Timber makes forests an economic powerhouse

The Herald recently published an article by First Congressional District Rep Suzan DelBene, in which she promoted the economic benefits of recreational designations for federal forest land. As she put it, “I’ve sponsored several bills to protect lands and help grow our economy.” Particularly in that I voted for Ms. DelBene, I am very disappointed at the apparent lack of understanding of basic economics she displayed, as well as perhaps a disregard for the history and original intent of the National Forests. I can guarantee her that the majority of her constituents in the rural portions of her district would much prefer to see logging trucks rolling through town than another carload of campers. The dollar values derived from the two are not even comparable. One means jobs paying living wages and the other might mean the sale of a few ice-cream cones. A job that is additive to the economy creates wealth, not simply redistributes it. If one takes a raw material (such as a tree) and turns it into a product (lumber) which is made into something usable (a house), each step adds value; wealth is created. On the other hand, if I sell someone supplies (made in China) for $500 so they can go camping, that is simply $500 they will not have to spend elsewhere. I might hire a new employee, but somewhere else someone will lose their job; there is no net gain. Econ 101.

A little history: There is a reason the National Forest System is in the Department of Agriculture and not the Department of the Interior. National Forests are not parks, and were never intended to be managed as such. When the Forest Service was established in 1905, one of its management tenets was the economic stability of communities. The Sustained Yield Act of 1960 and the Multiple-Use Act of 1964 codified a balanced approach to National Forest management. Timber harvests were to be the main source of revenue, while the benefits of wildlife, watershed, range and recreation values were to be accommodated in management decision-making.

I worked as a forester with the Forest Service through much of the 1960s and ’70s. At that time, the agency was a very dynamic organization that prided itself in returning far more money to the federal government and local counties than it cost to operate. There was no need to choose (as Rep. DelBene’s piece professes) between timber harvests and recreational uses; they co-existed well. Log trucks rolled, and the trailhead parking lots and campgrounds were full. Recreationists did not face washed-out roads and closed campgrounds as they often do today. Hunters knew elk and deer to be much more abundant around the logged areas where the young trees still allowed room for brush species to grow. Today, about 25 years since the last meaningful clear-cut harvest on the local National Forest, I see far more game around my Arlington house than in the solid conifer forests in the mountains.

If anyone believes the active timber harvests of those days did any damage to the forest ecosystem, they should challenge their pre-conceived notions and go look at specific harvest areas. Most are so heavily overstocked with second-growth timber you can hardly walk through them.

So where do we go from here? Rep. DelBene wants to designate more land off-limits to any active, profitable use. The Forest Service is currently wringing its hands deciding how to spend its tiny amount of road maintenance money, and next year the Northwest Forest Plan, which was intended to resolve the conflicts over National Forest harvests, will be 20 years old. That agreement has proven to be totally ineffectual. One of the objectives of the plan was to provide a “predictable and sustainable level of timber sales.” For our local forest, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, the predictable and sustainable has been nearly zero for twenty years. Much of the forest was thrown into various designations that for all practical purposes preclude timber harvests. The Northwest Forest Plan has been anything but a balanced agreement. That plan, along with its restrictive land designations, should be scrapped.

Based upon current, local Forest Service data, 76 percent of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie Forest supports timber stands in excess of 150 years old; that is nearly 1,190,000 acres on this national forest alone. So much for almost being out of old-growth. Conservative calculations show that even if this older national forest timber were never harvested, the remaining younger timber in stands outside of wilderness areas could easily support a sustainable harvest in excess of 200 million board-feet per year, with a net value of $60 million annually (based upon similar Washington state timber sale results). In addition to this dollar value, the Forest’s network of roads would be well-maintained via contractual requirements placed upon the timber purchasers. No need to beg Congress for pennies and have to decide which roads to ignore/abandon.

Bottom line is the general public, along with our elected representatives, have really been snookered over the last 20 to 30 years by those with vested interests in fighting and litigating to stop any responsible, active management. As a result, we no longer get revenue from timber sales and our National Forests are in a deplorable mess. There is a reason why 90 percent of Alaskans are in favor of drilling oil on the North Slope; every year they each get payments from the oil royalties. Around here, timber could be our oil, and the beauty is, it is a renewable resource. We are not mining it, we are growing it. I am not suggesting we each get a check with our name on it from timber revenues (although I could learn to like it). If, as was done when the Forest Service had an active sale program, 25 percent of the receipts went to the counties for schools and roads, that would be that much less revenue needed to come out of our pockets in taxes. Remember this the next time your school district floats a new bond issue to be voted on, or when you hear our governor saying how much more gas tax we need for road maintenance.

Ron Baker is a retired forester. He lives in Arlington.

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