Legal battles slow timber industry in Montana

Legal battles slow timber industry, forcing mill closure in Townsend,” an article by NBC Montana, has the usual back and forth over the issue, but includes a table from the USFS with the number of acres and volume affected by legal actions. Totals: 17588 acres, 138.3 mmbf. Anyone know how much of that is sales vetted by collaborative groups?

Ed Regan, resource manager at RY Timber, said: “I think the solution is that timber sales within timber management areas on national forests should not be subject to federal court review.”

That’s unlikely to happen, but it makes come sense to use CEs for timber sales within timber management areas, if there’s no unusual potential effect. After all, most timber sales are common activities and environmental effects are well understood.

Anyone know how much USFS land in Montana is in “timber management areas”?

Figures on USFS ownership in Montana, from the Montana Wilderness Assn.:

U.S. Forest Service: 16,893,000 acres
USFS Wilderness: 3,372,503 acres (~20% of USFS acres)
USFS Roadless: 5,337,694 acres (~32% of USFS acres)

Total USFS wilderness and roadless: ~52%




11 thoughts on “Legal battles slow timber industry in Montana”

  1. How many acres of private industrial and non-industrial forest lands are there in Montana – and how many acres of state-managed forest lands are there? All are part of the timber supply equation. The timber industry is challenged by a lot more than log supplies including market corrections, transportation costs, housing starts and cost of production.

    Let’s face it – the larger corporate mills have always wanted less regulation, longer-term timber contracts, abundant low-cost shelf-stock (10-20 years) and even arbitration standards the public would be held to in all legal challenges.

    The public must always have a say in public lands forest management.

    • I’d say what the timber industry wants and needs most is certainty. If the USFS in Montana projects annual harvests of X BF, but produces only Y BF, mills have to find alternate supplies — or scale back their operations. Maybe a state-wide collaborative group could hammer out 20- or 30-year contracts for Z BF/year. If the threat of lawsuits were to be reduced or eliminated, that would give all parties some certainty.

  2. I think what he might mean is suitability for timber, a plan decision that Jon probably knows more about.
    I think for some people who deal with project litigation, the real question is “what is the point of determining an area is suitable for timber, if you have to do the exact same analysis either way”.

    The answer is “you wouldn’t do the analysis in unsuitable because you wouldn’t be harvesting there.”
    So in a plan, the FS must decide where they “might” do timber sales and do an EIS based on assumptions (I call that “NEPA for might could”). Which in my experience is difficult because you have to make assumptions about where you would do it so you can analyze effects. People can do this, but just because they can make assumptions doesn’t make the analysis meaningful.

    I think somewhere along the line the original idea was to make the plan carry some of the weight for environmental analysis. I don’t know how this has worked out in practice, especially since plan EIS’s are so old.

    And that also makes plan deals difficult… so a forest makes a plan deal with environmental collaborators.. say x acres of suitable for y acres of RW. Then environmental litigators come along and litigate every timber project. I call this the “half a deal effect.”

    It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way the system is structured so that that kind of a plan “deal” is not really a deal. Oh, and this is equally true for Colorado Roadless in another thread, “a deal is a deal except we know others will litigate your side of the deal but not our side.”

    This concept of “something of an agreement that will stand on one side but not the other” might tend to increase the difficulty of collaboration.

  3. For whatever it’s worth, this is an inaccurate way to describe the situation, based on the actual chart:

    The number of acres and volume affected by legal actions. Totals: 17588 acres, 138.3 mmbf.

    As anyone can clearly see, 62.2 million board feet (7,635 acres) is “volume under contract and continuing litigation, contracts not suspended.” That means, nothing at all is stopping the companies who have these logging sales under contract from logging them. NOTHING. AT. ALL. That category alone accounts for 45% of the total board feet and 43% of the acres.

    Also, 2000 acres, accounting for 8.2 MMBF, is not under contract at all and is also NOT enjoined by the courts. The USFS is entirely free to put those out to bid and the USFS has regularly done so for decades. That accounts for another 6% of the volume and 11.3% of the acres.

    But whatever really.

  4. The statistics you provide are, I presume, true; but can be very misleading. What is important is how much (%) of each major habitat type is in wilderness/roadless. We have a lot of FS land in these categories, but it includes a lot of “rock and ice” and upper elevations not capable of growing several important habitat types that occur at lower elevations and on better soils. If we want to assure that wilderness advocates get their fair share, we can’t simply provide them with the “leftovers” after commercial forest types have been set aside. That neglects several elements of biodiversity. Also note that “wilderness” is often not “pure”, being grazed by grandfathered in livestock.

    • Wilderness is probably also not pure because they allow in hikers, dogs, horses and so on.. I’m not sure where you’re going with that. Is livestock grazing “impure” but horse recreational grazing “pure”?

  5. Here’s a related perspective from Oregon. Public lands are not the problem, either from a volume or jobs standpoint. (So that must leave corporate profits as the reason for the complaints.)

    Regarding “timber management areas,” let’s assume that it means areas lands that are identified in a forest plan as “suitable for timber production” (meaning a “regulated crop of trees”). Once upon a time, the Forest Service speculated that forest plan analysis of timber schedules could meet NEPA requirements for timber sales, but they quickly gave that up (site-specificity was becoming a legal issue). Now “suitability” really means it only passed the forest plan test, but the final decision is made at a project level, and must consider site-specific factors. I can’t imagine a project CE being justified solely on a forest plan designation as suitable.

    It’s also not true that timber will not be harvested on lands that are not suitable for timber production. In fact, I see more of an effort to blur the distinction between suitable and not suitable lands and the amount of volume that would come from each.

    Timber purchasers are just not going to get certainty under current laws that take other interests into account, and the Forest Service has been averse to making commitments (much as Congress sometimes wants them to). They tried federal “sustained yield units” long ago, which were intended to provide long-term certainty, and I think that was a universal failure. Large-landscape projects (like the Colville has been noted for), may be as close as they can get (and that won’t work everywhere).

    • Large projects such as the Four Forests Restoration Initiative were aimed in part toward providing a measure of certainty for the nascent (rebuilding) timber industry in the state. Lots of roadblocks with that project, but the same principle has been considered for other areas, such as the east side of the Cascades in Oregon, where forest health is poor and fuels high. The mills said, give us at least X MMBF/year for 20 years (30 would be better), and we can obtain credit to build/expand mills, etc.

      • And my point is that existing laws make it hard to make that kind of long-term commitment. They require a thorough analysis of both the long-term effects and site-specific effects, and new information over that long time period must be continuously taken into account in a way that is visible to the public (and may require their involvement), and may change the decision. (I’d also suggest that it would be easier for the public to accept a long-term commitment if it represented a conservative timber volume based on worst case scenarios for other resources, instead of pushing for maximizing volume.)

        • If the “existing laws [that] make it hard to make that kind of long-term commitment” were to be revised, could long-term contracts be made to comply with NEPA?

          • I was probably mostly referring to NEPA, which is focused on the information about effects. It’s hard to evaluate effects of a long-term and large-scale “irreversible commitment of resources” (NEPA term), so you would probably have to change NEPA regulations in ways that would be pretty controversial. ESA as well.


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