Perdue has found the right path in National Forests


Last June, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a plan to modernize the Forest Service, “a blueprint for reforms to further provide relief from burdensome regulations, improve customer service and boost the productivity of our National Forests and Grasslands.” Since then, environmental groups have attacked the plan as a sneaky way to increase timber harvests and many Western conservation groups have praised it as long overdue.   

Other national forest management strategy changes, like shared stewardship agreements in which states share forest management decisions on national forests, have been implemented under Perdue. The hope is for more active forest management and better coordination to reduce wildfire hazards on the national forests. These changes are also criticized as backdoor timber harvesting schemes.  

Critics of the changes neglect to give much context, only that harvesting trees is inherently bad. The national forests contain 188 million acres. Thirty-seven million acres of those acres are wilderness, totally preserved, and another 59 million acres are classified as roadless areas, with no roads or timber harvesting allowed, awaiting possible inclusion in the wilderness system. So, the wholesale forest destruction critics describe is not possible.

Notice we are talking about the Department of Agriculture, that is where the Forest Service lies. Not the Department of the Interior (with the Bureau of Land Management with 244 million acres, the National Park Service with 80 million acres and the Fish and Wildlife Service with 89 million acres). Those Interior Department agencies are primarily preservation-oriented, while the Forest Service, at least at the start, was production-oriented. In 1905, Congress (and Teddy Roosevelt) moved the productive forestland from Interior to Agriculture, with the notion it would produce quality water and timber crops. Since then, Congress has decided those crops would be multiple-use and include other things like fish and wildlife, recreation, range, soil and water protection. Perdue is simply going back to the roots of the national forests. 

So, all Purdue is talking about is producing that set of crops from the roughly half of the national forests that is not wilderness or roadless. In fiscal year 2019, the federal government made $215 million in payments to 742 counties impacted by the declining timber harvests from national forests that began in the early 1990s. The payments to counties go back to 1908 when Congress allowed 25 percent of revenue from national forests to be shared with counties that contain the national forests. Declining timber sales caused national forest revenue to plummet. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 authorized federal payments to the counties to make up for the national forest revenue shortfall. National forests moved from being self-sustaining economic enterprises to burdens on the national treasury. 

How severe is this declining timber harvest? In the five years ending in 1990, the national forest average annual timber harvest was nearly 12 billion board feet; in the five years ending in 2017 it was 2.5 billion board feet. Where does this lead, besides welfare payments to counties? 

The Forest Service reports on the timber situation in the national forests and the country about every 10 years. Foresters watch the timber inventory figures, mainly net annual growth (less mortality) and removals or timber harvests. In 1952, net annual growth on national forests was just over 2 billion cubic feet, with removals of 1.1 billion cubic feet. Until 1996, growth gradually increased to 5.5 billion cubic feet and removals was 0.8 billion cubic feet, having begun their decline. Growth also decreased after that. In 2016, growth was 1.9 billion cubic feet and removals was 0.5 billion cubic feet. With removals greatly decreased, why then did net growth take such a dive?  

Mortality, hidden in the net growth calculation, is the key. Mortality was 1.3 billion cubic feet in 1952 and increased gradually until it was 3.9 billion cubic feet in 2016. You have been reading about this mortality in the news, especially if you live in the West, close to most of the national forests, as insect infestations, forest disease, drought and wildfires. The result of all the well-intended environmental pressure to make parks out of the national forests is densely crowded forests ripe for these disasters. 

Perdue calls his plan a modernization blueprint to restore healthy conditions on the national forests, noting that 80 million acres of national forests “are at risk of catastrophic wildfires or abnormal levels of insect and disease impacts.” His modernization plan is a step in the right direction.

Thomas J. Straka is a professor emeritus of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University in South Carolina.

Tags Agriculture Conservation conservation groups Department of Agriculture Forest Service grasslands National Forests Sonny Perdue

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