Missoulian recounts Montana timber industry’s ‘old-growth liquidation’ strategy


If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps the ones above and below will help tell the story of the timber industry in Montana, the dramatical liquidation of old-growth forests and the subsequent changes – and challenges – to National Forest management, especially in the context of the timber industry’s quest for more public lands logging, less public oversight and fewer pesky environmental laws and regulations to follow. But hey, we can always just continue to blame environmental groups for all the timber industry’s problems, right?

Below is some more timber industry ‘truth telling’ from the Missoulian’s big timber industry series. Here’s the full article.

1993 was also the year Champion completed its “accelerated old-growth liquidation” strategy. Over the previous 20 years, Champion had tripled its harvest. Much of that took place in the mountains around Primm Meadow.

“That’s why Champion divested,” explained Peter Kolb, Montana State University extension forester. “They said they’re going to convert value on the land that’s not producing a rate of return that’s fair. Once we’ve liquidated that investment, the remaining land has a rate of return that doesn’t meet our business model. They over-harvested their own lands, or from a business perspective, converted it to money for the company.”

The companies then turned to the Forest Service, seeking access to federal timberlands. University of Montana forest economist Alan McQuillan recalled Corrick announcing that Champion needed to buy 60 percent of the Forest Service’s available Montana timber after 1992 or the company wouldn’t be here to stay.

Congress also began receiving reports of “phantom forests” of greatly exaggerated tree inventories and underestimated costs of timber sale preparation and road construction. A General Accounting Office study in 1994 found the Forest Service failed to consider factors like wildlife habitat, sensitive plant species, or recreation in estimating its available timber production area. In one example, the study reported that between 1991 and 1993, costs of preparing timber sales on the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon climbed 147 percent.

But by then, the agency had plunged into its own rethinking of its mission. After selling around 12 billion board-feet of timber a year in the 1980s nationally, the Forest Service reduced its Allowable Sale Quantity, or ASQ, to about one-third that amount by 1993.

Locally, forest supervisors were also cranking back the spigot of federal timber. Lolo National Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels whacked his ASQ from 120 million board-feet to 50 million.



5 thoughts on “Missoulian recounts Montana timber industry’s ‘old-growth liquidation’ strategy”

  1. This really brings home the problems with forestry in Montana and elsewhere. In forest management classes, the idea of forestry was to have trees being cut at the same rate as growth. There were exceptions and some old growth had to be cut faster since it was supposedly dying. When I look at the background in these pictures I say, “Yes, trees are growing back but where will the harvest come from for the next 100 years. The Forest Service talked sustained yield but severely underestimated the time to get reproduction growing and the time for trees to reach a “merchantable” size, which to me is more than 12″. Even now, we know reproduction in the Rocky Mountains takes more than 5 years but we don’t want to take these lands out of the timber base. No wonder the public distrusts the USFS timber “management” program.

  2. This is one of the most disjointed posts that I’ve seen in awhile. If the point is that private landowners cut their timber and then came to the FS looking for logs, OK. But is that a new revelation?
    The Missoulian excerpt is a real head-scratcher. Wait! Twenty-five years ago, the FS adjusted its ASQ because of other resources? Shocking!
    I’m not sure what Matt’s point is here.

  3. The following quote leads to a point that needs to be made:
    “But by then, the agency had plunged into its own rethinking of its mission. After selling around 12 billion board-feet of timber a year in the 1980s nationally, the Forest Service reduced its Allowable Sale Quantity, or ASQ, to about one-third that amount by 1993”

    As the following link clearly shows:
    http://www.fs.fed.us/forestmanagement/documents/sold-harvest/documents/1905-2014_Natl_Summary_Graph.pdf – Please note the graph on page 3
    1) The two highest years for usfs sales were 1958 and 1970 at 13.3 and 13.4 BBF respectively. (19 BBF was sold in 1969 but 8 BBF was cancelled leaving net sales of only 11 BBF.)
    3) At no time since 1970 have sales been above 11.5 BBF and that was only in 1981 so you don’t even need a calculator to know that the ’80s didn’t average around 12 BBF.
    4) Sales in the ’80s averaged about 10.7 BBF and it is safe to say that in no ten year period have have sales exceeded the ’60s level of around 11.3 BBF.
    5) Sales for the ’90s average 4.2 BBF/yr. or 37% of the ’60s or 39% of the ’80s.
    6) The low point in sales was 2000-2003 which averaged 1.6 BBF/yr or 14% of the ’60s or 15% of the ’80s sales level.
    7) Sales for 2004-2014 average 2.5 BBF/yr. or 22% of the ’60s or 23% of the ’80s.

    So why does all of this matter?
    a) Assume that it would take 60 years (depending on site) before we would want to put a 1st thinning in on a PNW shade intolerant conifer stand on an average 300 yr rotation (allowing for 0.33%/yr succession to other forest types or regeneration to the same type) for our national forests in order to significantly reduce risk of catastrophic loss from overly dense stands. Assume also that a second thinning might be needed sometime after age 120. Please note that I am not up to date on management of PNW stands so the years may be off. None the less, isn’t it obvious that the reduction in harvests post 1990 has resulted in overly dense stands for stands regenerated or 1st thinned prior to the ’60s which are now due a thinning to keep the stands healthy and reduce the risk of catastrophic loss.
    b) Now consider that the 30 years worth of stands regenerated or 1st thinned from 1960 to 1990 at harvest levels of around 11 BBF will either need 1st or 2nd thinnings over the next 30 years.
    c) Now consider what must we do if we want to preserve these shade intolerant stands and avoid them becoming replaced by shade tolerant forest ecosystems growing up under their canopy (resulting in a habitat that is not suitable for the endangered species that depend on the shade intolerant forest ecosystem)? Again, isn’t obvious that we need to perform a regeneration harvest annually on roughly 0.25 to 0.33% of these stands in order to insure their sustainability?

    Doesn’t it make sense that we should be planning for a sales and harvest level of at least the 4 BBF in the ’90s to keep our forests healthy and sustainable? Of course 4 BBF is only a SWAG but the tools are there for the forest service to plan on a dual: a) hands off “management by chance” approach and a b) sound sustainable forest management “manage to maintain a sustainable, uninterrupted flow of all succession stages for existing forest ecosystems” approach in order to hedge their bets. Splitting the acreage as was intended at one time provides a balance and will eventually lay to rest the question as to who is right in the battle over what is best for the health of our national forests and its denizens.

  4. Think of the Primm Meadow photo as a Rorschach test. Some, seeing only the stumps and cull logs, view it as tragedy; lamenting the “untimely” death of a beloved great-grandfather. Others, while saddened by the loss, see the healthy seedlings and rejoice at the birth of a new strong and productive generation that will bring vitality and resilience to a changing environment. There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping.


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