What Our World Needs Now- More Forest Economists?

I’m interested in the workings of the journalism-academia-agency-practitioner ecosystem and how these interact to shape how many of us see the world. When I first read this E&E News story on the (thanks to a TSW reader) “logs on trains” issue- the idea of sending logs from California to Wyoming. The next post will be on that topic. This post is a reflection on how hard it was to get input from knowledgeable economists on this issue.

Aside.. culturally, I was trained that “appearance of conflict of interest is to be avoided”. Fortunately for us, we can see the work of the reporter over time has not changed, but for Politico I don’t think it’s a good look.

As you may recall, a few years ago I became curious about “why the economics are such that British Columbia can export chips to Asia, but the US cannot?”. As I wandered through various faculties at universities, it appears that “economists who know about forest products” were either vanishing, or difficult to locate. The only people I had any success with were emeriti (plural of emeritus?) professors.

***Note: I am not being criticizing universities here. Institutions of higher education need to follow the scientific trends and money to stay in business. At the land-grants, this has always been a tension, as attracting federal research grants and serving the research needs of the citizens of the state can be in tension. In some cases, this tension is resolved by hiring the people solving more practical problems in extension appointments, which in some cases makes these folks more difficult to locate.

For example, but the holder of the SJ Hall Chair in Forest Economics at one of my alma maters, UC Berkeley, studies a variety of things not in the same bailiwick. Here’s a link to his lab’s website.

And yet there are practical economists helping people solve problems in the Forest Service and Cooperative Extension. So for a reporter (or me) it can be hard to find the experts. There are some in the Forest Service I know, but for them to speak to reporters requires approval of the public affairs shop. This can be simple sometimes and difficult other times, at least that’s been my experience. And unlike The Smokey Wire, reporters usually have some kind of timeline. Plus one might imagine a Forest Service economist would be quite careful talking about something with policy implications- the things we are most curious about. So at the worst, this is some form of “those who talk don’t know and those who know don’t talk.” Then there’s also a generation gap where many of the old stalwarts of the field recently retired, new people have been hired, but they’re not yet at the same level of knowledge and experience as those they’ve replaced. That’s even if their supervisors want them to study the same things. So it’s all very complex.

Consequently, as a result of university hiring and government grants, we might be missing an entire story when it comes to “getting rid of wood waste” or “getting the highest value from wood waste.” And we might even wonder whether the efforts of the last thirty years or so of trying to develop markets for small-diameter material might have been assisted by the presence of more academics studying the problems and working toward solutions. Isn’t that the point of having experts? To help find solutions and be knowledgeable of what is working and what isn’t?

Maybe it’s just me hankering for a simpler world where there were identifiable experts in useful subjects at our (land grant) schools. I’m not really expecting this from other schools, as it isn’t part of their mission. When I look at what the current faculty is studying, with notable exceptions, it seems more abstract with quite a bit of international work, and it seems that there are actually fewer social scientists (including economists) percentage-wise than in the past. Of course, the departments were different then, and I’m comparing the old forestry to the current department of environmental science, policy and management. Is it still possible to identify the State’s problems (like small-diameter material products and markets) and hire scientists to work collaboratively and help solve them?

Is this happening instead at another campus? How would we find out?

It seems that all this makes reporting, at least in our forest space, much more difficult than it needs to be. So please share the names of any experts you have found out there..

3 thoughts on “What Our World Needs Now- More Forest Economists?”

  1. Or rather we need more forest economies…

    As long as Wall Street / private equity is controlling forest landscapes with such a narrow and short-sided type of industrial forestry we will continue to harvest smaller diameter logs every decade, which is the endgame their “sustainability” has been heading towards for a long time.

    Hundreds of years from now they’ll look back and shake their heads at our clueless mono-crop tree farms that only produced lumber while not realizing the economic value of maintaining a broad diversity of revenue-generating resources that come from a fully functional forest.

    As in there’s so many kinds of alternative forests resources that have not been incubated and subsidized enough. For the most part other forms of revenue generation have been treated as a threat to a tree farm dogma which dishonetly claims the agenda is based on science not solely on quarterly profits for investors.

    But in a couple hundred years all these forest landscapes are going to have so many different type of economies that compliment each other rather than accountants depending on herbicides to grow trees like homogeneous crops that exclude the developments of all the other alternative forest resources/economies.

  2. Sharon, you ask some interesting questions here, but I wonder, are you seeking more expertise than is required? I remember back in the day when NEPA documents had an economics section, I personally am not seeing that anymore and really haven’t for years. Remember back when below cost timber sales were an issue? Haven’t heard that issue in many years.

    I think that most NEPA Coordinators/Foresters have enough knowledge to do the basic economic analysis needed in most cases. I wish I could remember more of my Forest Econ class at the U of Montana, I am sure there was good information there but in reality, I probably learned a lot more on the job. A basic analysis for a Forest of comparing funding/ccf to average $/ccf sold will reveal how fiscally solvent a given Forest’s timber program is. Presumably there are Forests out there that take in more than they spend (the Alleghany NF might be one of them) but there aren’t many, I am thinking. One could argue that it is still money well spent, but from a pure economic analysis, it doesn’t make sense.

    I have seen a number of press releases on the timber transport program to the Black Hills. In none of them do they explain what is the cost to the taxpayer for this? Cost/benefit ratio? What is the cost to cut and deck the timber? What is the value of the timber? What are the transportation costs? Is this being appraised and ultimately, is the Forest Service paying Neiman Enterprises to take the logs off of R5’s hands? Are there other options for disposing of these logs? What are the benefits? Should the Forest Service be in the business of fully subsidizing sawmills?

    If the Forest Service was upfront with this kind of information, I think most of us could develop an economic analysis with conclusions. Should they be providing this information? Of course, they should. We should have the facts when they are using tax dollars to support private industry. Of course, I realize that the US Government does that all the time but in this particular case, it seems pretty blatant.

    • Forester Roy Keene once told me that the problem with bad economics in forestry is that people in the lumber industry only have one response to money losing logging plans, which is to simply increase the amount of forest they cut annually to try to make up for the loss. Or in his words: “they always just take a bigger bite every time the economics don’t add up right.”

      That’s not fiscal responsibility!!! They’re the same way with environmental responsibility as well. As long as they can get cash for clearcutting no matter how little cash per acre it is, that money will always make more in quarterly profits as investments on Wall Street than trees growing on the land for too many decades.


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