Vilsack calls for “change”


In his first major speech on forest policy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack laid out the Obama Administration’s plans for managing national forests and grasslands that total 193 million acres (an area the size of Texas!) much of it in the West. Vilsack also emphasized wildfire management in an era when the size of wildfires and the cost of fighting them are both spiraling upward.

Vilsack also asserted that the Administration’s plan to restore national forests and grasslands would create green jobs.

Here’s the core of what he had to say:

  •           Declining forest health and the effects of our changing climate have resulted in an increasing number of catastrophic wildfires and insect outbreaks. It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America’s forestlands with an eye towards the future. This will require a new approach that engages the American people and stakeholders in conserving and restoring both our National Forests and our privately-owned forests. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us.
  •           This sounds good but it is not all that different from what we heard from the Bush Administration or for that matter from Bruce Babbitt and other Clinton-era officials. The open question is whether Vilsack and the Obama Administration can deliver on these good intentions where those others have failed. This long-time forest activist thinks success is unlikely. Here’s why:
  •           The ability to accomplish a task requires using the proper tools for the job. But management of both the national forests and the much less well known national grasslands remain dominated by commercial timber sales and commercial grazing leases. These “tools” were designed to provide economic opportunities and commodities – not for restoration. To date attempts to employ these commercial programs for restoration have been a failure. The proof is there to see on the ground and the reasons have to do with the iron laws of economics.  Let’s look at the economics of national forest timber sales to explain.
  •           In order to receive bids and a buyer a national forest timber sale must make sense from a business viewpoint. That means the amount of money that can be made from the sale of the resulting products must pay not only for manufacturing and marketing but also for removing the logs from the forest. In the rugged and remote mountains of the American West logging costs and the cost of transporting logs from remote forest sites to mills are high. In fact, these costs are so high that officials of Sierra Pacific Industries complained in print a few years back that it was cheaper to get a log from New Zealand to the Port of Sacramento than it was to get a log there from California’s own Sierra Mountains. And the Sierras are less remote than most of the West’s forests.

Getting a western national forest timber sale to “pencil out” (a food-and-fiber term meaning to “make money”) usually requires cutting a high number of trees per acre and including big trees in the mix of what is cut. But cutting a high number of trees per acre opens the forest canopy to light and reduces competition for water. The result is typically that many small trees - which would have been shaded out – survive. Brush, which would not have had a chance when the forest canopy was closed, also sprouts profusely. Within less than a decade these forest stands are choked with highly flammable small trees and brush and fire risk has increased dramatically.

Including big trees in the timber sales is also a problem and not just for wildlife. Research has confirmed what firefighters observe on the ground - that fires move more slowly and are easier to control in forests of big trees.

The inescapable conclusion is that the timber sale is a poor tool for forest restoration and fire risk reduction. Yet the Forest Service – and now Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration – keep trying to use that hammer as if it were a screwdriver. It just doesn’t work and the result of 20 years of trying to do the job in this manner has resulted in forest which are less healthy and more prone to catastrophic wildfire than they would have been if they had been left alone.

It is clear and simple to someone like me who has a university degree in economics and who has studied, lived in and worked in the national forests for 30 years. Yet, like Secretary Vilsack, most westerners are in denial. It doesn’t help that the timer industry, forest service and firefighting bureaucracy keeps promoting the erroneous idea that we must log to save our homes from wildfire. But I believe the main source of our denial is that we so badly want those partnerships between the timber companies, the forest service and local; communities to work!  Desire can blind a person – as any guy who has survived his teenage years can attest.

We pay a price for this denial. Instead of creating new tools for new objectives we remain mired in controversy while the health of national forest ecosystems and national grasslands continue to deteriorate. It is ironic that by promoting timber sales as “fire risk reduction” we are actually rendering our communities less safe and that by promoting them as “forest health” we are actually degrading forest ecosystems.

There are solutions. We could decouple restoration work in the woods and restoration using grazing from the commercial sale of food and forage. In the case of our national forests we would pay loggers and local restoration groups directly to do what needs to be done in the woods. The commercial logs generated as a result would be sold separately to the mills. In the case of the grasslands we would hire grazers to implement restoration grazing in a manner similar to how we hire farmers to raise and leave behind grain on national wildlife refuges.

These approaches can work and their efficacy has already been demonstrated in numerous pilot projects. But I have no faith that Mr. Vilsack or the Obama Administration will embrace them.

My pessimism stems from the fact that even the Environmental Establishment is too timid to promote an end to the commercial timber sale program on the national forests. Instead the corporate enviros now also promote the myth that the timber sale program can be a tool for fire risk reduction – often sounding just like corporate timber executives. The grip on the western media held by the promoters of feel good collaboratives which actually only repackage old wine also appears to be as solid as ever.  How can one get momentum for true reform when those who should be promoting it are so timid and those reporting on it are so blinded?