In case you’ve forgotten, the U.S. Forest Service does still exist? Many in our industry have forgotten about this agency, perhaps even chosen to forget it, ever since our industry became barely a blip on the Forest Service radar. In fact, “blip” may be too strong. “Blip” would actually indicate the presence of our industry. But as we all know, particularly those who work in the Northwest U.S., ever since 1990 and the northern spotted owl boondoggle our industry’s role in the so-called multiple-use directive in the national forest planning process has been decimated. Sure, the Forest Service still allows us to cut some timber on national forests, but it’s 90% less than 25 years ago.
During these 25 years it has been painful to watch the hundreds of good family sawmill operations and logging operations, and the tens of thousands of jobs that went with them, disappear into the history books. This catastrophe happened because the Forest Service suddenly decided, at the urging of environmental groups, that these sawmill and logging operations no longer had the right to count on national forest timberland to serve their livelihoods and feed their operations and their families, even though these operations had been doing so since the beginning of the national forest system.
Environmentalists continued to find ways to get the Forest Service to close the door on our industry, whether it was procedural issues in the courts to stall timber sales, or drumming up so-called “threatened” animals that supposedly couldn’t live near a logging job. When I look back now at how the northern spotted owl ruined the northwest products industry, it’s mind-blowing that reasonably educated people could have allowed it to happen. And so it has been with some interest, and amusement, in recent months that I’ve observed the Forest Service intention to establish a new planning rule for its 155 national forests and 20 grasslands, encompassing 193 million acres. It is intended to replace the 1982 planning rule. It supposedly decentralizes to some degree the planning process on each national forest. Its mission supposedly still adheres to the Multiple-Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960, while recognizing the new dynamics of forest management. And it continues to emphasize public participation and feedback.
This new planning effort was largely brought on by the previous plan’s continued pitfalls in the courts. The new plan will supposedly alleviate some of these procedural attacks, on individual forest plans. Frankly, I have my doubts. I don’t see how the new plan will ward off the constant harassment from environmental groups on national forest plans that the old plan always encountered. But there also could be an opportunity here for our industry.
In reading through the draft of the new plan, the timber industry and its resources (at least on paper) maintains a presence. The importance of timber harvest in proper forest management to achieve true forest health (whether through salvage or to minimize fire catastrophe) carries some weight in the plan (again, at least on paper). If the Forest Service wants to do this planning thing all over again, by all means, have at it. But maybe this is also an opportunity for our industry to find a seat at the table, after all these years, and make timber harvesting on national forests part of our industry again.