Thursday, January 21, 2010

National Forest Harvest

Over the past 20 years there have been many changes impacting the output of our nation's timberland but none have impacted it as much as the management of our National Forests. First, let’s talk big numbers and try to put the whole thing into perspective. There are about 750 million acres of forestland in the United States. About two-thirds of that is classified as “timberland” which is defined as “Forest land that is producing or capable of producing crops of industrial wood and not withdrawn from timber use by statute or administrative regulation”. That definition cuts the area in timberland from 750 million acres to about 500 million acres. Much of the reduction results from set asides such as the National Parks and the designated Wilderness Areas on National Forests. So now we have 2/3 of our forests left to produce wood products.

Second, let’s look at that two-thirds or 500 million acres of timberland. Who owns it?

Even after setting aside our forested parks, Wilderness Areas and forest preserves, public ownership still accounts for almost 30% of our timberland. Public ownership is more than twice that of Forest Industry and about one-half of that owned by Non-Industrial Private Owners. Due to the historical method of “keeping score”, TIMO and REIT ownership is somewhat befuddled and some shows up in the NIPF category and some shows up in Forest Industry. The point I want to make here is that any shift in the way that the 150 million acres of Public timberland is managed has far reaching implications for output of building materials, pulp and paper and biomass utilized for renewable energy. The vast majority of the Public timberland falls under the management of the National Forest System (NFS) so that is where we need to look for change. I have watched these changes occur over time but it wasn’t until I came across the following graph that the total impact was driven home to me.

 There are two points on the graph, both designated with arrows, which will be discussed. The first arrow highlights the peak of NFS harvest as well as the beginning of the impact of the Spotted Owl controversy. The corresponding pie graph sets an interesting baseline. Even though the timber harvest has peaked, only one half of the growth was being harvested and one-quarter of the growth was actually being added to the timber inventory! The second pie graph shows the impact of a forest policy that reduced the harvest to 1/6th of what it had been. The result is that less than 6% of growth is being harvested, 58% is being added to inventory and a staggering 36.5% of growth is dying! We are growing trees for bugs and fire. So who is to blame? Public forests are managed by public policy.

To my mind, this is a terrible trend but it is good for owners of timberland. --Brian

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  1. Brian - That is quite an astonishing change, and I agree with you that it is not a change for the better. Here in the central states (I'm in Kentucky), the major cause of timber harvest decline on National Forests is the actions of preservationist groups like Heartwood, who do not believe that national forests should be used for anything but recreation. In Daniel Boone NF and Hoosier NF, Heartwood has almost halted cutting for the last 20 years, approximately coinciding with the graph. Now, these groups are not the sole cause, but I think they are a major contributor. Forest managers are gun-shy about harvest plans because they know that Heartwood will tie them up in court.

    Interestingly, on the Hoosier, reasonable levels of harvesting have resumed of late because of controversies on state forest land to the north, which seems to have drawn the attention of preservationists away from the Hoosier.

    With emerald ash borer arriving in the region, mortality will go way up, as will the need for salvage logging.

  2. The National Alliance of Forest Owners (where I work) recently published a study conducted by Forest2Market documenting the economic impact of forests - private and public. To look at the difference between private and public forests (it does not differentiate between federal and state) in the study, at, is telling, but not surprising (per many of the reasons in the post). As expected, especially in the West, the difference is dramatic.

    Dan Whiting

  3. I am fairly sure that W.V. (Mac) McConnell, U.S.F.S. Retired, should be credited for the second chart above. He sent it to me last May, along with a discussion that I posted at that time.

    Also, I am not convinced that the downward trend in Federal harvest since 1994 did benefit private forestland owners. Many factors need to be considered, but the subsequent destruction of rural economies in the West has not benefited anybody, IMHO.

  4. Brian and all - This lack of harvesting is also true on Mississippi National Forests which at one time in the 1990s had the highest cut level east of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi SAF wrote the following policy paper on the lack of harvesting problem in the late 1990s. The current policy paper FYI is reproduced below.

    Forestry interests have not been willing to fight the environmentalists in favor of forest management on National Forests and this passive posture has been destructive to the forests and the profession. The environmentalists have controlled the politics of this for years and no one has called their hand on it. This is a very damning legacy they have created.

    Mortality has skyrocketed, livelihoods have been destroyed (especially in the West)and the productive resource base of the nation has been diminished. While some dead trees have benefits in the forest, these negative outcomes far, far outweigh any benefits that the current policy creates. The US currently imports about 33% of our softwood lumber from Canada because of this lack of management on our NFs. What has been the positive result of this approach to public forest management? This failure can be laid at the feet of the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Audubon Society and others that sued the Forest Service in the Northwest in the 1990s. Where are their forest experts to explain the benefits?

    I'm not sure when all costs are considered that the private land owners (who are taxpayers)benefit from this either.

    Bob Daniels, Mississippi


    Regeneration Harvesting and Forest Health on Mississippi National Forest

    The Mississippi Society of American Foresters recommends an increase in regeneration harvesting in overly mature stands on the Mississippi National Forests to correct a growing, over abundance of older, less vigorous stands, especially pine stands. This should be done within guidelines to protect endangered species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, but it does need to begin. It will take decades to achieve the desired balance between older and younger forests. The alternative is to allow Mississippi’s National Forests to become excessively over mature and risk severe Southern pine beetle or disease outbreaks.

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