“Federal Land Management Not a Good Deal for Americans”

This article, “Federal Land Management Not a Good Deal for Americans,” has a link to a study that comes to that conclusion.

“The states examined in this study earn an average of $14.51 for every dollar spent on state trust land management. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management generate only 73 cents in return for every dollar spent on federal land management.”

31 thoughts on ““Federal Land Management Not a Good Deal for Americans””

  1. According to the report, net Revenue per mbf of timber sold:

    U.S. Forest Service -$148.90
    BLM -$197.71
    Montana $60.80
    Idaho $126.13
    State trusts (avg.) $114.60

  2. Dumb question, Steve, but what’s a thousand feet in tons?
    That net for Montana seems kind of low considering the nutty-high bid prices I’m seeing.

    • not a dumb question at all, I tried to figure it out…

      Based on this USFS reference “Specific Gravity and Other Properties of Wood and Bark for 156 Tree Species Found in North America” http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/rn/rn_nrs38.pdf,

      I found a figure of (for P pine) 52 lbs of green wood and bark for every cubic foot of (oven dried, as I read it) wood. (Table 1b). Was kind of surprised to read that green bark volume is about 26% of green wood volume, for P pine anyway.

      So, that means 2000 lbs/52 lbs = 38.5 cf per ton, multiply by 12 = 462 board feet per ton of green tree+bark. Or flip it around to get 2.17 tons per mbf.

      As always, my arithmetic may be suspect, so feel free to check, no pun intended 🙂

      • Your arithmetic is sound except that 12 board feet does not equal 1 cubic foot. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? A board foot is a curious metric that seeks to determine how many rectangular boards can be cut from a round tree by a saw blade of finite width. The number of board feet in a cubic foot is a function of tree diameter; the larger the diameter, the more boards per unit volume. The board foot/cubic foot range is about 3 for smaller trees and up to 5 for big west coast honkers.

        • 14 tons/ log truck load, averaging 4,000 bft/ load equals 285 bf/ ton. Smaller the tree, less bft on a load. Nobody deals in cubic feet but the FS. (Something they wasted money on inventing).
          Guys estimate would not be far off also with modern mills getting a 100% overrun with their equipment. I am sure most mill log buyers know these conversion figures perfectly.

        • thanks Andy you are correct, also smaller trees (and different species) would probably have a different wood/bark ratio than the arbitrary example I picked. Like Bob says, mill log buyers likely have a very good handle on it.

  3. This study provides no assessment of the quality of management! If one focuses on what we can take from the forests I suspect the revenues generated might be accurate. I do not support the fact that the federal agencies are doing much better but, I strongly believe none of the forest land managing agencies are doing an adequate job. The science of forestry is based on managing the resources from the forests, not focused on what is required to maintain healthy diverse forest communities, and the by-products of good management provides the valuable resources. We must look at the big picture, WHAT IS THE VALUE OF THE CONTRIBUTION TREES MAKE TO THE HUMAN ENVIRONMENT? Our narrow vision will only lead to our own demise.

  4. Utterly predictable as our neoliberal vultures come home to roost to loot public lands in the name of “efficiency!” in the season of “austerity’s” endgame.

    (Apologies and regrets to/for attributing vultures with neoliberal malevolence — but it’s the idiots’ idiom of market fundamentalism we get confined to — as if there were no tomorrow, and as if profit taking = LIFE.)

  5. I work for a private, family-owned tree farming business; our professional forestry staff’s tenure with the company probably averages 25-30 years each (several have been here 40 years and one has been here 54 years). About half have been elected Fellows in the Society of American Foresters; two have been nationally recognized as Presidential Field Foresters by the SAF. With a good deal of pride I’d have to state the company’s land ethics and forestry practices are widely regarded (even by some from the environmental community) as among the very best in the state. As a private company, we MUST make a profit; that said, we often forego some of that profit when we feel it would not be in the best interest of the forest.

    Several years ago, I was comparing notes regarding the staffs of my company and the local national forest. As I recollect, the national forest required a staff about 13 times greater to produce the same amount of wood products.

    To be fair, the national forest has a tremendous amount of analysis, appeals, collaboration, scoping, public input, endless management planning/revisions, etc. that us private folks are not burdened with. Pres. G.W. Bush probably said it best when he said something about “analysis paralysis”.

    A common problem with the fed’s is that their people don’t tend to stay on a forest long enough to truly know their forest. For instance, they are currently embarking on a major silvicutural project and, at the same time, the silviculturist who designed this project is leaving for a job on another forest. This reminds me of a another very “innovative” project the forest did some years ago; the staff present at that time has been gone a long time. Talking to the current staff recently, no one knew this project even existed! Consequently, I question if anyone learned anything from this project and if anything was gained. [It was planted with some exotic tree species that were (quite predictably) killed long ago by frost, leaving a wonderful brush patch!]

    • Were you comparing your company’s staff only to the timber management staff of the national forest, or to the entire staff? Because the latter is not remotely a fair comparison. Never mind NEPA, your company isn’t creating recreation plans, maintaining fish passes, issuing special use permits, fixing trails, pumping campground outhouses, monitoring grazing operations, reviewing FERC applications, installing radio towers, putting out wildfires, etc.

  6. “These outcomes are the result of the different statutory, regulatory, and administrative frameworks that govern state and federal lands. States have a fiduciary responsibility to generate revenues from state trust lands, while federal land agencies face overlapping and conflicting regulations and often lack a clear mandate.”

    Actually there is a clear mandate in NFMA: “the harvesting system to be used is not selected primarily because it will give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output of timber.”

    I guess someone paid money for a study of the obvious so there would be something to write about in far right tabloids like “The Daily Signal.”

    (I do agree with Dick Powell that the Forest Service suffers from institutional memory loss – but it cuts both ways. That’s an argument for forest planning, and for plans that are clear and specific.)

    • So, what happens when there are no options, as the only southern Sierra Nevada lumber mill goes out of business, due to a lack of thinning projects on the three Forests that used to provide timber? Remember, clearcutting and high-grading have been absent on those landscapes since 1993. I think we are already seeing the future of forest management in these areas, in the form of expensive and tiny handfelling and handpiling projects, where no products are exported and burning projects fall further and further behind. The California Air Resources Board continues to tighten the screws on Forest Service burning, and burn prescription “windows” become smaller and smaller. Add to that the shortage of burning personnel, during those windows and you have a continuing backlog of work “piling up”, so to speak. I have not heard of any work being done to remedy the situation, yet. A new amendment to the fatally-flawed Sierra Nevada Framework must be coming but, who knows how many years it will take.

    • Jon, I read the report before looking at what “The Daily Signal” is, which is published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. It is not surprising that such a group would look at a trust-based management system for public lands. Whether that’s the right way to go is a great question for discussion and debate. Regardless of the source, the report ought to be judged on its content. In my opinion, it adds a valuable resource to the discussion.

  7. Larry, “who will cut the timber and mill the logs?” is a topic addressed in an article about the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, in the April edition of The Forestry Source, “Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Forest Service Target Forest Health on 25 Million Acres.”. The SNC is a California state agency, aims to restore the health of more than 25 million acres in the Sierra Nevada, about one-quarter of the state, which provides more than 60 percent of the state’s drinking water. The SCN and key partners — USFS, industry, and The Nature Convervancy — all agree that the need to address forest health in the region is “urgent.”

    As for logging crews and mill infrastructure, its a chicken-and-egg scenario. The supply of timber will have to be fairly certain before anyone will invest in logging or mills. Thus, the USFS and others will need to offer some certainty, perhaps via long-term stewardship contracts, as with the Four Forests Restoration Initiative in Arizona.

    • The “needed policy changes” part of their efforts might be addressed in the new SNFP Amendment but, that will also be subject to litigation, and will surely be litigated if loopholes are closed. One item that should be changed is the ability to litigate roadside hazard tree projects, after wildfires and bark beetle infestations. If the roads are open to public use, or will be needed at a later date, hazards must be dealt with, to protect both the public AND the road.

      Yes, the SNC is a good ally and advocate for more active management but, their budget is limited and their influence is pretty small, right now. They cannot just give money to the Forest Service, in exchange for everything they want. I also agree that something like 4FRI is necessary, for California. In the meantime, we all have to watch this trainwreck happen, as trees die, rot and burn, while those in power (both sides) fiddle, and even dance together.

    • “Certainty” seems to be the fundamental issue, doesn’t it.

      It is possible that forest plans could help with that, by doing a better job of including the legally necessary analysis, but the Forest Service has run the other direction towards vagueness. Alternatives seem to include massive projects (like 4FRI), legislative mandates or voiding environmental laws. Assuming that environmental laws still matter, what would have to be done in forest planning (like a SNFP amendment) to provide the needed certainty, and would that be better than doing it through project decision-making?

  8. The need for action is urgent, but collaboration takes time. I hope that the process can be accelerated.

    The SNC’s State of the Sierra Nevada’s Forests Report is worth a look.

    The SNC: “Failing to understand the urgency of the situation will have devastating impacts on California’s environment and economy. The potential for more megafires like the Rim Fire is high and the trends of larger, more intense fires is clear, with the current drought and ongoing temperature increases making the situation all the more urgent.

    “This report provides a framework through which this issue can be addressed. It will take a renewed commitment at the state, federal and local levels. The alternative of the status quo is simply not acceptable.”

    • Welcome, Shawn! I’m glad you’ve joined this discussion. I have a question about this passage:

      “The low financial returns on federal lands translate into
      relatively low amounts of revenue sharing with states
      and counties. In Montana, for instance, federal revenue-sharing
      programs distributed an average of $109.6
      million to the state and counties each year from 2009 to
      2013. The state trust land agency in Montana distributed
      more than $107 million on average to trust beneficiaries
      during the same period—but the state did so on just
      one-fifth as many acres as the federal government owns
      in Montana. To put that into perspective, state trust
      lands in Montana generated $20.99 per acre for trust
      beneficiaries, while federal revenue-sharing programs
      generated only $4.07 per acre of federal land in Montana
      for the state and local communities. The story is much
      the same for Idaho, New Mexico, and Arizona.”

      But how much USFS land in Montana is designated for timber production, rather than other classifications such as wilderness and other reserves? Here in western Oregon, only about 17% of USFS land is classified as Matrix — the only land-use designation where, in theory, significant timber harvesting may take place. If one compared the revenue generated from Matrix lands to that from Trust lands, the amount/acre might be much closer.

      • Thanks, Steve. Great comment. When I get a chance I will see if I can put together those numbers. Our aim in that section was to generally demonstrate how much the state/local communities benefit from the state or federal lands within their borders — with, of course, the caveat that the types of revenues received are very different. Much has been made of the direct financial distributions made to states and counties through PILT, SRS, etc. Less appreciated are the substantial financial revenues states — or more specifically, state trust beneficiaries — receive from state trust lands. Obviously there are many caveats here, as we note, and the comparison is far from perfect, but I think it is still a useful comparison. (That said, to your point, the fact that there are so many federal lands tied up in other designations that prevent them from generating direct financial benefits to local communities is arguably an important part of the story, so in that sense they should be included. But I definitely take your point.)

  9. Seems like you could take a look at Larry’s pictures from Yosemite and see what a poor job we are doing managing our federal forests. It’s really tragic, basically we are just destroying our forests by not taking care of them and burning them up. It’s the story all over the West.
    It’s not logging that is destroying our forests, it’s the federal government, and their maze of environmental laws.

  10. —-Dave…the Montana DENR uses an average conversion of “6-7 tons per MBF.” They sell timber by the ton of course, their stumpage has been running $100-$240/MBF as of late. The $100 number is usually caused by “road construction” costs paid by the logger…which can run to $100/MBF…and if it’s skyline or tractor. Idaho department of lands are running about $240/MBF…of course…USFS bid prices are top secret. The “cut and sold” does have a /MBF average for sawtimber which is half the state averages…and of course, the 25% of the volume that is “non-saw” is cheaper than personal use firewood. (I find it a bit ironic, with “transparency” and all, especially considering that the state of Idaho sells MORE timber than the USFS…that bid info for the states is readily accessible). For that matter…why is it impossible to find even an annual budget for individual national forests? I guess we’re not trust beneficiaries of the USFS so we have no right to be informed.

    —Of course I love this study, it’s on my favorites now (LOL), and there’s no doubt that the USFS cost/revenue is a joke compared to the states…but in fairness the expenses to the USFS do seem rather high. However…when 25% of Montana’s USFS “sold volume” is non-saw @ $1.00/MBF…and 20% of “sold” is firewood @ $10.00/MBF…I’m guessing a lot of it’s coming from the revenue side. From what I’ve teased out…the cost for USFS “sale prep and admin”/MBF are pretty comparable to the states. Of course the NEPA costs are “sunk” (written off and not included in the PNV)…and of course the public doesn’t have a right to know how much that costs (The “Clear Creek project” on the Nez Perce NF was the first EIS I’ve ever seen that revealed NEPA costs to prepare EIS…$500,000 +/-…thank you for that!).

    The Clear Creek project has quite the positive PNV. I do believe it sells much more sawtimber than Non-saw (half from commercial thinning 50 year old plantations) and seems more economical in that it harvests much much more than your normal “Northern region” timber project. (If you’re gonna spend five years from scoping to the 9th circus lifting their injunction on 1500 acres…why not do it on 5,000 acres). Anyway…it would appear that their “revenue/MBF” is in line with what the state of Idaho gets…to the extent that the million dollars in “profit” will pay through stewardship contracting for “full re-contour” decommissioning of about a hundred miles of 60’s era “Jammer roads.” ( which as an old timber beast…even I have to admit was one of the dumbest ideas ever in a rain forest). Lets hope this project is a “continuing trend” for R1.

    Forgive me for my ramblings…but it does take my mind off dealing with the petty squabbles of “Gen-x’ers” at work LOL.

  11. At the bottom of page 8 the PERC study asserts boldly: “By nearly all accounts, out federal lands are in trouble, both in terms of fiscal performance and in terms of environmental stewardship.” I spent most of my federal career battling too-narrowly-focused monetized cost-benefit tests for federal policy and federal lands, that usually flattered whatever the government was proposing. PERC has concocted similarly narrow-minded numbers on federal “fiscal performance” for at least 20 years. And, no surprise, their number favor their agenda. They get paid well to do so, so I’ll bet that these studies will be published for another 20 years, or at least until their funding dries up. My question to the authors regards the second part of their assertion (p. 8). In the context of this study, the authors lead readers to conclude that the states do a better job than the feds in terms of managing lands for environmental stewardship. Really? Where are all these “accounts”?

    • Maybe I should have said that sometimes the government’s cost-benefit numbers are simply meaningless–particularly when mixing market developed numbers with so-called nonmarket value numbers. But if you just use market numbers important aspects of decision frames tend to be neglected or under-rated. As Paul Simon once wrote, “Everywhere you look you lose,” when trying to justify things with monetized cost-benefit analysis.

    • Dave, I appreciate your comment, but I have to disagree. First, this study was meant to inform the ongoing debate over transferring public lands to state control. (We take no position on the transfer and readily acknowledge many of the obstacles, as you’ll see in the report.) The primary concern that most folks have is whether states could afford the transfer or not. That is, in many ways it is a debate over dollars and cents, or at least it’s often framed that way by opponents of the idea. So your critique that we too narrowly focus on “fiscal performance” strikes me as odd. Of course there’s much more to it, and we discuss many of those issues, but to criticize the study because it focuses on costs and revenues seems a bit unfair.

      Second, you’re right, there is much less data comparing the environmental performance of state and federal lands — and that is part of the reason why we focus more on fiscal performance. Still, there is plenty of evidence that federal lands are underperforming on that dimension as well. (We cite some of that evidence in the report, and they are no doubt familiar to readers of this blog, so I don’t think I need to go into that here.) And there actually *is* some evidence that states perform as well or better than the feds on certain environmental measures. See Montana’s Forestry BMP reports and Idaho’s Forest Practices Water Quality Audits, for instance, to name a few sources.

      Third, your assertion that we were in some way paid to tout a particular agenda is ridiculous. We presented the facts, and we are honest about the obstacles to transferring lands to the states. No one has control over what we write. I’m proud of the final product and hope it will be a useful contribution to the ongoing debate on this issue.

      • Shawn,

        Whether you think you “take no position on the transfer” of federal lands to the states, I read your report and others that precede it to advocate implicitly for either outright privatization of federal lands or the transfer of the lands to the states–which could be a stepping stone toward that end. I have followed PERC since its inception and am quite aware of the ideology that drives the organization, and I’m also pretty sure where your money comes from.

        I disagree that the states generally do a better job than the feds on environmental stewardship. I helped the feds (from within and from without, mostly via FSEEE) move away from many environmentally destructive practices, risking my career and my family’s livelihood in the process. I know that the feds still have a long way to go to become responsible environmental stewards. But to suggest that the states do better is something I challenge you to prove.

        Of course the states do a better job on generating revenue for the states than the Feds do in generating revenue for the nation. Their charters are different. I think that more people need to pressure the states to shore up their environmental stewardship. And yes, we need to keep the pressure on the Feds too, on that front as well as on what I like to call “not wasting tax dollars on silly bureaucratic policies and programs.” I will let you Google my ideas there but you might start with the economic advice I set up for forest managers a long time ago, here: http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/ecowatch/ew950209.htm

        • Sounds good, Dave. I think we agree on more than you think, if you were able to get beyond whatever bias you have about PERC and read the report for what it says — not what you think it’s trying to say.

          • Shawn,
            I too am quite sure we can find means to agree on some things, maybe many things, but particularly that we need an informed discussion as to the whats and whys of public land ownership. I came to a similar finding when dealing with Robert Nelson’s studies and book years ago, here: http://forestpolicy.typepad.com/ecowatch/ew951020.htm. We likely share a disdain for misuse of power, and for over-driving headlights when trying to analyze things. Also that market mechanisms are sometimes useful.

            That said, I still believe that the whole approach (ideology and methodology) of the PERC group and the FREE group are far too cosy with the “private property trumps all” crowd. I’m a bit over-zealous in my counter-moves against the PERCies in part because I once shared their worldview, at least in part. I liked the writings of the the Austrian economics so much back then that I helped influence Randal O’Toole to abandon his Marxian leanings, when he was writing “Reforming the Forest Service.” I have moved a bit Left since while O’Toole moved Right. I still accept market mechanisms as useful, but don’t always advocate for them. Sometime I advocate against them. I tend toward over-zealousness too, because I envision studies such as the one you co-authored being waived around the halls of Congress by folks who read them just the way I did, e.g Utah’s Rob Bishop or Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski to name but two.

            By the way, how else was I too have read the study? Particularly when it opens and closes by talking about the huge amounts of money federal land managers “lose” while the state trusts generate revenue, therefore “offering compelling evidence that our federal lands are in need of reform.”

  12. OK, I looked it up. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s lyric that I misquoted above is “Every way you look at it you lose” which works better than the way I tried to phrase it. Note to self: need to be more careful when writing.


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