Forest Service Disaster Relief Funding: Planning vs. Implementation

This note from the American Forest Resource Council‘s February 2022 newsletter may be of interest:

Forest Service Receives Disaster Relief Funding; Timber Outputs Continue to Diminish

The Pacific Northwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service was allocated $291.2 million in disaster relief supplemental funding to be directed to recovery actions associated with wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters. This allocation is a component of the $1.36 billion of supplemental appropriations provided to the Forest Service through the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act of 2021. Most of the funding directed to the Pacific Northwest will be allocated to National Forests in Oregon, specifically those in western Oregon impacted by the 2020 Labor Day fires. The Mt. Hood, Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forests will receive 85% of the $252.9 million directed to Oregon. A complete breakdown of the funding allocation can be found here.

According to a press release on February 16, a portion of the $30.4 million allocated to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest will be directed to the removal of fire-killed trees posing a safety hazard to forest roads caused by the Slater Fire. Similar expenditure of funds is certain for the Mt. Hood, Willamette, and Umpqua National Forests. Each attempted to removed hazard trees by selling them to the local timber industry for manufacturing into wood products; but were met with lawsuits from special interest groups that halted the removal and utilization of those fire-killed trees. Other activities proposed include road resurfacing, culvert replacements, bridge repair, hazardous material/waste removal, and nursery upgrades.

Counter to conventional thinking, this type of funding influx will likely cause the Region’s timber and vegetation management programs to shrink rather than remain stable. For example, as of December 1, 2021, the Willamette National Forest’s assigned timber target was 65 million board feet (MMBF). Less than three months later that target was reduced by nearly 50% to 35 MMBF following the allocation of $78.6 million in disaster relief funding. The cause of this decline is partly of function of reprioritization to address critical disaster relief needs and partly a function of how this supplemental funding can be used.

There are generally two operative sides to every project on U.S. Forest Service land: the planning side (NEPA analysis, wildlife & heritage surveys, timber sale layout, etc.) and the implementation side (completion of the work). Since each side is dependent on the other to achieve project success, each side must be adequately funded in a well-balanced manner. Infusions of supplemental funding, such as the disaster relief fund, have a tendency to disrupt this balance since its allocation is typically limited to the implementation side of the equation and not to the planning side.

For example, the Forest Service may allocate $10 million of supplemental funding to resurface damaged roads. That money will be directed to the material and labor necessary to do the resurfacing. However, none of that money will enable the Forest Service to hire a new engineer to plan and oversee this work, or a new soil scientist to analyze the impacts of the roadwork. The Willamette National Forest recently pointed to engineering gaps as partial cause for the reduction of their timber outputs, as engineers are redirected from timber sale planning to disaster relief planning.

Another scenario that is currently playing out on several National Forests impacted by wildfire is related to their inability to remove and sell fire-killed trees posing a hazard to roads. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest will allocate funding to fell and dispose of those hazard trees, but none of that funding will support the planning and analysis necessary to facilitate such work. Once again, the Forest Service will be compelled to redirect its current staffing resources and by doing so will likely suffer shortfalls in their vegetation management and timber programs.

If the vast majority of supplemental funding continues to be directed solely to the implementation side while the planning side is neglected, we will likely see future renditions of this year’s Willamette National Forest program, only at a much larger scale. This should be a troubling sign for anyone who is interested in seeing the $4 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act directed to forest management result in more acres treated for hazardous fuels reduction or elevated timber outputs. /Andy Geissler

9 thoughts on “Forest Service Disaster Relief Funding: Planning vs. Implementation”

  1. What a disaster. Is this what the environmental organizations pushed through? It seems to be poorly thought out without any sort of balance. So the FS is going to cut and “dispose” of the harzard trees? Which is ok with the environmentalists as long as none are made into wood products? I find it hard to understand how it is better to spend millions of pubic funds on this when we could actually get this work done with minimum expense, maybe actually creating funds and products for society by having timber sales.

  2. It is my experience on several forests, and talking with staff from several others, that there have been so many megafires recently and so many timber industry acres burned in those fires, that in many areas the mills do not have the capacity to handle much USFS volume. Black wood is only good for saw timber the first 2-4 years following a fire, depending on species and size class, and the industry has dibs on the mill space. There’s no point of taking the time to plan a no bid sale.

    • That has already happened in the southern Sierra Nevada, during the last bark beetle mortality. The one mill expanded its log yard, then filled it up with private logs. The Forest Service salvage ideas didn’t have a buyer. Much of that mortality still stands, waiting for that next inevitable spark. Surely we are past the tipping point on these forests?

      Is someone looking into export waivers on salvaged timber?

      • Yes, the infrastructure has mostly dissolved, thanks in great part to federal regulations and environmental lawsuits, in my opinion, but “desperate times call for desperate measures,” according to the Greeks.

        The current spate of environmental lawsuits in western Oregon to “save” the snags remaining from the 2020 and 2021 wildfires are just one more example of this nonsense. Larry’s solution of emergency rulings regarding log exports is one logical solution that should have reasonably been implemented several years ago. Another solution, complementary to Larry’s, is to reinstitute the active management of our federal forests with 20 year contracts with local businesses, as was successfully done following WW II. That would quickly reinstall a functional processing infrastructure, and with the most modern of technologies. Again, opinions.

    • I believe the last sale the FS put up in Southern Oregon had 7 bidders and went for 10 times appraisal. If the FS puts up a good sale it will sell. It true through they need to do within 3 to 4 years of the fire.

  3. Interesting (and seemingly obvious). Maybe this lack of planning funds is a reason why the Forest Service likes the categorical exclusion shortcut so much these days.

    Bob’s option of 20 year contracts is from a time before NEPA.

    • Hi Jon: Yes, a lot of my suggestions are Pre-NEPA — a time in western Oregon in which large wildfires rarely occurred and were almost always suppressed with minimal damage and rapid salvage; our rural towns and businesses thrived and no one lived on the streets; new schools; healthy wildlife populations; and well maintained parks and campgrounds.

      NEPA was made into law on December 22, 1969, and on the same day in the same town (DC), a group of lawyers were creating the Environmental Law Institute, and the rest is history: ESA; EAJA; the Clinton Plan and non-stop catastrophic wildfires — as predicted — ever since. Eisenhower warned us.

      The targeted species that were supposed to be saved and the “old-growth” trees that were supposed to be “protected” as proxies from logging, are being burned alive in horrific wildfires instead. As predicted. My opinion is that NEPA, ESA and EAJA should all be revisited and revised ASAP for the purposes of revitalizing our rural communities, saving our wildlife, and preserving our remaining old-growth.

    • I’d think they’d be doing more CE’s because… CEs are designed to be used for doing the same thing over and over with relatively few environmental impacts.. and the legislative ones were designed to be used by the same folks funding the projects. It seems to me that it makes sense to use the tools given by the legislative branch. CE’s aren’t a shortcut .. they are a legitimate NEPA too and choice. Of course they can be abused… but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an appropriate place.

      I think 4FRI planned to have 20 year authority based on an EIS. There are a variety of reasons that didn’t work, but I think the authority was granted in the 2018 omnibus bill. I think you could do a giant EIS and have enough material for a 20 year contract.

      • I didn’t say the shortcut wasn’t authorized when certain conditions are met, but deciding officials can always do more NEPA if they want to, so it is a shortcut. Maybe I should have said less snarkily that lack of funding could tempt them to use a CE where it is not authorized.

        I assume a 20-year contract today would be coupled with outcome-based NEPA and its attendant problems. And the contract would have to accommodate uncertain but likely future changes in conditions (and associated NEPA) over a long time period regardless.


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