This week in Denver, I attended an annual gathering of timber industry leaders and U.S. Forest Service officials, all talking about ways to restore our national forests that are dying, falling down and burning up – a disaster Ken Salazar aptly called the “Katrina of the West.” Unfortunately, not much progress has been made in the years since environmental zealots stopped almost all logging, chanting slogans like “save the old growth.” In the past ten years bark beetles have marched across millions of acres of forests from northern New Mexico to British Columbia, leaving a trail of destruction that would make Sherman blush. My home state of Colorado now has over 2 million acres of dead trees.
Once these trees die, and even if they burn in today’s all-too-common catastrophic wildfires, they still have commercial value for several years if managers move quickly enough to get them harvested before they rot. Today, however, even that normally valuable wood is worthless because the recession has all but stopped home construction, tanking the price of lumber to all-time lows and devastating a timber industry already on its last gasp. Weakened from years of no available timber – caused by environmental appeals, lawsuits, and regulatory delay – the few sawmills left in public lands states (Colorado has only two of commercial size) are on the verge of collapse. It is appalling that the process is now so complicated that managers cannot even get approval for the sale and removal of dead trees. Are we now officially protecting dead landscapes?
Just as all hope seemed lost, though, the new Obama Administration suddenly pumped over $1 Billion into the Forest Service to save and create new jobs through projects badly needed to restore the health of the national forests. Relief for both dying forests and dying timber companies? Sadly, the first third of that money has been absorbed by the agency for in-house projects, and given out in grants for projects that have nothing to do with either jobs or healthy forests – including a grant for a Girl Scout camp, and funding for outdoor youth programs. Worthy perhaps, but they have nothing to do with forest restoration, and they do not create or save jobs in the industry with which the government must partner to manage our forests. Some funds were targeted for clearing dangerous dead trees from roadsides, campgrounds and power lines – but the money went to out of state contractors while local loggers are going out of business.
The good news is that two-thirds of the money has not yet been spent. That means there is still time for the Forest Service to save hundreds of good jobs by merging economic recovery with the desperate need to clear dead trees and restore healthy forests. There may yet be a success story in the making. But if they don’t get this right, our leaders will have saved nothing but hundreds of miles of dead trees.