Timber Wars: Bayoneting Those on Life Support?

Here’s a press release from Senator Mark Udall’s office:

Today, Mark Udall sent a letter urging the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take immediate action to help three of Colorado’s largest sawmills stay afloat and keep rural jobs in the state. Udall suggested that the USFS and the USDA rework timber sale contracts with the sawmills, which are struggling financially. In addition to employing hundreds of Coloradans, the mills play a crucial role in the fight against the bark beetle and wildfire by providing the infrastructure to help clear 4 million acres of hazardous fuels and beetle-killed trees and processing them into wood products.

The downturn in the housing market and the state’s forest-management economy led to financial trouble for the mills—Intermountain Resources (Montrose), Mountain Valley Lumber (Saguache) and Delta Timber (Delta)—because their legacy timber sale rates are higher than it costs to remove the dead trees from the forest. Udall is asking the agencies to work with the sawmills to modify some of their contract terms so the mills can stay open and maintain hundreds of jobs in those regions, mitigate wildfire risks by clearing dead trees, and revitalize the timber industry.

“These mills provide hundreds of jobs in Colorado’s rural communities and are irreplaceable parts of the statewide infrastructure we need to reduce wildfire risk to communities and remove millions of hazardous beetle-kill trees adjacent to roads, powerlines, trailheads, picnic areas, and campgrounds,” Udall wrote in the letter. “I appreciate the role the market must play in timber sales, but at this juncture in Colorado we must maintain an infrastructure to safely and economically dispose of our surplus of dead timber.”

Udall raised the issue of legacy timber sales at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on wildfire management in June, saying that the clock is ticking on helping sawmills deal with beetle-killed trees in economically viable ways. Udall has been working for over a decade to help mitigate the impacts of the bark beetle epidemic in Colorado communities and forests.

The text of the letter follows:

Dear Secretary Vilsack and Chief Tidwell:

I am contacting you today to appeal for your immediate action to help preserve Colorado’s forest management infrastructure. Repeatedly over the last two years, I have been contacted by Colorado’s timber industry and other stakeholders asking for help. Our last three remaining large and medium-size sawmills are struggling financially. In fact, the largest – Intermountain Resources in Montrose, Colorado – went into receivership in June 2010. These mills provide hundreds of jobs in Colorado’s rural communities and are irreplaceable parts of the statewide infrastructure we need to reduce wildfire risk to communities and remove millions of hazardous beetle-kill trees adjacent to roads, powerlines, trailheads, picnic areas, and campgrounds.

While there are a number of reasons that the mills are faltering, including the economic recession, one significant source of financial stress is that all three mills hold legacy U.S. Forest Service (USFS) timber sales that are no longer financially viable and have become a liability. As recently as May 2011, the USFS stated that it was continuing to review its authority to reduce timber sale rates and/or mutually cancel contracts within Region 2 that have become unviable to operate. The USFS has made some contract term adjustments, but none of these adjustments have allowed for the downturn in the market for wood-based products. The agencies have repeatedly pledged to do everything possible to save these mills, but the problematic timber sales remain. I am aware that Intermountain Resources had over 50 timber sales with a variety of terms and issues. However, it is my understanding that the two smaller mills each have only one seriously problematic timber sale. There is an immediate sense of urgency because one of these mills had a periodic payment due last week, and yet has still not heard back from the USFS on its request for a mutual cancellation.

Modifying these contracts and thus helping sustain these three mills will have a direct public benefit. The USFS, other land managers, communities, and industry across the state and region are working to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfires and restore healthy forests by clearing beetle-kill hazard trees and reducing hazardous fuels adjacent to communities. This critical mitigation work that protects people and property will become exponentially more challenging, if not impossible, if we lose our forest management infrastructure. Without these processing locations in Colorado, the distance to the next closest mill with capacity to process any meaningful volumes of timber is nearly 800 miles away in Montana.

On behalf of Colorado’s struggling timber industry, I ask that you take every action within your power to provide relief for these mills and preserve these critical local jobs. I appreciate the role the market must play in timber sales, but at this juncture in Colorado we must maintain an infrastructure to safely and economically dispose of our surplus of dead timber. It is my hope that in the years to come we can work collaboratively to restore balance to Colorado’s timber economy. Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to your response.

Interestingly, here is a story from the Colorado Independent, with these quotes.

But some members of the conservation community have their doubts.

“The whole issue points out the problem of removing beetle kill — the dead lodgepole pine isn’t worth much as a potential commercial product,” Rocky Smith of Colorado Wild told the Colorado Independent. “That is why there are efforts to create a biomass industry, which might allow the use of dead lodgepole pine for heating and electric power generation. Those efforts have only had limited success.”

The ski town of Vail came up short in its bid to build a multi-megawatt biomass power plant that would use the proven process of high-heat wood gasification to cleanly generate power and heat by consuming chipped up wood products. The process is considered carbon-neutral compared to forests biodegrading naturally or being consumed in wildfires.

“We are not against a wood products industry, but we want to make sure that it is sized appropriately and would sunset when the dead material runs out or is no longer available for product use,” Smith said. “It is tempting to think that there is so much dead stuff out there, so we should try to facilitate creation of a large industry that could utilize it. But that could result in industry dictating what land could be harvested.”

Smith also pointed out that the current state of the economy has lowered the demand for wood products.

But it doesn’t actually sound like they have their doubts about what Udall is doing.. they are worried about the use of biomass leading to “too much” harvesting. So far there is no biomass industry of any size, so this is a preemptive strike. Their comments have nothing to do with helping those sawmills. Strange reporting, IMHO.

7 thoughts on “Timber Wars: Bayoneting Those on Life Support?”

  1. If giving the timber away for free proves insufficient, perhaps the Forest Service should buy and operate the mills.

    • IMHO what we really need is a “local wood” movement similar to the “local food” movement. We need the demand for locally produced material, and then won’t need subsidies.

    • The last thing we need are govt owned timber mills. I agree with Sharon regarding the local wood movement, coupled with tax BREAKS fto companies that help the FS enhance forests and habitat in the US, protecting and restoring watersheds thoguh stewardship contracting etc. These are values we ought to subsidize. Not just cheap commodity driven lumber…

    • Actually, we need those mills to be non-profits, with government subsidies, to provide cheap wood for the poor of the world. However, those mill companies have to have competent, caring and very highly paid officers, making sweetheart deals without that pesky public oversight.

  2. A subsidy for the timber industry? I’d call the USFS “paying” loggers up to $1200/acre to clearcut lodgepole around Dillon and Breckenridge Colorado in the name of fire mitigation a real subsidy. That’s what I really call a “below cost timber sale”. Meanwhile in Montana, which still has an active timber industry, the loggers are “Buying” the MPB killed timber from the Helena Nat. forest for $300/acre. The difference is there’s two sawmills within 50 miles of the Helena while the nearest sawmill to Dillon is 250 miles away. I have an ethical problem bailing out a lot of enviros who only a few short years ago helped drive out the timber industry.

    Another wonderfull subsidy for green thinking people is “clearing” hiking trails of hazard trees. The White River forest cleared 20 miles of trails last year. Of course there’s like 500 miles left-which is wonderfull when you think of all the wilderness area access that will soon be shut for decades.Not one chainsaw in roadless!!

  3. The timber industry’s toolbox is very limited and not very well aligned with the broad array of restoration activities that need to be done on our federal forests. Instead of subsidizing the timber industry, we should invest in the kinds of activities that the forests really need: e.g., road removal and storm-proofing, reintroduction of fire, weed removal, and management of small fuels (generally smaller that ideal for wood products), reconnecting fragmented habitat and watersheds.

    A recent study on Oregon’s Blue Mountains shows that only a small fraction of the landscape is ecologically and economically ripe for a restorative timber sale. This indicates that most of the landscape needs investment, rather than more profit taking. Subsidizing the timber industry infrastructure will accomplish only a small subset of economically profitable restoration, while continuing to neglect greater ecological needs out there.

  4. I think the real problem is that we’ve incentivized (through subsidies) an industry that is narrowly focused on resource extraction only. Yet, in MT for isntance, there are good examples of traditional timber industry working with forest restoration folks within the umbrella of stewardship contracting that accomplizhes much of the work that Doug is talking about. We’ve actually got a great opportunity to diversify the “timber industry” and move it towards a “forest industry” with a much broader, more integrated scope and capacity. Tools like stewardship contracting can help a lot in this regard. There will always be times and places for further investment in forest restoration, but we may be able to reduce these examples by working with the existing infrastructure and industry where it still exists.


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