Philosophy Saturday: How Much, If Any, Timber and Other Products “Should” Federal Forests Produce?

We’ve been having an interesting discussion based on Steve’s post about timber on federal lands.  But I think underlying that is a deeper question.  I also think that this discussion at the philosophical level may also be relevant to various other uses of federal land involving products.

Given, that we want to use products (say, build houses), protect the environment, and work on economic inequality, to what extent should we:

(1) Buy American/independence from other national entities

One philosophy is that if the US uses materials, then we should attempt to fill those needs here.   For example, the Biden Admin supports “Buy American.”  The idea is that we can control our own environmental regulations, our folks have jobs, we get to tax workers, corporations, real estate and so on,  and use the taxes for good things, and so on.  There are also concerns that being dependent on other countries for essentials can lead to negative national security implications.

BUT trade can reduce prices, and we all benefit from reduced prices, especially economically disadvantaged people.

So that’s a challenge to the “Buy American” idea. Except the low prices for everyone interact with blue collar jobs, taxes, international security and so on.  That’s why the whole enchilada of trade policy is so complex,  and doesn’t fall neatly along partisan political lines.


(2) Even if we agree with 1, there is still the question of “how much of the products we use, if any, should come from federal land?”.  Now the Sierra Club has said a)  “no commercial logging” so they must believe 0.  Other answers include : b) only when it is a byproduct of ecological restoration, c) only when it’s a byproduct of restoration and/or fuel treatments.   Another approach is d) to the extent that the land is capable and harvesting doesn’t unduly affect the environment.  I think d is what we spend most of our time discussing, because TSW tends to be full of people knowledgeable about forest practices.  It isn’t, therefore,  surprising that the Sierra Club is/was against FSC certification for federal forests, because the practices don’t matter if you are philosophically against doing it at all.

Now what’s interesting to me is taking these same philosophical positions and relating them to oil and gas, mining, and wind and solar energy installations. All of these produce useful products for US citizens and all have environmental impacts.

  1. Should we do it in the US?   Some would say no mining nor oil and gas, but yes to wind and solar.
  2. If we do it in the US, should we do it on federal lands?  Some say no mining nor oil and gas but yes to wind and solar.  Some say no to everything on federal lands.

It seems to me that the only philosophically consistent approach would be 1) yes to US preference, but no to federal lands; 2) no to US preference, and therefore no to federal lands and 3) yes to US and yes to federal lands with desired levels of local consent, environmental and worker regulations, and appropriate payments to the USG.  The latter is where we spend most of our discussion time.

Still, there’s also question 3.

3) If we satisfy our own country’s demand (or not), should we allow exports from federal lands?  This is another trade conundrum. Trade deficits are thought to be bad, and being able to export is good.  Would that be a “trade barrier” to WTO? But we already have a log export ban from federal timberlands, which hasn’t been challenged as far as I know.

As Oscar Wilde said “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative”.  Still, I’m interested in where you all are philosophically and why.





24 thoughts on “Philosophy Saturday: How Much, If Any, Timber and Other Products “Should” Federal Forests Produce?”

  1. Especially pertinent discussion here in California where we import 70% of our needed wood (lumber, plywood, etc) while living among some of the most productive forestland in the world. I remember reading a quote from someone living in Santa Cruz area when asked about harvesting trees on nearby private timberlands. Basically the comment was that we in California can afford to buy our wood products from elsewhere, so why cut trees within the state. We can have our cake and eat it too. It puzzles me that the same urban mindset focused on the hyper local for food can’t seem to extend that to wood. Maybe we should set up farmers markets for lumber!

    • David.. maybe this old post from 2013 is what you are talking about.

      In the post, I also raised the question of why local food is good and local wood – not so much. As I sit watching trains go by toward Colorado Springs, with wood from Montana, I have to think that there are only some states that produce enough wood for it to show up at the local Lowe’s or Home Depot and so there might be a supply chain problem.

      Colorado has a database of producers in the state.. and other efforts going on.. I suppose other states do as well. It looks like our producers mostly do specialty and artisan type work. So it’s probably a price thing…other folks can get it here cheaper than locals. Still, that’s also the case for food.

  2. Interesting conversation. Public lands are one of our country’s most valuable assets. They will continue to grow in value as the population grows and open spaces become even more rare. In my opinion, resource extraction off of public lands should not detract from their value and should benefit society at large. Timber is a renewable resource, but the primary purpose and need for timber harvesting should be to benefit the resource. It should improve it. The 1872 mining law is an abomination. It is so difficult to believe that we still allow it. Yes, there are certain, valuable minerals on federal land that are needed in today’s society, but to not have to pay for them is crazy. And many of these mining operations have become superfund sites in the past. In the future, water may actually become our most valuable resource. Federal lands should be managed for water quality and quantity. This conflicts with a number of other uses of federal lands.

    • David, I’m curious about your comment, “the primary purpose and need for timber harvesting should be to benefit the resource. It should improve it.” What does that mean? To me that sounds like a personal value statement because if you ask five people what improving the resource is you could get five different answers. So my question to you is, what would that look like to you, improving the resource?

      • Extracted from my post below which I was working on when you commented.


        “improving the resource” would maintain a sustainable forest ecosystem and thereby provide more continuity for the denizens of the forest that are dependent on continuity for their very existence.

      • Good question, thanks for asking. A Supreme Court Justice was once asked how he would define hard-core pornography and he answered, “I know it when I see it”. I guess I would answer that as well if I am asked to compare a resource that has been improved compared to one that has been detracted. I have read many purpose and need statements (and written many myself) in FS environmental statements. I have never read one that stated the primary purpose was to provide wood to the mills. When I read them, I can sort through if that is really the primary purpose or not. Sometimes, you can just tell if they are doing the project to meet a timber target. Other times, you can tell if the project is designed to increase the health of the forest, improve wildlife habitat, etc. and that providing wood to the mills is an additional benefit as a result of that action. Here on the Black Hills NF, they are implementing many thousands of acres of overstory removal. Some of these units are hundreds of acres in size and consist of previously thinned, well-spaced, large ponderosa pine. All of the overstory is removed and often what is left is a dog-hair understory that may or may not be thinned at some distant time in the future. There are nowhere near enough program dollars to pre-commercially thin those acres now and KV doesn’t generate near enough funding either. Has that resource been improved? I would argue that taking large, thick-barked pine with raised canopies and leaving a dog-hair understory, has not improved the resource. Did it provide wood to the mill? Yes, it did.

        • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Dave. One of the advantages of having timber targets is that local mills have something to use for their own planning. There is a lot of money invested into maintaining a sawmill and if they go belly up then the national forest has lost a forest management tool. It seems to me that with good forest planning, some national forests can have areas designated for the primary purpose to provide a sustainable supply timber for commercial purposes (this is dependent on the size and forest types of the national forest) while also providing a variety of habitats to maintain a diversity of native species. It’s important to remember that different species thrive in different seral stages from pioneer species to those that live in old growth. I live in south-central Colorado surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest. The following story gets to Gil’s comment too. There was a fair amount of clearcutting in subalpine zone spruce-fir forests in the 1970s (many of these areas have very little subalpine fir). The locals were mad about the eye sores and no one would have considered these as improving the resource (except maybe range conservationists). They seemed to be barren holes surrounded by green forests. Most of them were successfully replanted, although it may have taken two or three tries. About 2005 the spruce beetle began to eat its way through the spruce in the subalpine zone eventually killing pretty much every Engelmann spruce larger than five inches in diameter in many areas. Suddenly the old clearcuts were islands of green surrounded by oceans of dead and some locals say thank God for those old clearcuts. I’m not advocating for clearcuts in spruce-fir forests by the way, I just thought it was something interesting to think about when considering how to define “improving the resource.” Also, without knowing the entire reasoning behind the issue you described in the Black Hills, I’m inclined to agree with you. Ultimately, it is humans who pass judgement on “improving the resource,” as Nature has no values and will respond in Nature’s way no matter what we throw at it. We just may not like it and it may not respond on a timescale impatient humans can accept.

          • Your story brings up some good points. One of the problems (in the past anyway, maybe still) is that FS employees moved on too often so that they never got to see the results of their actions, and then learn from them. The answer to most of the ills that can beset a forest is diversity of all types.

  3. In a country as large as the US is it really ethical to import natural resources from other countries while preserving ours? Wouldn’t it be better for us to live within our means? It seems to me the purpose of forest planning is to create a blueprint to meet multiple goals including outputs such as sustainable timber supply. Some environmental groups want to turn national forests into national parks, while the timber industry wants to turn national forests into tree farms (this is over simplified, of course), but going to either extreme would seem to require a change in the legislation that currently guides the US Forest Service. One side note here: Isn’t it ironic that John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, once owned and operated a sawmill?

    • As implied in my post below, Imports are a long term negative to disadvantaged Americans. “The short term focus” (i.e. imports in your case) “will perpetuate and continually increase the number of the disadvantaged while the long term focus” (i.e. source locally as much as possible” “will provide more opportunity for them to move out of being disadvantaged.”

    • Mike, I think the ethics question is interesting. So many places to start thinking about it.. suppose we rationed lumber because our demand exceeded our internal supply. Then there’d probably be a black market, and the rich would probably get all of the wood anyway.

      Or there’s the question of “maybe it would be OK to import from a country that really needs the money?” Kind of like economic aid to struggling nations.

      The moral and ethical implications seem very confusing to me.

      • Sharon, another consideration might be the human population density to the resource. Is it okay that the US mostly imports wood products from Canada since it has vast forested areas and 11% of the US population? It’s not just about wood products, though, as the US imports beef from Brazil raised on land deforested to raise cattle.

  4. Starting with the low hanging fruit:

    A) Sharon, thanks for this wonderful post. See Item “D” for my responses to your good thoughts.

    B) David Bakke, well said.
    1) Too bad that the person from Santa Cruz hasn’t paid attention to the smoke in the air. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Too bad that that “preserve the forest now” mindset drove out the Forest Industry infrastructure necessary to maintain a sustainable forest ecosystem and thereby provide more continuity for the denizens of the forest that are dependent on continuity for their very existence.
    2) As far as setting up “farmers markets for lumber”. I would imagine that you would accept farmers markets for timber harvesting for lumber as basically the same thing. And it has been tried in Arizona on federal lands under the 4FRI brand. The project was the result of 3 decades 1980-2009 of pondering what to do about decreasing harvests in AZ.
    a) In “April 2009:” the “USFS released a Request for Information (RFI) for a Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) Project.”
    b) After NEPA, EIS et. al., on the ground harvesting began sometime around late 2014.
    c) “Throughout the 4FRI’s history, from 2010 to 2019, more than 700,000 acres have undergone restoration treatments—thinning and prescribed burning.”
    d) As far as I can remember, during that 9 year operational period, the contractor was replaced at least once, Costs, lack of infrastructure and obstructionist interference just made things operate extremely slower than expected as stated in the Goldwater Institute paper cited in “B-2-c” immediately above. Chief among these problems was the naive assumption that industry would jump in and make all kinds of investments to make things work without receiving a reasonably long contract period and other terms allowing them to set up a viable operation with a decent expected return on investment. You see the feds can print money but the rest of us get put in jail if we try it.
    e) Now the deck of cards has collapsed under it’s own weight. As of sometime prior to 9/15/21, “The U.S. Forest Service has abruptly canceled its contract process for the second phase of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative” (4FRI). “It throws the next steps of the large-scale thinning project into a state of uncertainty. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.
    The Forest Service had hoped to award the 20-year contract over the summer and updated its requirements nearly a dozen times to add more certainty for companies bidding on the job. But the agency Tuesday cited significant financial risk to potential contractors and announced it would reevaluate details of the project.”
    –> Even Russia and China have learned that gov’t planning of the full scope of industrial production doesn’t work. High level administrative ignorance commanding production levels just doesn’t work.

    C) David Mertz – you knocked it out of the park when you said:
    “Timber is a renewable resource, but the primary purpose and need for timber harvesting should be to benefit the resource. It should improve it.” … “In the future, water may actually become our most valuable resource. Federal lands should be managed for water quality and quantity”.
    –> And, of course managing for water quality requires managing forest ecosystems which provide and protect that and it’s quantity. Humongous ashtrays destroy forest ecosystems thereby adding to climate change rather than limiting it.

    D) Sharon – to your comments:

    “(1) Buy American/independence from other national entities”
    –> Agree 1000%
    Re: “So that’s a challenge to the “Buy American” idea. Except the low prices for everyone interact with blue collar jobs, taxes, international security and so on.”
    –> Disagree 1000% – Seems to me that what you say after “Except” above is exactly the reason why we have to take the long view rather than the short term focus on “economically disadvantaged people”. The short term focus will perpetuate and continually increase the number of the disadvantaged while the long term focus will provide more opportunity for them to move out of being disadvantaged.

    “(2) … “there is still the question of “how much of the products we use, if any, should come from federal land?””
    –> See what i said about David Mertz’s wonderful comment quoted in my item “C)” above.

    “(3) Exports are good as long as we follow David Mertz’s recommendations quoted in my item “C)” above. Again, the disadvantaged will benefit. Subsidizing them with a dole only increases inflation which quickly takes them right back to where they started. Get in your time machine and ask the Romans what happened when they implemented a “dole” for the disadvantaged. In spite of many minimum wage increases dictated by the feds, which is not authorized by the constitution or it’s amendments, we have more disadvantaged than ever.

  5. Here is a good example of how “thinning from below” enhances this formerly-crowded forest, while producing mostly white fir and incense cedar sawlogs. I led the marking crew through this Eldorado NF thinning unit. No trees over 30 inches in diameter could be cut, except for safety. We even left multiple clumps of undisturbed forest, inside the unit. Apparently, the Caldor Fire ‘slopped-over’ into this unit, and the firefighters were able to build direct line, to keep it at bay.,-120.332289,287m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

  6. In working with a few Forests recently, I have found that the “course filter” approach to maintaining (essentially) habitat types on the Forests (within the acknowledged historic range of variation) has been used to set minimal limits for the prevalence of some types such as old-growth or unlogged habitat. Doing so, of course, at least influences upper limits for sustained production of products from the Forest. However, I find the course-filter approach not being used with care. Most of our Forests exist as separated units. Applying the course-filter approach Forest-wide allows some units to be “overcut” based on compensations within other units, often miles away. Also, the course filter approach is quite inadequate for specialized species, such as bighorn sheep, requiring combinations of habitat characteristics (such as forage, visibility, topography), juxtapositon and connectivity of seasonal ranges – all retained in the herd memory because they are not lacking for several years that include complete population turnover.

    • James, I think the idea originally was to use the “coarse-filter, fine-filter” approach with the fine filter being the critters (sensitive threatened and endangered species). So coarse was never supposed to be adequate on its own for species protection.

        • But isn’t dealing with “species of concern” part of the 2012 planning reg? Are you saying the plans you have seen don’t adequately address species of concern or T&E?

          • The new planning guides and practices within the Forest Service make the category “species of concern” — a joke. (I hesitated to use that term, but did.) A species already extirpated from the Forest may not be listed. A species existing in the smallest part of a very discontinuous Forest has been considered satisfactory, at least “not of concern”. We made a detailed case for continuing to consider bighorns as a species of concern. They were listed by a different title under the “old” system and previous Forest plan. Something like 25 species, suddenly lost protection in this manner on the Custer-Gallatin Forest.) Our concerns for bighorns were trashed by the regional Forester, in a very rude manner. (Agreeing to meet with us in Missoula, 200 miles away, and then giving us only 15 minutes to make our case.) I rant.

            • I would agree that a number of forests have tried really hard (illegally in some cases) to not identify species as SCC. Where species are identified as SCC, the determination that a plan provides ecological conditions necessary for their viability is sometimes based on next to nothing.

  7. These philosophical discussions are more important now than ever, especially since so many “environmentalist” positions get a complete pass when it comes to their sanctimonious declarations on how the commons should be managed and meted out. I look forward to the day – I won’t hold my breath – when recreation and renewables are comprehensively evaluated for their extractive essence, and then laid next to devils like grazing, logging, and even mining (aren’t rare earth minerals necessary for solar panels?) in the interest of our complete reckoning with ourselves.
    Also, living within our national resource means seems the only responsible thing to do, especially since the planet as a whole is on fire.

  8. I think the default position for the Forest Service has always been “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” In particular, that means not necessarily the most profitable uses or those that generate the most jobs. (But it would be a different philosophy to apply this principle to the world than to the country.)

    There is actually a statutory forum where this philosophy should be hammered out – the Renewable Resource Program required by the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974. While the Program it is still authorized, RPA was amended to make it optional, and there hasn’t been one in years. Here’s what Congress said back then.

    “(1) the management of the Nation’s renewable resources is highly complex and the uses, demand for, and supply of the various resources are subject to change over time;
    (3) to serve the national interest, the renewable resource program must be based on a comprehensive assessment of present and anticipated uses, demand for, and supply of renewable resources from the Nation’s public and private forests and rangelands, through analysis of environmental and economic impacts, coordination of multiple use and sustained yield opportunities as provided in the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 (74 Stat. 215; 16 U.S.C. 528–531), and public participation in the development of the program;
    (5) inasmuch as the majority of the Nation’s forests and rangeland is under private, State, and local governmental management and the Nation’s major capacity to produce goods
    and services is based on these nonfederally managed renewable resources, the Federal Government should be a catalyst to encourage and assist these owners in the efficient long-term use and improvement of these lands and their renewable resources consistent with the principles of sustained yield multiple use;”

    A couple of other points about RPA; the national assessments also required by RPA are still being completed and could help address these kinds of questions, and nonrenewable minerals are not addressed by RPA.

    And one other point; there is currently a known upper limit to applying any philosophy to national forests, and that is sustainability (Gil got this). We can only produce levels of outputs within what is needed sustain the ecosystems (or “ecological integrity” or “benefit the resource”). That limit is to be determined for each national forest in its forest plan before asking what the forest “should” contribute to the greater good. (Once upon a time, forest planning was supposed to consider the RPA Program as one alternative.)

    • It sure seems like a legal minefield, but I appreciate the ‘vision’ of always doing the right thing, for the good of the land. What kind of ‘sustainability’ can we expect from the current state of the Placerville Ranger District, and the Plumas National Forest? What kind of “product” can those places supply for the next 20 years? It might be difficult to get people to transfer to those Duty Stations.


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