How Are Forest Service Timber Targets Set?

From the 2018 Q-1to Q3 Cut and Sold Report
This post is in the interest of a topic Jon brought up here.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue raised annual timber production targets for the Los Padres National Forest from 200,000 cubic feet of wood in 2017 to 400,000 cubic feet this year.

One of the more useful things we can do on this blog is to help increase transparency to the public. Now the last time I worked in Timber Management was in Region 5 and I left in 1991, that is, 27 or so years ago. At the time, I worked on the Eldorado NF. Even then, the Los Padres was not known as a timber forest.

Here’s what I would like to ask the former (or current) timber folks on this blog (if you have experience but it might not be typical, that’s still OK, I’m interested in how it usually works and how different it can be from the usual). If you don’t feel comfortable answering as a comment, you can send answers to me at terraveritas at gmail.

1) How are timber targets set in D.C.? (all the way from Congressional timber appropriations to Regional targets)
2) How do Regions set forest timber targets (assuming that Regions get timber targets)?
3) Do green sales and salvage sales have different targets?
4) Does the FS have a website where the public can see forest targets and look at them over time?
5) I’m assuming that targets come with $, so do elected officials get involved in this process?
6) Who else if anyone, outside the FS is involved?
7) How is the Department of Agriculture involved (do they care above the Undersecretary level? Does the Undersecretary herself/himself actually care about Regional targets or just the whole enchilada and that the FS can meet the targets as a whole?).
8) Is there a way to examine Forest targets and accomplishments in one place (a national table for each year that shows each Forest, its target and accomplishments)?
9) How are the numbers in the cut and sold report related to targets? See the cut and sold numbers I found here and posted in the image above, don’t seem to be related to the targets quoted (400K ccf per year vs. 445 for three of the four quarters?).

If others have questions, please put in the comments and maybe we can get someone to answer these questions.

26 thoughts on “How Are Forest Service Timber Targets Set?”

  1. I’m very interested to hear others’ experiences with timber targets. To answer your questions about transparency from the outside perspective, it’s very hard even for a very engaged stakeholder to understand how timber targets shape decisions. It often feels like this mysterious process drives management decisions much more than planning does, even though planning is supposed to be the thing with which projects are consistent. Thanks for starting this thread!

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  2. Good questions but short answer targets begin at forest level. Forest determines sale quantities based on projected budgets and NEPA constraints.

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    • Yes, and Table 67 of the report tells, by national forests, the number of non-convertible products (to CCF such as Christmas trees, etc,.) sales and the number of convertible products (sawlogs, pulpwood etc.)
      by sale size. The Cut and Sold Report is a treasure trove of information that deserves close attention by those interested in the N.F. management and its results.

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      • Mac, am I reading the Cut and Sold report wrong, or is the 400K CCF target (we don’t have a link to this yet) measuring the same thing as the 445 CCF in the table for the Los Padres the first three quarters?

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        • Sharon, the target applies to sold (379 CCF for Los Padres), not cut (345 CCF for the Los Padres). Unfortunately, sold volume is not a very reliable index of actual treatment accomplished in the woods, what with salvage sales (volumes sold are a ‘guesstimate”) and litigation.

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          • OK I got it, I think I was confused by the 379 ccf (?), versus the article said “400,000 cubic feet.” I think it’s a decimal point thing.

  3. Thanks for posting this and asking those well-informed questions, Sharon.
    Very important to have transparency re: how timber targets are set. Especially to reveal the role of Congress and the administration.

    I was a forester on the Gifford Pinchot NF when Reagan was elected. He increased the cut target dramatically as I recall. That seemed to be done in a bit of a vacuum because the resource concerns remained the same (N. spotted owl, salmon runs, etc.) and those values still needed to be protected.

    The elected officials can wave their wands and call for higher timber targets but they can’t make the other resource issues and concerns go away. It’s like “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” and ignores the many non-timber resource values on National Forest land.

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    • I remember at a Biodiversity Conference (??) in Region 6 (80’s??) where some Rangers stood up and said that the targets were too high, and they weren’t going to meet them because of the impacts. Certainly a piece of the puzzle is “are there consequences to not meeting timber targets?” . Certainly at that time it was considered a CLM (career limiting move).

      How could a Forest Supervisor or Regional Forester ding someone who had done a great job (in terms of analysis and public involvement), when a project happened to have lost in litigation? Which goes back to planning strategy for a unit in terms of lots of little projects, versus multiyear litigation targets. Which makes a better target, a flotilla of small boats or the project equivalent of the Queen Mary?

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  4. Yes, thank you, Sharon. I’ve been dropping hints that this would be a good topic to look into. However, I would be surprised if this well-kept secret doesn’t remain that way.

    The way I always understood RPA/NFMA was supposed to work was that forest plans would be the basis for forest-level volume recommendations that went up the chain to be used by the administration for funding requests to Congress (which sometimes came back down the chain in budget advice as “targets,” which somehow found their way into the personnel performance management system). The 1982 forest planning regulations said something like this. The 2012 Planning Rule doesn’t, so I would also like to know what role forest plans still play in this process.

    Another impression I’ve gotten is that funding for projects on lands not suitable for timber production is different from suitable timber lands. Is this true, and if so, how does that relate to timber volume targets (as opposed to say treatment acreage targets)?

    Thanks, anyone.

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  5. This complex subject is treated in excruciating detail in an essay by me that will appear in the upcoming SAF book 193 Million Acres. Here’s the one sentence that encapsulates the issue —

    “This patchwork of ever-changing and contentious planning, adjusting, debating, and negotiating makes rational management impossible”.

    Read the book for the whole story.

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    • Howdy Mac:

      Do you believe that the U.S. Forest Service management of America’s National Forests during the period between 1950 and 1990 was “rational management?”

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    • Mac, if you understand the process of how targets are set maybe you could just summarize that here? I think most of us readers are more familiar with the planning, adjusting, debating and negotiating and not so much the setting of targets.

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          • Jim Furnish’s perceptive comments of Aug. 16 reveal the unseen forces that act to influence the creation of Forest Targets. Here is the greatly simplified process framework within which these forces act to shape the outcome.

            Year prior to budget year
            Forest staff prepares request for funding (and tentative target) based on Forest Plan as limited by existing resources and capacity. The request prioritizes actions but does not request increased staffing or dollars. Supervisor sends to —

            Regional Office (RO) that adjusts the request based on each its perception of each forests needs and capabilities plus advice from the Chief’s office as to probable funding. Regional Forester send the aggregated request (in which forests lose their identity) to —

            Washington Office (WO) that makes further modifications based on its prioritization of regional needs and send to—

            Department of Agriculture that further revises the requests and forwards it to —

            Department of Interior for inclusion in the coming fiscal year’s budget request, Then sent to
            ,
            Congress (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_budget_process) where after committee hearings and floor debate , two versions (House and Senate)of the budget require reconciliation, after which the bill is sent to the

            President, who may or may not approve it.

            During the budget period
            If Bill is not approved before the start of the new fiscal year, forests may continue operation under a “Continuing Resolution” (provided such a resolution is passed by Congress), which may or may not contain limiting provisions.

            Available funds then flow downward through the bureaucratic hierarchy (more adjustments) and finally reach the forest, sometimes as late as the 3rd quarter of the fiscal year.

            At any time m action by congress (e.g. sequestration) may further reduce, or increase, funding (and theoretically forest timber targets)
            ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
            To repeat an earlier comment “This patchwork of ever- changing and contentious planning, adjusting, debating, and negotiating makes rational management impossible”

  6. Glad you picked up on that statement about the Secretary raising the timber harvest on an individual NF. It caught my eye as well because it was an interesting “overstatement” about how targets are set. There are a variety of ways those targets are set, but the “big number” (the national target) comes from the WO and is divided among the regions. The regions divide their target among the forests based on a variety of factors. the secretary definitely does not set the target on a forest!

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  7. Sad

    The USFS used to have (?80’s?) a linear programming modeling package that used standing inventory and net growth to forecast sustainable harvest levels at forest area level (presumably smaller than 4 or 500,000 acres). Are you all saying that it wasn’t used to determine harvest levels and that national levels never were the result of consolidating these “allowable cuts”?

    Forest industry, including myself, sure used such tools.

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    • Gil, I think you’re talking about Forplan, and the ASQ (allowable sale quantity). ASQ is related to what is in the Forest Plan (in those days, don’t know how they do it today). But given budgets, and the predictability of linear programming estimates over time, no one is cutting up to their ASQ without 1) getting the $, 2) the capacity to do the work (as Larry points out) and 3) likelihood of not being litigated (or social support). Probably further complicating things is that some forests need a lot of fuels reduction around communities, so timber dollars can be used to do that, regardless of ASQ. Hopefully other folks will chime in with more recent/relevant experience.

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      • Sharon – Thanks

        Yup, it was Forplan.
        Glad to know that there was some logic applied to determining ASQ and then adjusting it for actual versus expected experience.

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      • I don’t know that ASQs from the 1990s era Forest Plans in Oregon and Washington were ever met, and that was for a variety of reasons. And there is usually a caveat that those won’t be met unless there is enough money to produce that much timber for sale. But “disaggregating” an ASQ for a forest that was based on ForPlan was not an easy task – there were lots of things on the ground
        that led to the ASQ not being achievable while still meeting the Standards and Guidelines in the Forest Plan. I remember being an ID Team Leader on one of the first planning projects after a Forest Plan was approved in 1989 – For Plan had calculated a volume that could be produced from that area – and there was no way to have that level of harvest in that area – the volume was not there for a variety of reasons – unstable slopes, non-forest land (meadows), managed stands that were not large enough to provide a commercial product, etc.

        Similarly, after the “president’s plan” in 1993, which came up with a PSQ (probable sale quantity), that was never met either, again for a variety of reasons. When the Eastside Screens came into effect in 1993/1994 for the non-owl forests (with a few exceptions), the ASQ was never revised, and harvest levels were greatly reduced after that for a variety of reasons.

        Now that the first revised forest plan (for the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur National Forests) is out for objections/review, it will be interesting to see what the expectations are for the ASQ in that plan for those forests.

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        • I don’t now what happened to my earlier comments on this, but I’ll try again. ASQ is legally a ceiling and most people knew it was based on optimistic assumptions (I built FORPLAN models back then; linear programming models “optimize”). That didn’t stop the Forest Service and/or Congress from using it for targets.

          As a result, the 2012 Planning Rule got rid of ASQ. It now allows forests to make up their own expected timber volume for forest plans that is designed to be used as targets. There is no meaningful ceiling (an evolved linear programming model, Spectrum, is now being used to produce a meaningless “sustained yield limit” that assumes you can log everything anywhere, which clearly violates NFMA). From what I’ve seen recently, the forest planning process is still being used to over-promise to maintain or increase recent harvest levels (typically less than the old ASQs), and likely under-deliver as they continue to encounter real constraints. (The Blue Mountains revisions are using the old planning rule, so there should be an ASQ.)

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  8. Sharon asked if I might share my thoughts, having been a district ranger, planning staff, forest supv, and deputy chief. The method, in theory, is fairly simple, but, in practice, can be extremely murky, with much haggling and “negotiating” (bullying, perhaps?) up and down the line. What follows are not answers, per se, but my thoughts on how things worked, in my experience.
    1) How are timber targets set in D.C.? (all the way from Congressional timber appropriations to Regional targets)
    Ideally, targets are aggregated from regional input and portrayed to USDA and Congress as what can be achieved with adequate funding. Let the games begin! Some (Mark Rey comes to mind – both on the Hill and at USDA) are very astute and accomplished at getting what they want, usually at the expense of others. The game can be played to get more timber (eg Murkowski in AK) or less (more rare). And some agency leaders want more target, some less. And some line officers were viewed as “unreliable”, too risky. Giving someone an unattainable target can also be a gambit t put the screws to their career ambitions. Many permutations to this simple exercise.
    2) How do Regions set forest timber targets (assuming that Regions get timber targets)?
    Similarly, Regions set targets often by aggregating up from forests, but not always. RFs understand that timber money has coat tails and that other programs can also prosper with a bigger timber budget. Some (Mumma, R1, notoriously) kicked against the goads usually at their peril. I well recall RF Rupp pushing BIghorn’s measly timber program mercilessly upward, and I assume other forests got the same treatment. It’s no secret that FORPLAN was “used” to maximize targets.
    3) Do green sales and salvage sales have different targets?
    Yes, because green sales were “planned”, salvage sales were “opportunistic” and could be EITHER substitution or additive volume.
    4) Does the FS have a website where the public can see forest targets and look at them over time?
    I’m not sure. Even in retirement I had to sleuth around to get info like this — which every region and forest timber staff had at their finger tips. But it can and should be displayed at national, regional, and forest websites.
    5) I’m assuming that targets come with $, so do elected officials get involved in this process?
    See (1) above, but it varies by individual. Some, like Murkowski (both Frank and Lisa) are very hands on and manipulative, many are oblivious.
    6) Who else if anyone, outside the FS is involved?
    Hmmm… timber industry perhaps?! What DO they spend all that lobby money on? Conversely, conservation groups lobby pretty hard for reduced targets, to little avail. I think they prefer litigation.
    7) How is the Department of Agriculture involved (do they care above the Undersecretary level? Does the Undersecretary herself/himself actually care about Regional targets or just the whole enchilada and that the FS can meet the targets as a whole?).
    USDA is usually very involved, but the depth and reach of influence is specific to the person. Lyons was laser focused on R6 in owl years; I suspect Rey was very involved with most regions.
    8) Is there a way to examine Forest targets and accomplishments in one place (a national table for each year that shows each Forest, its target and accomplishments)?
    See 4 above, OR find a really good timber staff and beg. Some geeks get off on compiling and sharing that stuff.
    9) How are the numbers in the cut and sold report related to targets? See the cut and sold numbers I found here and posted in the image above, don’t seem to be related to the targets quoted (400K ccf per year vs. 445 for three of the four quarters?).
    Targets are aspirational; cut and sold transactional – rarely do they match. But comparisons are revelatory!

    I’m exhausted just thinking about all this again. I tried to keep answers brief. Short summary — “timber targets” defy easy answers. But for a long time masters of the game were rewarded for figuring out how to get targets and associated money, then produce consistent sales and harvests. Does anyone doubt this? I’m uncertain if this is still the way it is. I kinda hope not…

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    • “But for a long time masters of the game were rewarded for figuring out how to get targets and associated money, then produce consistent sales and harvests. Does anyone doubt this? I’m uncertain if this is still the way it is. I kinda hope not…”

      I concur, after working around some of the Forest TMO’s in Region 5. Some really good ones always produced, able to keep their larger staffs by getting a bigger chunk of the Regional pie. In the end, none of them could keep their teams together, due to drops in the ASQ’s, with the implementation of the original Sierra Nevada Forest Plan. The Ranger District ASQ had dropped from 65 million (in 1988) down to 2.2 million (2000). It is currently at 5.5 million.

      Great information, Jim. Thanks

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  9. Thanks to Jim and Mac for explaining this. Two thoughts.. it doesn’t seem any more mysterious than setting any other kind of target/budget in how the forests, regions, and WO work them. And second, that one thing I remember the budget folks would do in the RO was to rearrange (juggle?) different BLI’s and targets across forests to “keep them whole” in other words, so major disruptions to the unit did not occur. The Regional goal was to make all the targets and spend all the money but the WO didn’t care where, and the Region really cared to craft a budget so all the forests would as OK as possible across BLI’s or whatever they’re called nowadays.
    Lots of moving parts, but it did happen every year so there was a lot of retained memory of the negotiations and outcomes from year to year.

    Reply

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