Why is logging dying? Blame the market.

Environmental regulations and endangered species protections are not at fault for Western logging’s decline.

 

Critics of public lands like to say that timber jobs declined and mills closed over the last 20 years because environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act and other laws made the cost of logging skyrocket. This complaint is repeated so often it is usually stated as unqualified truth.

If you believe the rhetoric, the way federal lands are managed has been the problem. If only there were more private owners of the land, local economies would prosper, and there would be stable, long-term stewardship.

If only that were true. But if you compare the mostly private wood-products industry in the state of Maine to the West’s experiences on public land, you find that environmental regulations had little to do with the demise of logging.

Ninety percent of Maine is forested, and more than 93 percent of the state’s land is privately owned, mostly by large timber companies that sell trees to the wood-products industry. If private lands lead to prosperity and healthy landscapes, Maine should be the poster child for the country.  And unlike the West, Maine, imposes minimal regulations on private landowners. There are also almost no listed endangered species in Maine to harry the timber industry.

Yet today, the forest-products industry in Maine is a shadow of its former self. In 1980, there were 25 pulp and paper mills in the state. Today, two-thirds of those mills are gone. Since 1990, the state has lost 13,000 of its approximately 17,000 paper-industry jobs, including more than 2,300 in the past five years. The decline continues. Associated wood products companies in Maine have also seen a decline – everything from wood furniture, wood flooring and clothespin producers have closed up shop.

The decline in both employment and production in Maine was caused by the same forces that drastically cut forest industry jobs in the West: foreign competition, which brought in cheaper wood products, technological advances and new automation that allowed computers instead of people to run machinery. High energy prices and labor costs also played a role as plastic and steel moved in to replace wood.

Think about the brightly colored plastic Adirondack chairs for sale at Home Depot now replacing the wooden chairs on which they are modeled. Instead of wood rafters, steel-beam has replaced two-by-fours in some construction, and so forth. The decline in newspapers and print materials has also dramatically altered demand for pulp production. All of these factors are affecting the West’s wood industry as much as they affect Maine.

These days, most of the new sawmills and pulp mills built in the United States are in the South. Trees grow faster there, and unlike the Western United States, they can reach harvestable age in a decade or two. To the timber industry, the longer you have to wait to cut trees, the higher the risk. Your trees might die in a forest fire, a beetle outbreak or some other natural event. So locating your mills in places where you can grow a tree to merchantable size quickly is a smart business practice.

Furthermore, most of the Southern timberlands are flat and accessible year-round. In the steep mountains of the West, road construction costs are far greater, and snow limits seasonal access.

So that’s the picture: The decline of the Western wood products industry – like that in Maine – occurred because of economic realities that favor other regions of the globe. Blaming environmentalists, endangered species protection, or environmental regulations is easy. But blame fails to explain a changing world, or help us understand its nuances.

Unlike Maine, the West has an alternative. Its abundant public lands – in particular its wilderness areas, national parks and monuments – provides the foundation for another future for the region. While not all the changes that come with the “new” economy are welcome – take sprawl and increased impacts from recreational users – they can be managed if we make intelligent choices.

The West boasts iconic wildlands like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks, the Owyhee Canyonlands and the Gila Wilderness. In the end, federal ownership and protection of wildlands and open spaces is far superior to the Maine model of private ownership and maximized profits.  Our model gives us the chance to manage forests sensibly, and it offers at least some potential for a more sustainable future for Western communities.

George Wuerthner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Bend, Oregon, and is an ecologist who has published 38 books about Western environmental issues.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.