Letters From the West

Contracts that turn wood into forest health projects threatened

At the heart of the debate over both federal land transfers to states and the idea of setting up trusts on public lands is the idea of turning a valuable and renewable resource, wood to dollars.

The premise is that the federal government is hamstrung by environmental appeals, litigation and red tape from doing anything on national forests except watch fires burn. Idaho lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter want to take the management out of the 2,500 Forest Service employees in Idaho and hand I over to the Idaho Department of Lands.

The Forest Service and its allies in the timber industry, environmental groups, local governments and recreation groups point to the progress they are making in both cutting timber and restoring the land and waters through collaborative programs around the state. These programs are dependent both on direct federal funding and a creative tool called stewardship contracting.

Logs at an Idaho lumber mill (Idaho Statesman File Photo)

Logs at an Idaho lumber mill (Idaho Statesman File Photo)

Stewardship contracting began in the 1990s as a way to take the proceeds from timber cutting and direct it locally to restoration and forest health projects. Jim Riley, a forester, consultant and lobbyist from Coeur d’Alene, is a strong supporter of putting the state in charge of cutting timber on federal lands.

But he’s also one of the people who created stewardship contracting. Without it, the collaborative programs that have brought loggers and environmentalists together may fail.
“It’s integral to every collaborative we’re involved in,” Riley said.
Authorization for stewardship contracting ends this year and its future is very much in doubt. Yet you haven’ seen any resolutions from the Idaho Legislature on this program. No one is declaring a stewardship disaster as it is for trail maintenance in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
For a generation the U.S. Forest Service had a remarkable tool for sustaining its programs without asking Congress for too much money known as the Knutson-Vanderberg Trust Fund. Congress established the fund in the early 1950s to allow the Forest Service to take receipts from timber sales and place them into the fund so it could spend the money on reforestation and watershed improvement projects.

Nationally production from private forests was dropping from its peak  in part because most timber companies didn’t practice the sustained yield forestry used today. With 20 percent of the U.S. timber base, the Forest Service was ready to step up harvest to meet the needs of a post-war nation as private forests grew back.

The K-V Fund served its needs well and the programs it supported were expanded in 1976. But free market economists began documenting changes in the behavior of the Forest Service’s managers, especially as the public was becoming skeptical of among other things all the clear-cutting the agency was doing.
Oregon’s Randal O’Toole showed that since managers got more money for most of their programs by cutting more timber, they were pushing to do even more logging, even if it increased damage to watersheds and wildlife habitat. In many forests, including those covering much of Idaho, the timber value was not high enough to pay for the programs and the roads needed to access the timber.

Eventually it all came to a head and the timber harvest dropped by 90 percent.

The K-V Fund is still there but like its other funds, has been emptied by the Forest Service to pay for fire management. Traditional timbers sales are rising on national forests as trust builds between the former adversaries of the timber wars.

But stewardship contracting not only fits the needs of the collaborative groups better than traditional timber sales, the agency had the flexibility to do stewardship contracts for up to a decade, which gives timber companies and loggers the supply certainty they need to attract financing for mills and equipment.

One of the stumbling blocks to reauthorization is that the Congressional Budget Office “scores” stewardship contracting as costing the government and adding to the deficit. But that’s because the office does not score the improvements to the resources the contracts do, Riley said.

This program isn’t sexy and it doesn’t fit into anyone’s political ideology. But it has support from people on both sides.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West