Right-sizing the Forest Industry

Source: The Forest Blog by Russ Vaagen

Our federal forests suffer from the chicken and egg conundrum.  The Forest Service has reduced its harvest volumes over the last 30 years, which drastically changed the landscape of the forest industry.  Now we have large voids where mills used to dot the map.  We currently face a forest health where the Forest Service needs to create large, landscape-level projects to make a difference.  How do we do this without mills?  The answer is that we can’t.  New, right-sized milling infrastructure is required to pull this together.

It’s time to build a right-sized industry that adds value to the by-products of forest restoration.  We need to quantify which trees and how many need to be removed over time with new forest restoration programs. Then use that data to align with the mills.  These mills are the physical and financial tools needed to get our forests back to health. Many mills already exist, but more are needed.

Big projects require big investments

Much of this can be done by removing some of the self-imposed Forest Service policy constraints.  My desire is to see the private sector, collaborative groups, and the Forest Service come together to build upon our successes.  We need to make projects scalable and adapt them to each unique landscape.  As we do this, we will be building a sustainable supply for the infrastructure of the future.

What does this future infrastructure look like?  Many of the dimensional mills in the west are good indicators of what we need more of.  Mills focused on efficiently using small and medium sized logs.  Many of the companies successfully engaged in collaboration and Forest Service contracts have already invested in technology for the future.

We need to see this expand.  The mills that are in place need to be provided with enough supply to invest in more equipment.  With more success will provide the confidence to invest in areas currently devoid of milling infrastructure.  This is the only way to finance wide-scale forest restoration.  Forest restoration must pay for itself.  The immediate focus needs to be paid to forests generating the most retained receipts.

Collaboration is Key

These companies are participating in successful collaborative groups.  Companies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana are all making serious headway by spending time with conservation groups and other interested stakeholders to come up with plans that work for everyone.  This support is key for the long-term viability of an expanding infrastructure.

In my experience, the collaborative groups are eager and ready to go further and faster than the Forest Service.  The reasons for this are the typical ones: Not enough budget, not enough staff, waiting to hear back from the Regional Office, leadership changes, etc.  How many challenges could be solved or improved with policy changes?  The policy is part of it, but attitude is another.  Even if we were to see wholesale changes passed in legislation, we still need people to implement the work to create action.

We can do this

The last 30 years has created a culture of risk aversion in the Forest Service.  We need to change that and inspire confidence in people to make decisions and try new things.  Collaborative groups have done much of this heavy lifting.  We have seen solutions develop that are creating real log volume for mills.  Now we need the Forest Service, at the highest levels, to help these collaboratives do more.  The volunteer groups have been providing an incredible service to our public lands.  It’s time the Forest Service recognizes that value and put money and resources behind it.

If we can combine the efforts of collaboratives with new changes to policy, we might have a fighting chance to save our forests.  The Forest Service seems like it’s starting to realize this.  Chief Tony Tooke needs to continue to apply pressure and focus on changes to make the agency better and more confident.  Doing this immediately will show us what changes Congress needs to make to effectively restore our forests.  Pulling this off will attract the kind of investment we need to restore our rural forest and the communities that surround them.