Apr 21st, 2005 - 21:10:55
American Friends Service Committee
Friends Committee on National Legislation
National Catholic Reporter
British Broadcasting Company
Christian Science Monitor
The Register Guard
Environmental News Network
Federation of American Scientists
Car Free Times
The Travels of our First Webmaster
Environment in the News
|"Mountain Morning" watercolor by Jane Farmer|
Many years ago, before Europeans came, this country was intensively managed by the Native Americans. The natives were in all ecosystems and their goals were similar to the white man's in that they worked to encourage plants and animals they wanted and to discourage plants and animals that competed with them.
Fire was a key component of the management strategy of Western Indians. Their villages and communities were kept safe from wildfire by prescribed burning that kept the landscape clear of dry grass, brush and small trees. Historical evidence shows there was much more open prairie around the valleys and foothills and less forest than there is currently. Periodic wildfires swept through the forested areas and shaped the old-growth forest, the remnants of which we see today. The Kalapuya were reputed to grow their tobacco in burned clearings in the forest where there were large burned logs on the ground. The tribes who lived in the Cascades frequently burned under the Ponderosa Pine forest to keep the understory open and clear of brush species and regenerating conifers.
Since the Native Americans were prevented from burning 150 to 160 years ago, and since our emphasis has been to suppress wildfires, fuel levels have built up to catastrophic levels. Fire is a natural occurrence in the West. The question in any particular area is not will it burn, but what is the expected interval between fires. The south hills of Eugene, for instance, should expect to experience small fires every 35 to 50 years, whereas the Olympic Peninsula might experience fire in the form of a massive conflagration every 1000 years.
A century and a half later, we are just beginning to admit to what the natives always knew: that fire must be fought with fire and that small, low-intensity fires will for the most part prevent big fires. But we still have a ways to go insofar as living within the limits of our environment and understanding that there are some things we should not try to control.
During the devastating wildfires of summer 2002 more than seven million acres burned. This prompted President Bush to draft his Healthy Forest Initiative. It is estimated that 190 million acres of public land need to be thinned and managed to reduce high levels of accumulated fuels. Ninety-eight million acres of private and state lands are at risk of catastrophic fire. I agree with this much, more or less.
I have been a working forester for over 20 years, with experience in England, Northern Ireland, and the states of Washington, California, and Oregon. I am primarily interested in promoting sustainable forestry - and in doing the research to discover what that actually is. Thinning and fuel reduction, prescribed burning and wildland fires must be a part of any sustainable forestry system we eventually devise. Please be wary of glib statements by industry, government, or even environmentalists.
Sustainability means forever and covers many aspects: forests, communities, wildlife, soil, water -- whole ecosystems. We may not know enough yet to accurately define this sustainable model, and we may not be willing to accept what a sustainable demand upon resources will turn out to be. When the initiative was first announced, I thought, Great! The government is actually going to get out there, spend some money in the rural communities, and thin its overstocked forests. My optimism was short-lived.
I acquired a copy of the "Healthy Forest: An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities." The "executive statement" of this many-branched trail of paper and internet sites stresses the need for fuels reduction, and argues that citizen and environmental lawsuits are to blame for gridlocking these essential projects. It finished with five paragraphs entitled "Fulfilling the promise of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan." Aha! I thought, here we have the crux of the matter. Because of procedural and judicial delays, agencies were only able to offer for sale less than 40% of the planned timber volume in 2001 - much less than what was offered in the NW Forest Plan.
Here's a quote from that section: "The projected sustainable timber supply has failed to materialize, and the fire prone areas of the forest are unhealthier now than before the plan existed." Now what does timber production have to do with hazardous fuel reduction projects? Timber harvesting, and the accompanying road construction projects, would seem to increase hazardous fuel buildup and human caused fires.
In the environmental impact research from the development of the Roadless Rule, the Forest Service found that fires are twice as likely to occur in previously roaded and logged areas than in large roadless areas. Timber harvesting and hazardous fuel reduction activities are two completely different things. Timber harvests and timber sales are intended to produce a commercial product, usually sawlogs for the making of dimension lumber. Timber harvests are achieved by thinning (occasionally) or by clearcutting (usually, but perhaps with a clever name like "regeneration harvest").
Hazardous fuel reduction is by thinning dense thickets of young conifer trees, brush and shrubs. Often material is slashed to the ground and left. Thinning may be followed by a prescribed burn. This would clean up the tangle of tiny trunks lying every which way on the forest floor. So the objectives of the Healthy Forest Initiative are two-fold: to reduce hazardous fuel buildups and to restore the timber supply promised in the Northwest Forest Plan. I learned that these things are to be accomplished by simply removing the threat of lawsuits by environmentalists (or anyone else).
This is to be done by making categorical exclusions: something for which the president does not need to seek congressional approval. During the fire season of 2002 a Forest Service spokesperson stated on the radio that environmentalists were stalling fuel reduction thinnings with lawsuits and that this was why the forests were burning. Now what the Sierra Club says is "Projects to protect communities are not controversial. We haven't appealled or tried to delay community protections measures, and we won't." Furthermore, the Government Accounting Office reported in August 2001 that out of 1,671 hazardous fuel reduction projects in fiscal year 2001, only 20 had been appealled and none had been litigated.
The Bush Administration, however, didn't like this study and came up with one of its own which found that (surprise!) 48% of projects were appealed and 20% went into litigation. According to Environmental Media Services, the Bush study focused on only 326 projects, most of which were timber sales that did not qualify for the Congressional fuels reduction fund.
Bush's Wonderful World of Make Believe
Anyone in the forests products industry knows that fuel reduction thinning, pre-commercial thinning and early commercial thinning are operations that have to be paid for. Smaller trees have never been desired by mills because they can't make 2x4s or plywood out of them, thus in the past many thinning operations were completely paid for by the government. But that was also because in the past not so much thinning was needed. All the way up into the 1970s, most logging that took place was the liquidation of forests that had grown under the influence of periodic fires. Nowadays, though, fire suppression efforts have made it so that we can't expect decent timber to be created through time and fire. So now we have to spend money doing non-commercial management of regrowth in order to create future valuable lumber. The government, if it is to follow sound business practices, needs to sell its timber for a big enough profit to pay for these treatments.
But the government has not adjusted to the new situation that its own policies have created. It has now developed so many overstocked forests that it can't afford the massive outlay needed to hire private companies to correct this mess. According to Assistant Secretary of the Interior Rebecca Watson, "This kind of subsidy is just impraticeable." But that doesn't change the fact that currently no one in the real world expects to produce a commercial product from these operations.
This, though, is exactly what the government hopes for and hints at in its Initiative. There is a murky reference in the Executive Statement to "funding for … market utilization of small diameter materials,"; however, Ms. Watson, said in an interview while in Montana, that creating a market for small, spindly trees is not one of the pillars of the Forest Initiative. (See Montana Forum .) Instead the government will promise to supply the stuff virtually ad infinitum with the hope that the private sector, given a new, cheap resource, will make some commercially valuable use for it.
Because the government does not want to pay for these overdue, underfunded, and neglected projects, it will trade timber harvests (quality stuff now) as a form of payment for the noncommercial operations. How it intends to do this goes something like this (from Forest Service, USDA & Dept. of Interior RIN 0596-AB99): Under the proposed legislation, hazardous fuel reduction activities, and activities for rehabilitating and stabilizing land and infrastructure impacted by wildland fires or fire suppression would become "categorical exclusions," i.e., they don't require further analysis in either an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement (EIS). As things stand now, if there is no EIS, people can't appeal.
Accordingly, this legislation "would not include activities such as timber sales that do not have hazardous fuel reduction as their primary purpose." So the government's primary purpose is to undertake hazardous fuel reduction activities on these lands, its secondary purpose is to attach timber sales to these projects to provide the money to pay for the primary objective. This is the reason that so many environmental groups are opposing the Healthy Forest Initiative. It is a backdoor means to higher levels of timber harvesting. In particular, a likely excuse to harvest mature forests. (For an example of timber sales disguised as fuel reduction projects, see TheTimbered Rock Fire at the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.)
If the government is going to trade timber sales as payment for hazardous fuel reduction projects this is a bad time to do it. Lumber supply currently exceeds demand, so log prices are low. Since 1997 prices have been around 10% less than 10 years ago, and 30% to 40% less than the boom period of 1992-1996. After the glut of timber created by the February 2002 windstorm, I had trouble finding anyone at all who wanted to buy a load of logs in Fall 2002. (That was, however, a localized glut as everyone scrambled to salvage logs from landowners who hadn't even been contemplating harvesting their trees.) The main reason why timber prices are so low - despite record demand for lumber - is that cheap imports have been flooding in from Canada and Eastern Europe. (For more on timber glut, see "Timber industry officials say they're being hammered by Canada".) Selling off timber at low prices means that we can treat fewer acres for fuel reductions with the money or trade that is earned. It would make more sense to spend what funds are available on priority areas now and hold back timber sales as a source of income when the economy picks up and we have used up our oversupply of logs and lumber - and when other countries are no longer dumping cheap wood into our markets.
As it stands, though, the sawmills and timber companies will be happy to buy massive quantities of high-quality logs cheap. They can be stockpiled and sawn at a future date. In particular old-growth logs will last for many years without rotting. This couldn't be a better deal for the timber companies; they will get to buy low and sell high - in the tradition of the finest of business practices.
A Little Market Analysis
Let us step back from the rhetoric and look at what needs to be done.
I agree there are millions of acres in the Western Forests that need thinning and clearing of brush species. I agree that currently these activities must be paid for as there is little or no commercial market for the little trees, saplings and brush that need to be cut down and disposed of in some manner. Now if the existing dense tree and brush growth is a result of regrowth after timber harvesting on government land, then it would make sense that the government agency involved should have set aside some of the money earned from timber harvesting to pay for the necessary work to fireproof and thin. When we've all stopped laughing, we should remember that the Forest Service and other government agencies are mandated to produce a sustained volume of timber.
To do this management it is required to bring regrowth into a productive capacity. This shouldn't have come as such a big surprise to the government. The timber companies work such practices into their cost accounting when they manage the forests that they own outright. Other activities such as pre-commercial thinning and early commercial thinning could create commercial products if the necessary research is done - for instance stress grading small roundwood for building material. But at this time there is no system in place for the determining the strength and value of small diameter poles.
All lumber coming out of sawmill is graded and stamped according to its quality. Only lumber of certain grades can be used in framing coded buildings, i.e., grades of #2 or better, and every piece of structural wood must have a stamp on it. But if a person or construction outfit wants to use poles in a building project these poles must also be graded somehow. However, currently lumber graders can only stamp lumber that has four flat sides.
In order to grade poles, a lumber grader writes out a certificate describing the poles individually, obviously a more expensive and time-consuming process than giving each piece the appropriate stamp. For small diameter poles to be widely used in construction some new grading rules would have to be developed. Probably these would be based on the width of the pole and the number of growth rings per inch of diameter. The pole itself would be stamped to indicate its comparative strength as dimensional lumber, e.g. the equivalent to a Number One 2x4, etc. Creating a viable commercial product from small roundwood would be a way to reduce the cost of these operations and make them more financially self-sufficient; it would also help private industry.
Of course, the public would have to be encouraged to buy the product --perhaps they would if it was marketed as a hazardous-fuel-reduction product. This would make such poles one of the few wood products you could buy that will let you feel that you are making forests healthier by your consumption of lumber. Until this is done, the only markets for this small roundwood are for chips for pulpwood or to a fence post manufacturer like Northwest Fir in Creswell. Chip prices have been low for years and Northwest Fir is paying $35 per ton for 30- to 40-foot logs with a 3" top. Meanwhile, Swanson Superior is paying $65 per ton for saw logs with a 5" top. These prices make it difficult to supply these markets and make back the expenses of thinning (much less any sort of profit), especially if long trucking distances are involved.
I have memories of contractors working first thinning operations in England in the late '70s. Many of them went broke because the profit margin in supplying pulpwood and fence posts wasn't sufficient to keep them solvent. Currently pre-commercial thinning is done in both public and private forestry as an investment costing between $60-$120 per acre. It is used as a management tool to encourage the forest to grow faster and to avoid doing a first thinning that might not pay for itself at today's chip prices.
Pre-commercial thinning provides similar benefits to hazardous fuel reduction projects. Trees are thinned out to wider spacing by removing dead and dying trees that tend to accumulate under thicket conditions. Creating a viable market for small roundwood could reduce the cost to the landowner (or taxpayer) of pre-commercial or early thinnings.
Back to the Forests
Let us return to the topic of fuel reduction. Many people have moved from the city and suburbs out to lovely wooded properties in the countryside around our rural towns, for instances around Bend, Redmond and Sisters. This development of the countryside places houses out into very fire-prone areas. Consequently, much money and sometimes lives are lost defending these properties from the fires that inevitably come. From what I've seen, these people often like the privacy offered by thickets of trees around their houses. This is the first place to start fuel reduction. Landowners in these places need to do serious hazardous fuels reduction to create firebreaks around their properties.
Experience from previous fire-fighting efforts show that when a fire enters an area that has been treated for hazardous fuel reduction it is much easier to get under control than in untreated areas. Furthermore firefighters at the Los Alamos fire of (2001) mentioned going onto private property that was infested with doghair (short spindly trees perfect for burning) and that many homes had needles and branches on their roofs. Obviously making these places safer will require education and probably some sort of government subsidies like the cost-share programs now available to private landowners for other sorts of restoration work. These areas are closer to potential markets than backcountry projects and therefore any wood products coming from these operations would have more chance of being commercially viable. This would help offset the costs of this work, which are going to be enormous.
The Sierra Club estimates in its own 22-page healthy forest plan that creating 500-yard-wide "community protection zones " around rural towns and properties in the west would cost $2 billion a year for a minimum of five years. However it should be noted that land within 100 to 200 feet of structures is the most important area for fuel reduction. Furthermore, clearance past this zone did not seem to affect the occurrence of house ignitions.
One might ask why the government should subsidize this work on private land. The easy answer is that hazardous fuel reduction projects are cheaper than fighting fires. Once these areas are treated, and made defensible, fuel reduction projects could move out toward the back country. The further out we get from markets the less likely it will be that commercial products will be viable without subsidies of one sort or another. That raises the question of where does the money come from? As far as timber harvesting goes there are two kinds of project s that are very commercially viable.
The first is harvesting mature forest (old growth), the second is thinning older second (regrowth of lands cut over in the 50s 60s and 70s). Mature forest is now, of course, such a rare commodity that it should all be preserved, preferably with surrounding regrowth areas set aside as late successional reserve, if for nothing else than as habitat for threatened and endangered species.
|"Susan Falls", photo by Jim Clement|
However there are large tracts of maturing second growth that can be thinned at a profit. Thinned at a profit; they don't need to be clearcut. If any timber has to be harvested to pay for hazardous fuel reduction projects, I would like to hope that it will be from second growth forests that actually need thinning.
Well, that's probably not going to happen, because we all know that this forest plan is just a sexy way to ramp up logging. If a compromise were ever possible on this, then the following is what I would suggest: Use available funding to do hazardous fuel reduction projects in forest areas adjacent to communities first. These projects could be excluded from environmental impact statements (EIS), if absolutely necessary. As these projects are almost never contested, an EIS is not needed to allow for appeal.
Further, this would speed up their process considerably. But timber sales should not be tagged onto these projects and slid in under the same exclusion. It's important that the professionals that the Forest Service employs go out and look for endangered species before they log mature timber.
Because everyone is worried about fire, it is a cheap shot to combine hazardous fuel reduction with logging of old growth, particularly in this way. The Healthy Forest Initiative removes the environmental scoping that is important on timber sales. Without this scoping and cataloging of species, we won't know what is there that we need to protect.
The question of how to pay for sustainable thinning and not leave the door open for wholesale logging is in part one of how to make the thinning really be worthwhile in itself. Here is one key part of the answer:
Small Roundwood Finds Its Niche
|Pole Wall v. Stud Wall, drawing by Lokiko Hall|
At the Aprovecho Research Center, where I work part-time, we have produced a design for our next building on the campus development project that makes extensive use of small diameter poles. Aprovecho's forest contains many small-suppressed trees that should be removed in thinning operations to benefit the larger trees.
Our plan is to take poles with 3-1/2 to 4" tops, put one flat side on them and use them instead of studs in the walls. A double staggered row of them with the flat sides facing alternatively in and out, placed at one-foot intervals in the wall will give us a nailing surface every 24" inside and out. Rather like using 2x4s instead of 2x6s in a standard wall structure.
Thus, by peeling off the bark and cutting one flat side on these poles we have theoretically increased their value from $35 per ton to $65 per ton - from fence post to building stud. The reason why I say "theoretically" goes back to that the problem I mentioned in the main article regarding lumber grading.
All lumber coming out of a sawmill is graded and stamped by a lumber grader, supervised by the West Coast Lumber Bureau (WCLB). At Aprovecho, we have been sawing our own lumber for our own buildings for about six years. Whenever we have the lumber prepared for a new building we must pay to have a grader come out to the site and stamp each board to be used in the construction. In addition our buildings have used peeled (debarked) poles as substitutes for 4x4s and 4x6 posts to support beams and porch roofs. These poles are also graded and a certificate is written out describing their lengths and dimensions.
This is a more expensive process than just giving each piece the appropriate stamp, as is done with the dimension lumber. After I talked to the WCLB in connection with this article, I was invited to send them a request for a grading stamp for one-sided poles. I sent one off that day.
Other good sites to visit if you wish to monitor this and other forest issues:
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics
Cascadia Wildlands Project
Copyright ©2003 by Matthew Hall and Lokiko Hall
Matthew Hall is an eco-forester using horses for logging when possible. He also is a teacher of ecological forestry at the Aprovecho Research Institute. Ms. Hall is the founder of the famous journal of country life, Bummers & Gummers. Lokiko Hall also writes fiction and poerty. Together, they often collaborate on projects, in the forest or writing about the forests. Visit Lokiko Hall's stories:
Conversations with an Artist: Susan Applegate
The Lay Of King Henry
The Gypsy's Boy
You may write to either Matthew or Lokiko Hall c/o email@example.com
© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By Northwest.org
Top of Page