Save the Dead Trees!

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.

8 responses to “Save the Dead Trees!

  1. Spot on, Greg! It must be difficult for people who grew up in big cities or back east to understand the scope of the forest issues in the west. And they seem to confuse the idea of “old growth” forests like those in the Pacific Northwest with entirely different forests in states like Colorado. We have distrupted the cycle of the nature in our forests with these no-logging policies and created an unnecessary disaster.

  2. Excellect points regarding timber. The scandle will occur when the inevitable fire occurs and impacts the water sheds of Colorado’ Front Range.

  3. Great points, Greg. You would think that creation and protection of jobs would be important. However, the enviros driving public land policy don’t understand that, don’t care, or both.

  4. Greg, the complications of the managing Federal lands may lie in the “complete list of federal statues governing Forest Service Management” 5 plus pages, 194 separate statues- starting in 1872.

  5. I have personally witnessed with sadness the Aspen decline on the Grand Mesa, the pine beetle devastation and the comments from a former retired tree service man who has forestry experience how pathetic it is that we can take money from our wildlife and wilderness and spend it on Wall Street, greedy money grubbers such as corporations who focus on the upper execs pleasure trips such as AIG and yet there is families needing help, forest dying, teen pregnancy that has been an issue for over 20 years specifically in Mesa County CO and many other issues that need the work and funding rather than let them get out of control to where we have to spend triple the money to correct this? What is wrong with prevention, projecting things ahead of time. What ever happened to “COMMON SENSE” and conservative values? WAKE UP AMERICA!

  6. Gerry McDaniel

    Greg: I echo Wade’s comments on the next fire. The Lake Dillon area is one lightning strike away from economic disaster which will impact the entire state and I-70 corridor. The labor intensive nature of proper removal of the beetle killed trees could put a bunch of unemployed people to work. I wonder what the quantum of carbon emissions would be from a catastrophic fire in that area? If we did not have excessive government regulations ( often unfunded mandates or unworkable regulations) we could have been well into the restoration of the health of our forests and the loggin industry long ago.

  7. Eric Sorenson


    Great observations! Today I went on the Forest Service web site and opened the link to approved projects from stimulus funding (ARRA). The result was very disheartening. The project funding is almost entirely “flash in the pan” projects. Short term employment is created with a recurrence of unemployment and no continuing management at the end of each project. Support is sorely needed for the lumber processing infrastructure to retain sawmills as an affordable management tool in the future and retain long term well paying jobs into the future.

  8. Greg,
    Your post highlights the greater problem of stimulus funding in general. Setting aside the very difficult issue of whether or not the federal government should be spending trillions of dollars that it does not have, it seems that too much of the stimulus money is being spent on creating government jobe or short-term jobs with private contracters. These positions will only provide a momentary boost to the economy much like the Bush rebates did after 2002.
    Real economic stimulus should be measured by the number of long term private sector jobs that it produces. In the 1930’s projects such as the Hoover Dam, the Colorado-Big Thompson Project and the TVA were stimulus projects that are still producing private sector jobs today. Forest Service policy that provides for a long term vibrant timber industry should be part of any real stimulus program. Dealing effectively with the beetle-kill problem is important but it is only a symptom of a much larger problem.

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