreages of old forest and substantially increased soil erosion due to uncharacteristically hot wildfires. Over 600,000 acres burned in 2007 alone. Most of the burned areas were in roadless and wilderness areas. Much of our remaining green un-burnt areas are in the areas that were developed for timber management. The mix of age classes and distribution of the trees is much better in the developed areas than the roadless which have had huge stand replacing fires. Both the roaded and roadless areas have a restoration management emphasis. The roadless is passive restoration while the roaded areas have active restoration (includes commercial timber harvest). So far I have not been very impressed by the results of passive restoration.
    I live in a wood house and heat it with wood. I make musical instruments and wooden toys as a hobby and use and prefer local woods. I would rather use wood harvested from my local National Forest than have it imported from Canada or the southeast US. That way I know it was harvested in a sustainable (green) manner.

  5. There is no such thing as “non-commercial logging”. Whether it is a service contract, or a timber sale, the work is never done for free. The trick is to have enough excess timber volume to pay for the work that doesn’t have a saleable product. Adding plantation TSI work to a timber sale ensures that the project will sell, and will maximize “acres treated”. Inclusive stewardship contracts seem to be gaining favor, emphasizing the non-commercial aspects, but still including merchantable timber.

    To really make these kinds of projects work, you need timbermarkers who know where to pick and pluck those excess trees near whatever upper diameter limit is in effect. I find it alarming that a timbermarker has to be certified to measure a tree marked by people hired right off the street. Why not require even the most basic of silvicultural certifications for Forest Service “tree gods”?

  6. Someone should tell them the MPB is no fire hazard. They got the memo, they just don’t buy it. The odds of “your” house burning down is small, but you still have it insured.

    Someone should tell them that logging makes the fire hazard worse.

    Someone should litigate to save them from themselves. They’re not doing it. I might join that one. A part of me is upset that their past environmental activism is part of the reason it’s costing so much now. All because 3% of the White River Nat. Forest was logged in 50 years and no one took the time to find that out.

    But then, I just read a USFS developing proposal to log 2000 acres on Aspen Ski area. They haven’t been impacted by MPB much, but they are now talking about “age diversity” and spruce beetle. I’ll bet 80% of environmental grant money owns a second home in Aspen. And now forestry is gonna be the hip new happening. And hey, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things when I find out more about an issue.

  7. Doug- what I hear you saying is that in the quest to have a sale that people will bid on for timber values, you find that there can be actions going on (skidding, etc.) that you would prefer not to happen for environmental reasons. So “commercial” is (perhaps) a kind of shorthand for a certain kind of prescription that you don’t prefer. So this is clear and for me, understandable. It’s about the impacts and not about the “commercial” element per se.

    But in our roadside hazard tree situation, logs are lying in decks along the road somewhere. They have been removed to provide defensible space for communities or along roads. Whether they are left to slowly release their carbon to the atmosphere, cut up into firewood and donated to some group, or sold for firewood, to sawmills or pellet plants doesn’t make a difference to the onsite environmental effects because the trees are already decked.

    Matthew- I apologize, I didn’t realize what the date was on that site. I just picked it because it was convenient. But you got me thinking…about commercial logging compared to logging. When I looked it up on the online dictionary here the definition was “The work or business of felling and trimming trees and transporting the logs to a mill.” So if our logs aren’t going to mills, then the activity isn’t really “logging,” it’s just thinning or tree cutting. Maybe we need a new vocabulary for tree cutting activities that are not going to mills.

    Here’s a quote from Bevington’s book

    Most zero-cut groups did not oppose genuine ecological restoration activities that involved the cutting of brush and smaller trees. However, they believed that the only way to ensure that ecological restoration projects were not turned into logging-as-usual under a new name was to remove the commercial incentive. If the Forest Service was not permitted to sell the material that was cut during restoration projects, it would have no incentive to promote logging of larger trees that did not need to be cut for restoration purposes. Accordingly, from the mid 1990’s onward, zero-cut activists increasingly adopted the phrase “end commercial logging” to more accurately describe their position. ” p 151

    This makes sense if the goal were simply forest restoration. But in lodgepole country, the goal is hazard tree removal and defensible space for firefighters around communities. We can all argue about how much more or less or differently a forest of dead trees burns (at the stand and landscape scale), but jackstrawed dead lodgepole next door to communities does not provide a safe environment for firefighters. And it is not so simple to say that these are enclaves of the rich; sometimes they are the affordable housing away from resort communities. Perhaps, Andy, we should means test subdivisions to see if the fuels treatment should be publicly interesting policy idea.

    • When these lodgepole forests burn, I do hope firefighters stay out of the way. The Yellowstone’s 1988 crown fires were not fought from fuel breaks. Firefighting focused on historic structure protection using parking lots as (relatively) safe zones. Putting firefighters out in the woods, fuel break or not, to face a lodgepole stand-replacing crown fire is simply criminal.

      Yes, homeowners should clear defensible space within 150′ of their homes. Homeowners should build homes that are not flammable (too often the homes are more flammable than the forests themselves!). But the notion that firefighters need fuel breaks in a lodgepole pine forest to “defend” communities is silly.

      • Fuel breaks have had a long and successful history in fire suppression. See Agee’s paper here and I’m sure there are others.. plus the experience of folks in suppression.

    • Sharon: Besides using a 7 year old passage that was written about a specific misguided timber sale targeting unlogged forests adjacent to a Wilderness and right along both sides of a popular Wilderness hiking trail, what you also did was erect a huge strawman…and then tried to tear it down in an attempt to prove some point.

      You then followed the 7 year old quote (which, let’s be honest here, hardly contains some radical words) with this statement: “As much as some people think ‘the timber industry’ is big and scary.”

      Who are these “some people,” Sharon, who supposedly think the “timber industry is big and scary?” One part of me assumes you directed that statement at me since you used my 7 year old quote, but I’m honestly not sure.

      And now, a few months shy of 2011, you are quoting from Doug Bevington’s book, in which he talks about the mid-90s to early 2000s “zero cut” campaign – a campaign that really hasn’t been active in almost a decade.

      Sorry Sharon, but it seems to me that you are the one afraid of ghosts and the boogieman here. I’m fine having a debate about current policies, etc, but please refrain from digging up old quotes, taken out of context, or pointing to some mid-90s campaign to prove some point here in 2010. Thanks.

      • Matthew, it certainly wasn’t intended to be directed toward you. I run across that kind of rhetoric fairly frequently, and again, apologize for grabbing something off the web without checking the date. I wasn’t even aware that you were involved in the group that posted it. Again, I apologize.

        I will keep track of statements I find that are current (and others on the blog can send them to me) and post them when I find them.

        On a quick internet search I found this one in 2009 by the NY Times editorial board that said :

        But enduring legal confusion… has permitted regional foresters to move forward with commercial logging projects in Idaho, Colorado, Oregon and the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

        This quote seems to imply that these projects are designed to supply industry’s needs- which may be true elsewhere but not in Colorado.

  8. I forgot to mention that Summit County Colorado, home of Breckenridge, heart of MPB salvage logging,gave Obama 66% of the vote. Routt County, home of Steamboat Springs, heart of the MPB salvage logging, gave Obama 63%. The times, they are a changin.

  9. Matthew Koehler :You then followed the 7 year old quote (which, let’s be honest here, hardly contains some radical words) with this statement: “As much as some people think ‘the timber industry’ is big and scary.”

    Who are these “some people,” Sharon, who supposedly think the “timber industry is big and scary?” One part of me assumes you directed that statement at me since you used my 7 year old quote, but I’m honestly not sure.
    And now, a few months shy of 2011, you are quoting from Doug Bevington’s book, in which he talks about the mid-90s to early 2000s “zero cut” campaign – a campaign that really hasn’t been active in almost a decade.

    That Rainforest website shows, without a doubt, that a large segment of the public still believes that the evil timber industry “destroys” public lands. That foresters are money-grubbing clearcutters, and that forestry should even be abolished.

    The Zero Cut “community” is still alive and well. The Sierra Club has not backed off in their demands to eliminate timber sales. Chad Hanson litigates against every project that harvests trees. Many, many more “eco-justice” groups are now dipping into the lawsuit profits.

    I guess we’re a bit luckier, here in California, that SPI has so much of their own land to supply their current demand. When Federal timber becomes available again, and the demand goes up, they will be perfectly positioned to reopen their state of the art small log mills, getting the timber for rock-bottom prices. Incense cedar has surprisingly strong demand, as a substitute for redwood.

  10. Matthew- One thing I’ve discovered with some more searching is that in some cases it’s almost impossible to tell when something was posted.. that would be a helpful hint to all of us who have websites..have a date for “last updated” on each web entry.

    But I did find this “52 places” campaign, which seems to be current at the Sierra Club, based on the fact that you link to it from the current site, even though the document was published in 2007.

    More than 60 million acres of undeveloped National
    Forests (30 percent) are without protection from logging,
    mining, oil and gas drilling and other threats

    I think “without protection” is a bit of a stretch, given environmental laws and forest plan management area allocations but, even so, it does seem that someone is thinking that “logging” still threatens national forests. If we take that at face value- it seems to imply that timber industry is a threat. Suppose we restated it as

    “More than .. acres are without protection from communities who want fuelbreaks and other projects to reduce hazardous fuels, mining and oil and gas drilling. ” It doesn’t have exactly the same ring to it..

    I also did an advanced google search on “commercial logging Forest Service” posted in the last year and came up with this. Here’s a quote:

    Although the Forest Service’s timber sale program is a net money loser, individual Forest Service districts are rewarded financially for completing timber sales. At the same time, the logging companies profit from taxpayer-subsidized, below-cost timber through those sales. So both the Forest Service and logging companies have a strong incentive to push for more commercial logging on national forests, even when the effect of that logging is quite harmful to our public lands. Fortunately, the environmental laws protecting our national forests were specifically written to include provisions for public oversight in the management of these lands and “citizen-suit” provisions that allow members of the public to file litigation to ask the federal courts to intervene when the Forest Service does not obey these laws. In effect, these citizen-suit provisions “deputized” the public to ensure that the laws protecting our public lands are actually enforced. And in recent decades, new grassroots “forest watch” groups have formed in communities near national forests to participate in public oversight of these forests and, when necessary, litigate to stop environmentally-damaging and illegal logging projects. Environment Now has helped support these grassroots groups. And a result of their vigilance, the level of harmful commercial logging on national forests has decreased over the past two decades.

    The Google link says it was posted on March 1, 2010.


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