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
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....