Guest Post: I knew the forests would burn when activists forced sawmills like mine to close

[Note: This editorial was published last week in, a “Part of the USA Today Network.” Bruce Whiting’s account takes place in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, but the story is much the same for all federal forestlands in the western US, including Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho. BZ]

Opinion: Four generations of my family helped responsibly thin the forests. Then came the lawsuits, and companies like mine simply could not survive.

Bruce Whiting
opinion contributor

For the past 25 years, I have watched with great sadness as beautiful forest has burned, destroying homes, decimating communities and negatively impacting lives.

Even after all these years, I ask myself what else I could have done to prevent this tragedy.
My family spent four generations operating sawmills and working in the forests of Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

Today, our family-owned sawmills are all gone, and I only wish that there would be some way for the next generation to turn the tide and save our forests before they all burn.

Groups began fighting timber sales

Sixty-five years ago, my father moved our family to Fredonia to help operate the sawmill owned by my grandfather and his brothers.

Over the generations, we worked with thousands of wonderful employees, civic leaders and federal officials to care for the Kaibab, Coconino and Tonto National Forests, along with forests in other states.

We prided ourselves in working as responsible stewards.

Then, in the early 1990s, I started losing the battle on forest thinning and was forced to close our sawmill in Payson.

Why Arizona simply cannot let its pine forests burn

Groups like the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and Center for Biological Diversity had made it their mission to block every timber sale offered by the U.S. Forest Service through the utilization of the legal process.

These groups openly admitted to me that they wanted to force the closure of all lumber companies and return the forest back to Mother Nature.

I had no other option but to close in Fredonia, and the results were that hundreds of hard-working men and women lost their jobs.

With little timber, we couldn’t survive

No matter how many times we tried to tell these groups, they persisted with their ill-conceived notion that we could revert back to letting Mother Nature thin the forest.

Regulations protecting the northern goshawk and the Mexican spotted owl, plus a string of environmentalist lawsuits, had ended government timber sales in our areas.

The national news heard about the plight of so many small lumber communities, and in 1995 I was interviewed by Tom Brokaw and his staff for a segment in a series about government red tape.

During our visit, we talked about Fredonia and how it — like many other small communities that were once thriving sawmill towns — were experiencing closure after closure, and that there would not be anyone left to work with the U.S. Forest Service.

I told them that we were starting the slippery slope toward massive fires that would destroy entire forests, homes and lives.

Then in 1997, I lost the final battle in Panguitch, Utah, to keep our last remaining sawmill open.
More than 25 years later, nearly all of the sawmills are gone and devastating fires, like the Dude Fire, are the norm.

Forests are being allowed to grow and grow, building up fuel loads, until disaster strikes.

The logging we need will never return

Where are the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and Southwest Forest Alliance when fires continue to break out all over the West?

Mother Nature has indeed taken vicious control over the forest, after we humans failed to care for it.
And even though it’s needed desperately, the forest product industry and sawmills will never return.

You would have to be crazy to invest that kind of money, not knowing if the Forest Service will be permitted to sell timber on land that needs thinning and cleanup, because extremists are there, waiting in the wings, to shut it down again.

They like to blame global warming so that they do not have to face the results of their actions, but let’s face it: the Forest Service’s options for wise forest management are extremely limited now that they no longer have the sawmill industry as a partner.

Bruce Whiting is the former president of Kaibab Industries and Kaibab Lumber Co.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: I knew the forests would burn when activists forced sawmills like mine to close”

  1. I worked as a Deputy Forest Sup and Forest Supervisor in that country, and what Mr. Whiting says is absolute truth. One thing that was not mentioned was the government over cutting, or more specifically focusing on cutting off the old growth in those latter years of the 1990’s. Those mills were made for large trees.

    However, Rodeo-Chedeski fire of 2002, Wallow of 2011 and the Flagstaff fire of around 2013 (best I can remember), not only burned way over a million acres but also incinerated most of the Mexican Spotted Owl.

    The wildly successful White Mountain Stewardship (WMS) project ended up treating around 72,000 acres before the “conventional wisdom” (tongue in cheek) thinking of the Forest Service took money away from treatments, to put toward the “bigger and badder” 4-FRI dream. My first RLT as a Forest Supervisor was quite an indoctrination; my Forest lost over 2 million dollars in treatment money to shore up shortfalls in 4-FRI!

    4-FRI picked the wrong contractor at award – no doubt about it, then successfully conveyed the contract from the failing first contractor, to an even bigger “dud”; no doubt about that, too! If you actually look at acres mechanically treated on the ground, 4-FRI was a total dud – but an expensive one….. I need to back up a bit: 4-FRI Planning was an absolute success! The collaboration across all parties, the dedication of that Planning Team and the new methodologies employed were just a fantastic success! The actual implementation was what was trash.

    WMS actually treated acres, mostly in the WUI (sorry Bob 🤠) and saved many houses during Wallow fire. We developed our own prescription for treating Ponderosa Pine, had good buy-in from the environmental groups, as well as the public. Also, GTR-310 was developed to lead others in managing Ponderosa Pine.

    But alas, the collective wisdom of the federal government just knew 4-FRI was the answer….

  2. I will be the first to comment on Whiting’s Op-ed. First off I will express my sympathy for someone who lost their livelihood to policy change and environmental litigation. I spend a lot of time in the woods and often ponder what has happened over the past 50 years. The summation of my thoughts is that the timber industry and the Forest Service have much to apologize for what happened back in the day. On the other hand environmentalists have a lot to apologize for what has happened in the past 30 years and continues today. When I walk out in the woods, too often I see large diameter stumps surrounded by scrawny pole-size trees. The stumps are evidence of what happened back then— the scrawny pole-size trees are due to too little action now. “Back when” the timber industry and many in academia crammed down our throats the idea that good forest management was good wildlife management. In other words what delivered the most volume was best for everyone, and old growth trees needed to go, because their growth had peaked. That mentality made a lot of us mad. About twenty-five years ago, I came to realize that nothing was going to be done for the pathetic condition of much of our forests without the timber industry. The forest products industry is the only entity with the ability to remove small and medium size trees at a massive scale and that is what is needed, if it is not all going to burn in unfortunate ways. That too few trees are being removed now is on the environmentalists. The environmental community sees clearly the damage that logging can do, but seems blind to the damage fire can do, when natural fire cycles have been up-ended. The other thing that is obvious is that we all use wood products. To not obtain at least some of our wood products on the public lands is rediculous. Back in the day forest policy was guided almost entirely by econonomics. Forest policy needs to be guided by ecological objectives and removing trees is part of the prescription, but in a more thoughtful way than in the past. It is a shame that harvest levels had to go from 60 mph to 5 mph, when if harvest had been driven at 30 mph all along, a better result would have happened for both people and nature.

    • “The environmental community sees clearly the damage that logging can do, but seems blind to the damage fire can do, when natural fire cycles have been up-ended.”

      I don’t think most of them are blind; it’s just that the fire relationships are more opaque than the detrimental effects of logging. The comparison really should be the damage from logging vs the damage from not logging. The latter cause and effect and probabilities are harder to establish because a fire may not occur, and if and when it does, it may not be harmful (depending on the conditions at that time and place).

  3. The ‘eco-hopes and eco-prayers’ for “natural fires” to ‘save our forests’ is clearly misguided and dangerous. We’re seeing the results of the ‘whatever happens’ program, where human-caused wildfires are not considered in their science.


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