The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest revised forest plan was released recently and is now in the objection period. A local newspaper decided to profile the benefits of the revised forest plan to “jobs” – 400 new ones are projected as a result of the revised plan. As a former forest economist, I know how meaningless the economic analysis of forest plans can be, and this seemed a little far-fetched, so I thought I would take a look at it.
The EIS discloses the number of jobs resulting from recreation, grazing, timber, minerals, transfer payments and Forest Service expenditures. That last item (which I think is mostly federal employees) makes up about half of the total employment benefit depending on alternative. Actually, the number of jobs is the same for all of these categories in all alternatives, except for jobs related to timber harvest. There, the preferred alternative (F) increases the timber jobs by five times over current levels (EIS Table 243, I get an increase of 497 from current levels), while roughly doubling the projected timber harvest volume over that resulting since 1980. Elsewhere the EIS says, “An estimated 804 private industry timber jobs exist in this multi-county area.” That doesn’t match the 119 shown in this table, but would mean the Forest would only increase industry employment by 50% or so, but still … My point is just that this is suspicious and confusing.
The reality is that jobs created by Forest Service outputs are usually a very small part of a regional economy (the total number of jobs in this region is over 100,000, so that the total timber-related jobs is less than 1%) and the actual number of jobs will usually vary because of many factors that that Forest Service has no control over. This is a good example of stuffing an EIS with information that does not help with the decision, and in fact may confuse it.
Then there is the question of why should we care. The “regulatory framework” for social and economic benefits (p. 189 of the EIS) provides no authority for “creating jobs.” (I doubt if there is one for doing something about “poverty levels” either, as Mac McConnell intimated here.) The “findings required by other laws” included in the draft ROD do not include any related to social or economic growth. And under NEPA, creating jobs would be a bad thing, since indirect adverse effects “may include growth inducing effects and other effects related to induced changes in the pattern of land use, population density or growth rate, and related effects on air and water and other natural systems, including ecosystems” (40 CFR §1508.8).
Of course, considering a specific effect on a specific industry or employer, might be a reasonable and relevant factor to consider for a long-term planning decision, if it were related to meaningful criteria about the “right” number of jobs and why, and properly disclosed in a record of decision. I’m just not seeing that here, in this draft ROD:
The Plan also contributes to social and economic sustainability by providing plan components that collectively support an array of public benefits including jobs and income, … (p. 20)
This statement would have been true for any alternative, so the economic analysis contributed nothing. It’s unfortunate that this was picked out as “news,” giving the wrong message about what our national forests are for, as well as raising questions about what is really going to happen.