Are FS Timber Sale Contracts Working For Restoration?

A guest post from Felice Pace. You may have read his posts on the Range Blog of High Country News.

It does not appear that there has been discussion on this site about whether the main tool being used to implement forest restoration/fire risk reduction projects on public lands – the timber sale contract – is a good tool or even adequate for the task of forest restoration/fire risk reduction.

From my perspective (30 years of looking at timber sales), the timber sale contract is a good tool if the task is getting logs out of the woods and to the mill but a poor tool if the task is forest restoration (including fire risk reduction).

The problem is that when a timber sale is used to implement restoration – including when the timber sale is embedded within a stewardship contract – timber economics rules. Because public forests are remote and because production and transportation costs in the western US (where most US public lands are located) are high, economics dictates removing too many trees per acre and too many large (dominant) trees. This almost always frustrates the restoration objective.

For example, FS in the Klamath Mountains typically “thins” down to 40% or less canopy closure for restoration/fire risk reduction. But reducing moisture competition and opening the stands to sunlight to this extent results in accelerated sprouting of trees and brush. This in turn results in more fire danger – and a dense, highly flammable understory 8-30 years after the “treatment”.

If we really want to restore western forests we need a different, more appropriate tool. Restoration work should be funded up front and accomplished via straight up service contracts. Any commercial product which results can/should be sold separately from the log-sort yard.

Would it be possible during this new round of forest plans to try such an approach on at least one forest per region?

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.

Note from Sharon: Many service contracts are out there.. some forests have mostly service contracts. I wonder if any forests have 0 timber sale contracts, I bet many districts, even in Colorado, do. I wonder if there is a table somewhere of mechanical treatment acres by service contract or timber sale contract by forest? Anyone?

16 thoughts on “Are FS Timber Sale Contracts Working For Restoration?”

  1. Here in California, GTR-220 works great for restoration, under a timber sale situation. Since we are way overstocked with white fir, in all diameter classes, thinning for resilience and forest health reduces fuels, without severely-impacting canopy closure. Gaps and clumping are embraced, as well as adjusting species composition. You cannot blame a timber sale contract for reducing canopy closure. Either it restores, or it doesn’t.

  2. This guy sounds like he’s describing a warm dry pre-settlement forest with a fire return interval of 10-30 years. Hence, I doubt his logic would have even liked a pre-settlement forest. If a fire burned through a stand 30 years after a thinning, wouldn’t it be duplicating a pre-settlement forest?

    He does make a good point about what to do with the regen that comes up after a fuels treatment thinning. Perhaps this is the role of RX burning…to kill the regen 20 years after a thinning. Most research (what little of it there is) shows that the best fuels treatment is a thinning “followed” by a RX burn to treat surface fuels. As in “thinning alone” isn’t good and rx burning alone isn’t good. But these studies only looked at thinning that was done “old school”, where the limbs and tops were left as slash on site. With modern “whole tree harvesting,” where the slash is burned at the landing, there are no surface fuels left behind from slash, and thus no reason to RX burn after thinning, unless insect killed. Thus the RX burning could be deferred for oh, say, 20 years to kill the regen. Perhaps because WTH is relatively new (past 20 years), and very litle USFS harvesting in past 20 years,the opportunity to study such treatments are naught.

    The next question that begs an answer, is what is a higher fire hazard…a >70% canopy crown closure or dense regen from a thinning. From a firefighters point of view…I would think the “trade off” between a crown fire in a >70% stocked stand and a fire in a 40% with and understory…would be an acceptable trade off. I’m gonna guess that very little “spotting” occurs from regen…but I don’t know. What I do know…is the WTH harvested stand is gonna be fireproof for up to 25 years.

  3. I’d just like to say that based on my experience here in the Northern Rockies looking at various logging projects over the past 15 years, Felice is right on the money with this comment:

    “The problem is that when a timber sale is used to implement restoration – including when the timber sale is embedded within a stewardship contract – timber economics rules. Because public forests are remote and because production and transportation costs in the western US (where most US public lands are located) are high, economics dictates removing too many trees per acre and too many large (dominant) trees. This almost always frustrates the restoration objective.”

    P.S. I’d also like to report that the beet and cilantro seeds Felice gave to me 3 years ago are still going strong in my garden. In fact, we ate some of Felice’s beets last night!

    • Once again, someone wants to use the broad brush to paint all timber sales as corrupted by money. That simply is not the case here in the Sierra Nevada. We have rigid diameter limits so, we cannot just cut bigger trees to make more money. When I posted the GTR-220 information, no one described that as “business as usual”. In fact it is closer to restoration than preservationists want to believe, and they just want to go with their own “business as usual”, diatribe against timber projects.

  4. Derek, I don’t know how much is left on the ground with WTH (although I bet someone knows) but also I don’t think I’ve ever seen WTH on national forests around here. Others..?

    Matthew- Can you give me an idea of what you mean by “too many” trees? And why that would “frustrate” the restoration objective?

  5. Sharon, I was just stating my agreement with Felice’s comment. As to your question I’m not sure how to answer it since Felice’s comment seems pretty dang straight-forward. Isn’t it very clear to everyone that Felice’s opinion is that sometimes when a timber sale contract is used to do ‘restoration’ that “too many trees” are cut down and that this “frustrates” (or perhaps a better word is “compromises”) the restoration objective? This sure seems like what Felice was referring to with his comment, right?

  6. I might add, that the USFS has found that thinning to a basal area of 50 (about 75-12″ DBH TPA or a 25′ spacing)is what’s needed to stop a crown fire. A USFS forester told me once that “if I was thinning for timber production, we’d be spacing the trees 15′ apart for optimum stocking, but that spacing has been shown to crown out.” I also might add that because of the “thinning release”, ie. increased growth rate on the remaining trees, I’ve seen many cases where the 12″ “stay trees” grow to 16″ within 20 years. I’ve seen them grow and inch and a half in 6 years. And this is in semi arid Ponderosa country. In other words…if the 4FRI ever gets off the ground…in 20 years you’re gonna have nothing but 16 DBH trees. In fact, you’ll end up with more 16″ DBH trees than ever historically existed (if you have 75 TPA). Since that was many many more than ever existed in the pre-settlement forest, I guess we can deduce that the CBD wants to “improve on nature.” And that makes them different from the USFS how? At least we got the “old growth” to build the historic district of Flagstaff.

  7. Felice is right on target with his views, as far as I am concerned here in the northern Rockies. I doubt very much that I will ever see the day, but the “best” way to do true restoration would be by direct contract work for restoration, with after-sale of any merchantable products from the yarding area.
    What little restoration projects I have reviewed in this country require too much logging of merchantable trees in order to get a viable project, thus gaining the wrath and skepticism of hard-nosed enviros. When you start cutting “old-growth” and other larger trees to gain an economically-viable project, the trouble begins.
    But Congress is too tied up with other worries. Restoration work in distant, low-population areas (no votes?) is just not sexy to most politicians.

  8. Disagree 100% with Ed, Matt and Felice (is he friends with Gee Worthnor?).

    I had a very long winded answer drafted about the relative merits of IRTC, IRSC, when you’d apply either, the relative merits, drawbacks, etc…then I deleted it, for a lot of reasons, Mr. Schulze being one.

    Bottom line and big question….what is “restoration” – particularly in the Northern Rockies? Matt? Ed? What objecties are compromised or frustrated?

    Is any “treatment” that uses the value of trees to pay for the “restoration” costs wrong? It’s efficient, it’s flexible, it allows for (knowledgeable) folks on the ground to make common-sense modifications to contracts…

    Is it instead better to ask the taxpayers to fund the “treatment”, instead of using a renewable resource? You really think this incentivizes the liquidation of old growth? Especially in areas where the mills prefer small logs? Again, let go of the past folks…

    Is it better to use an inefficient tool (IRSC) to pay for the treatment, followed by selling whatever merchantable by-products might be in the deck rather than just doing a good Gate 1 analysis and designing good integrated projects from the start? Inneficient, controlled by a whole different and (often) not knowledgable set of folks…

    Matt, Ed and Felice make it soud as though these “restoration” treatments are occuring so far aways as not to have ANY value…I just got back from a hunting trip from the back side of no-where ridge (Idaho). Near our camp was an active timber sale….the (small) logs were going well over 100 miles to a mill in Montana. As I’ve said before, the industry is resilient and adaptive.

    • JZ I am interested in your point of view.. Who is Mr, Schulze and how can I persuade you to draft a possibly long post that describes your point of view?

      • Maybe Mr. Schulze can introduce himself…until then it will remain a mystery, however he is a frequenter of the blog. If you have some basic skills in searching out agency personnel you’ll figure it out and understand my reluctance to go too deep. The emperor’s clothes are beautiful.
        How can you persuade me to draft a long winded solution oriented post? Well, for starters, you could convince others to answer my question above…what is restoration? Particularly when it comes to the actual “cutting, sale, or removal of timber” (borrowing from the language of the Idaho Roadless Rule).
        A very interesting and instructive read can be found here:
        Not sure if it was in here or somewhere else, but the lack of clear vision on what “restoration” actually means has been cited as a barrier for progress. Kudos to Matt and folks for at least trying to document their vision.
        Without a clear vision of “restoration” it would be hard to identify the appropriate tool to accomplish said objectives…I still prefer “responsible forest management” over “restoration”. At that point the tools are much easier to work with…and make more sense.

  9. “…too much logging of merchantable trees…” of course, that is a very arbitrary comment that MUST vary, due to a multitude of criteria. It sounds more like an opinion, not backed up by plot data. Our own silviculturalist walks all of our units, then takes plots after we have marked the trees. Often, our basal areas are between 160 and 200 square feet per acre. QUITE well stocked, with old growth over 30″ dbh intact.

  10. Larry, of course that is an opinion, but one based on sitting in on several project proposals as part of a colab group, where it was clear (at least to me) that some cutting units were included to “up” the volume of merch materials, so as to make the project feasible. With low values you have low options for restoration work. So, if there are millions of dollars of CMP and old road restoration work to do, you will need millions of dollars of logs to finance the deal. Hence the tendency to go after trees and logs that might not really need to be “thinned” or removed.
    The reality is that conditions for these project options vary greatly from various regions. What might work in Calif. will likely not work in north Idaho. So broad assumptions don’t always work.

  11. Hi All, I agree generally with Felice in this sense. The economics of timber sales has, for a long time, constrained the options that the FS has for using TS as a tool for restoration. To attract bidders, they must “sweeten the pot”. For me, this doesn’t mean that “restoration” can’t occur. Its just a question of “restoring to what.” Given the reality that service contracts will never come close to achieving restoration goals across most public lands, we’ll need a mix of TS and service contracts. The question then becomes how we can create other kinds of incentives that affect the timber market to free up and expand TS options that the FS can employ (i.e. create conditions where they don’t have to “sweeten the pot” as often or as much)…I’d be interested in kinds of creative ideas other may have to affect the timber market (e.g. incentives for “buying domestic”? FSC or SFI certification? Other value added incentives?)…

  12. As always, people need to focus on what is left, rather than on what is removed. And, of course, the non-commercial work isn’t going to get done for free. Often, “sweetening the pot” can be in the form of more acreage, and not necessarily cutting bigger trees. Around here, it is the small log mills that need to keep “being fed”. AND, since we have diameter limits, we cannot cut bigger trees, anyway. Currently, ASQ’s are running at about 1/13th of those late 80’s annual volumes, here in the Sierra Nevada.


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