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Know the West

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.