Time for New Forest Management Model

By Beacon Staff

As the new Executive Vice President of the Montana Wood Products Association, I have been traveling around Montana and Idaho visiting member companies, touring facilities and visiting about issues and concerns.

In addition to the importance of maintaining a favorable business climate at the state and federal level, addressing rules and regulations that create barriers or lost economic opportunity, the predominant, recurring theme of my visits so far, is the critical need for the Forest Service to step-up and step-out of its traditional cycle of study, plan, litigate and burn.

Recent figures provided by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research indicate Montana’s forestlands host more than 9 billion live trees. Roughly 75 percent of the inventory has a diameter at breast height of less than seven inches. About 74 percent of the small trees and 85 percent of the standing dead tree volume is on National Forest System lands. Timber harvest in 2009 was the lowest it has been since 1945. Harvest in 2010 reported a 12 percent increase. In Montana, tree removals from non-reserved federal forestlands has declined and leveled off at approximately 150 mmbf per year. Compared to net annual growth of roughly 1.5 bbf per year. Coupled with the millions of acres of dead and dying forestlands, one can certainly understand the frustration.

The inventory is there; but the current supply of goods and services will not sustain our forest products industry nor will current management activities adequately address declining forest health conditions. The sense of urgency is very real. If you think the catastrophic size of the fires in Arizona could not happen in Montana, you are wrong. Clearly, the cycle of study, plan, litigate and burn does not work and a new model must emerge.

Federal resource managers need an ambitious landscape-scale resource management agenda that restores functioning ecosystems by enhancing ecological processes, restores critical wildlife habitat, ensures healthy functioning watersheds, and safeguards our communities. Pursuing this agenda generates tremendous environmental and social benefits, creates jobs, provides economic stability for rural communities, saves hundreds of millions of dollars in fire suppression costs, and returns revenue to the U.S. Treasury.

To move any organization forward takes leadership. State and federal land management agencies are making unprecedented investments in landscape-scale collaborative forest restoration efforts as a new federal land management model, in the hope that local, consensus-based recommendations, and pre- and post-National Environmental Policy Act involvement, will reduce appeals and litigation over time. As a result, many prominent projects have been developed to the stage where success is possible, and where lessons learned are numerous and relevant to future project design. If the old model is broken, then it is essential that projects under the new model mature to implementation. That science-based learning, adaptive management and project monitoring are effectively conveyed to other groups. That planning and environmental analysis is compressed and collaborative problem solving continues.

Forest restoration planning and implementation should take place at a scale commensurate with the scale at which dominant disturbances occur. At these scales, restoration will provide predictable supplies of forest products, including timber for primary and secondary wood manufacturing companies and woody biomass for emerging technologies such as direct-fired energy, densified fuels, bio-chemicals and soil supplements such as biochar. These predictable supplies are necessary to build or maintain the infrastructure and industry needed to implement forest restoration treatments in a cost-effective manner.

Though curtailed, Montana is very fortunate to have a forest products industry still intact. Many states across the West have completely lost their woods workers and manufacturing capacity and, as such, their ability to manage their forests in ways that protect and promote biological diversity. Sustainable forests must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs by practicing a land stewardship ethic that integrates reforestation, restoration, cultivation, conservation and ecosystem services – including the harvest of trees for utilization in wood products.

Julia Altemus is the executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association.

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