Targeted public lands investments can help stimulate economic recovery

Targeted public lands investments can help stimulate economic recovery
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As Congress considers additional economic recovery measures in response to COVID-19, there is an opportunity to invest in America's public lands in a way that provides direct and lasting benefits to the public and future generations. Providing targeted support to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would improve health of our federally owned forests and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires, while supporting domestic manufacturing, transportation, family wage jobs and economic recovery in many communities.  

Federally owned forests needed help long before COVID-19 shut down the national economy. Over 80 million acres of National Forest System lands are at risk of catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease. Spiraling wildfire suppression costs have drained agency budgets, largely at the expense of programs that can proactively reduce the risks to our public lands. The Forest Service has also struggled to maintain its critical forest road infrastructure due to a deferred maintenance backlog of over $3 billion.

Federal land management agencies have a long history of partnering with the private sector in managing natural resources, thinning overstocked forests and making improvements to public lands. In return for the sustainable harvesting of timber, the forest products industry provides substantial funding for the National Forest System. Because timber harvests remain the largest source of revenue for the Forest Service, timber sales help pay for forest roads, campgrounds, trails and other amenities on national forests.

As determined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the forest products industry and its workforce are essential and critical to supplying goods, services and supplies every American uses and needs — including toilet paper, tissues, cardboard boxes and hygiene products. Like many others, the industry is suffering during the current economic shutdown. Efforts to bolster and grow this critical infrastructure and its supply chains will help ensure the U.S. economy is more prepared, more resilient and more responsive to future public health and economic challenges.

That is why targeted investments in both the Forest Service and BLM would help put more Americans back to work on timber and forest restoration projects. Timber from federal lands can't be exported, meaning wood from these forest projects are domestically processed and manufactured into a variety of renewable and carbon-sequestering wood products. In addition to providing economic benefits, these investments would help implement more proactive treatments on forests that are at immediate risk of wildfire, insects and disease. The result would be healthier, more resilient forests that are accessible to more Americans.

In late March a coalition of forestry and industry organizations from all regions sent letters to House and Senate appropriators and to the president, suggesting investments for four key Forest Service and BLM programs that can provide effective economic stimulus.

The coalition recommended $250 million for the Forest Service’s Forest Products program and $25 million for the BLM timber program to help prepare and offer timber sales to sustain rural jobs, improve forest health and reduce fire danger. This would provide a strong return for the American taxpayer, as forestry-related businesses support 2.9 million total jobs and are associated with $128.1 billion in total payroll. The coalition also suggested $250 million for the Forest Service’s Vegetation Management program to implement “shovel-ready” forest restoration projects proposed by collaborators.

To support and improve our crumbling public infrastructure, the forestry coalition supports an investment of $750 million for Forest Service’s Capital Improvement & Maintenance roads budget, which would address 20 percent of the agency’s documented roads and bridges maintenance backlog and should focus on providing access for resource management, recreation, firefighting and public safety.  

Such investments in our public lands can be timely and prudently implemented, provide needed stability for hard hit rural economies, reinforce our supply chain infrastructure, while creating jobs and achieving conservation goals that are supported on both sides of the aisle.

Nick Smith is director of Public Affairs for the American Forest Resource Council, a regional trade association representing the forest products sector. He is also executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-partisan grassroots coalition that advocates for active management of America’s federally-owned forests.