Taking a Closer Look at “Corporate Interests” and the Forest Service

Photo by Josh Birnbaum

This weekend, I ran across this op-ed piece in the Denver Post by JoAnne Ditmer. In it, she said:

That’s what critics call the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, which would erase current protections on more than 60 million acres of America’s undeveloped public lands, including 4.6 million acres in Colorado. The act would affect 55 million acres in national forests and almost 7 million acres in Bureau of Land Management properties, “releasing” them to corporate profit-making decisions.

I don’t think that that is exactly true, as there are regulations and environmental laws that intervene between “release” and “corporate decisions.” It’s not a simple and direct relationship.


The vast majority are in the West and this is an alarming signal that some powerful people think the West and its spectacular landscapes no longer deserve special protections. With protection removed, these irreplaceable lands would be open to destructive “multiple use” — oil and gas development, mining, timber harvests, off-road vehicles.

“Come help yourself to our national treasures” seems to be the motto.

I don’t think that timber harvests or off-road vehicles are best described as “corporate interests,” at least not here in the Interior West. Which is, after all, where the Denver Post is located. What I would call Urban Elk Country.

I know that corporations are unpopular these days, so therefore are good for inflammatory op-eds. And the word “corporations” comes from corpus or body- so all organizations, in a way, are “corporate.”

Nevertheless, I wonder if “corporate” really is a good term to use about the timber industry in the Interior West. In the WFLC Newsletter (here), I ran across this Photography Fellowship Blog for the International Year of Forests. Take a look, many interesting photos.

So I happened to click on one labelled “Ovando Montana” by Josh Birnbaum that showed the Pyramid Mountain Lumber mill (photo above). I wondered if the conversation would change if instead of “corporate timber interests” people substituted “local businesses that provide family-supporting-wage jobs in rural areas.”

And so back to our discussion of “corporate huckster” here. How about substituting for “corporate huckster” “supporter of local businesses that provide family-supporting wage jobs in rural areas and otherwise contribute to their communities.”

I don’t think we’ll be able to work our way out of our current economic crisis (bad for people, good for GHG reduction) without acknowledging that there is value to companies that providing goods and services to people, thereby providing jobs and taxes.

To my mind, there is a big, and important, differences between the Pyramid Valley Lumbers of the world, and, say, Conoco or Enron.

8 thoughts on “Taking a Closer Look at “Corporate Interests” and the Forest Service”

  1. Imagine the situation facing Sierra Forest Products, a family-owned mills in the tiny valley town of Terra Bella, about an hour north of Bakersfield. They are the only lumber mill in all of southern California, with a monopoly on all timber projects on the Angeles, San Bernardino, Sequoia, Los Padres and Sierra National Forests. They struggle with the boom and bust of fire salvage sales, litigation and fuel prices. Also, the lack of projects within the 300,000+ acre Sequoia National Monument has impacted their business to the brink of insolvency. The owners are progressive and clever but, they lack a dependable source of small commercial logs from Federal lands, as they don’t have acreage of their own, unlike other companies.

  2. Interesting choice of words by the Post – sounds like it came from an enviro press release. That said, there are some corporate interests involved in the roadless wrangling in Colorado, for example the ski industry, which instead of supporting the Forest Service’s efforts to protect the natural resources that sustain the industry, lobbied hard to carve out exemptions for itself.

    IMO, off-road stakeholders are, in fact, part of a corporate interest group. Even though individual off-roaders may not see it that way, the whole concept of using fossil fuels for this type of recreation is irresponsible and reckless, and is driven in part by the larger fossil fuel industry (manufacturers and oil companies).

    If we’re going to talk climate change and carbon footprint, in my mind, we have to, at some point, question the legitimacy of fossil-fuel-based recreation. Obviously, it’s not going to go away, and even those of us who prefer non-motorized recreation use fossil fuels to get to the trailhead, but the discussion should start somewhere.

    As far as NEPA, the general feeling that prevails among the public (and true or not, I think this is reflected by the op-ed piece) is that, once these types of fundamental land-use decisions are made, the site-specific reviews for various projects are merely paper exercises. In my neck of the woods, that certainly holds true for the ski industry, where, for example, the Breckenridge Peak 6 expansion is seen as a done deal because the FS keeps saying it was zoned for lift-served skiing in the forest plan (the Peak 6 plan also touches on roadless issues).

    I think that’s why the conservation groups were so intent on trying to get the most far-reaching protection possible. Based on the historical record, it’s likely that those lands NOT protected by roadless status will be chipped away at by a variety of uses, corporate or not.

    • Bob- I know the ski industry is an important force in Colorado, but in many national forests, ski areas can be mom’ n ‘pop kinds of businesses.. ones providing ski opportunities for local communities and barely making it financially in some cases. Of all the places I’ve worked, in fact, Colorado is unique in that respect.

      I would disagree with your point about “the whole concept of using fossil fuels for this type of recreation is irresponsible and reckless, and is driven in part by the larger fossil fuel industry (manufacturers and oil companies).”

      I think oil companies have enough of a demand worldwide that they don’t actually “drive” people to use OHV’s. I am not an OHVer and don’t particularly like the noise and smells, but I think the people who use them are legitimate users of national forests. When I encounter them on horseback, almost all of them have gone out of their way to be safe and respectful of the equines (not something I can say about mountain bikers- but that’s just my personal experience). I acknowledge that many people don’t like the smells and deposits of equines either.

      I think they are doing it because they enjoy it, and not because they have been encouraged to by the fossil fuel industry,

      So as we go out for a summer or fall weekend in Colorado’s national forests, we see people doing scenic driving in cars, trucks, RVers, on- road motorcycles; in the forest off the highways we see jeeps, 4 wheelers; we see cars and trucks pulling trailers with horses or OHV’s, we see mountain bikers and hikers, fishers, hunters, wood-cutters. I see people of all ages enjoying the outdoors (good thing, kids in the woods, with their parents, not sitting in front of the TV).

      If we want to get each of these recreationists and calculate an overall carbon footprint per activity, that would be fine, but if one person drives on highways all day, and another parks and uses a trail bike, it seems to me that the footprint is higher for the highway driver. Does that make them “irresponsible and reckless”?

      More later on your other points..

      • Your points are well-taken, Sharon, and represent a valid viewpoint.

        In answer to some of your specific questions, yes, I think we’re all being reckless and irresponsible toward the environment and future generations in our use of greenhouse-gas generating fossil fuels.

        Where do we start cutting back? Maybe looking at motorized recreation won’t make the biggest dent, but if you want to break down the carbon footprint equation more, maybe we need to calculate per capita emissions of two-stroke off-road motors v. fuel efficient hybrids …

        There aren’t a whole lot of mom-n-pop ski operations left in Colorado; I can only think of a handful. Let’s be realistic. Vail Resorts is by far the biggest player, accounting for a huge slice of all the ski business in Colorado, and it’s a company that’s driven by a classic Wall Street corporate agenda.

        I love small ski operations. I’ve worked for several of them (Hesperus Hill, near Durango, most recently, where we used to sell homemade Rice Krispie treats in the cafeteria) and I wish there were more of them.

        I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Forest Service shares the blame for the demise of small ski areas because its policies and requirements for ski area development favor the large operations.

        Finally (and I’m feeling a little testy this morning, so don’t take this personally), I’m getting a bit tired of EVERYTHING being framed in the context of job creation.

        We have some serious structural economic issues to deal with and Band-aiding them with low-paying service jobs is not going to solve them. We really need to re-think our economic paradigm, sooner rather than later if what’s happening in Europe is any indication.

        • Bob, you raise an interesting point about size of facilities and the role of the Forest Service. We had this discussion about sawmills (how did we get from small local to large nonlocal?) in our office and a recent retiree who had witnessed the change in the SW said he thought it was the economics of the thing.. for that business, new equipment and “efficiency” was needed to compete with foreign sources of lumber products. Small mills cost more to produce lumber than large and the market for lumber is international.

          Now, that’s not exactly the same situation as ski areas (and timber jobs were not “low paying service jobs”) but you raise an interesting question about what the federal land manager’s (and/or federal government) role should be, if any, with regard to jobs (local or not; service or products). I think policies at varying levels are checkered (that’s not a wonky term, perhaps “not aligned” would be better). Feds buy American, but contracts go to the lowest bidder not necessarily local; the feds support some businesses through grants, but not others. Maybe alignment is impossible, but certainly worth examining.

          • I’m not familiar with the timber industry, but I think the Forest Service could do more to encourage small community oriented ski areas close to towns that would enable locals to ski on a neighborhood hill. I know there’s more demand for the bigger full-service resorts, but I think the success in recent years of smaller areas show’s there’s a niche. Even at tiny Hesperus Hill, we had a nice little terrain park … I’ve had some interesting talks with Ed Ryberg about this.

  3. This is a really interesting topic. I wonder if anyone might have a “profile” of timber companies sourcing wood from National Forests? It would be really helpful to see if Pyramid Mountain Lumber exemplifies the “timber industry” sourcing wood from NFs, or whether they are an anomaly amongst an industry driven by “corporate interests”.

    I think Bob’s post above is very well written and raises the question of where perhaps the “real” threats to roadless lands may be.

    • That’s a great question, Mike. I would think that the information on the size of mills, who owns them, and how much FS timber they buy, would be readily available from some combination of their industry association, the state of Montana economic statistics, and the Forest Service. Perhaps there is an economics professor at the University of Montana who tracks this kind of information?

      I only picked Pyramid Mountain because somewhere in Josh’s post I think it said that it was one of the largest in Montana.

      Here’s a quote from a letter from Senator Udall re Colorado from this previous post:

      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.


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