Where is the forest-restoration economy?

The budget-starved Forest Service gives jobs to the lowest bidder instead of local communities.

 

In the early 1990s, as overcutting and the endangered northern spotted owl put the kibosh on the West’s timber bonanza, forest managers began to dream of a more modest woods-based economy. Though jobs cutting old growth-trees and replanting clear-cuts were vanishing, perhaps workers could restore forests that had grown dense and flammable due to fire suppression, bugs and drought. A vibrant forest-restoration economy, based on thinning and controlled burning, could spring up around public lands, providing good blue-collar jobs and fiber for mills that would otherwise close.

Unfortunately, that vision has never been fully realized. As Montana writer Hal Herring, a veteran of the timber boom, explains in his cover essay, the budget of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 191 million acres, has never been big enough to support more than a small stream of restoration work. In recent years, it’s been consumed by spiraling firefighting costs and starved by Republican-led Congresses eager to weaken federal agencies. Herring, whose last feature profiled the armed occupiers of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, has a knack for telling uncomfortable stories that challenge the assumptions of both liberals and conservatives. This one is no different. He takes conservative Western lawmakers to task for blaming environmentalists for this year’s destructive fire season (nearly 9 million acres burned nationwide in 2017, as of this writing), and reviving the idea that we need to greatly accelerate logging in order to save national forests and the towns along their borders. Even if we had the money to carry out large-scale logging, we lack the infrastructure to do it — the number of mills in the West has plummeted, and those that remain struggle to find markets for their products.

It’s also unclear whether it would work: The warmer temperatures and deep droughts of this era of climate change — denied or ignored by some of those same lawmakers — fuel fires so intense that they burn right through recently treated areas. Herring agrees with forest managers that we need to put people to work in the woods. What if this year’s horrific conflagrations spurred Congress to work with the Forest Service, local governments, loggers and environmentalists to thin and burn lands around vulnerable communities? Could it jumpstart the restoration economy, providing meaningful jobs for struggling Americans? Herring says no, especially if labor laws aren’t changed. Ultimately, he says, it comes down to money: The budget-starved agency will always turn to large private contractors eager to make a good profit. So any jobs will go, as they have for decades, to immigrant laborers brought in under the H-2B guestworker program, who have no option but to work for far less money than Herring’s crews did years ago.

The politics of forest management, labor, immigration and rural economies are dense and fraught with painful contradictions. We hope this issue spurs some difficult conversations around your dinner table.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...