Down the hill

Sawyer Carl Spencer, a third-generation logger, looks on from a safe distance Thursday after he fell a 100-foot tree in the St. Joe National Forest. Spencer said he falls about 30 to 40 trees per day. The physically grueling work that goes into it allows him to work for roughly six hours before he gets too fatigued. Once he gets tired, he said, mistakes can easily be made.

The amount of timber offered for sale on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest recently hit its highest point in nearly three decades, reflecting a U.S. Forest Service push to increase both harvest and restoration.

In fiscal year 2020, the forest sold 84.5 million board feet of timber, the highest total posted since 1991 and more than all but three other national forests.

“We have met our goals and are getting a tremendous amount of good work done on the ground and contributing to our communities,” said Cheryl Probert, forest supervisor.

The increase helps sustain jobs in the wood products industry, buoy rural economies and fund restoration efforts. But it is not without controversy and causes some forest watchers to worry about the environmental costs of more logging.

The timber program has been on an upward trajectory for about 15 years and risen more steeply over the past few. It’s a dramatic change from the early years of this century, when the program fell on hard times, sometimes selling fewer than 10 million board feet per year. But the recent increase brings the forest nowhere near its logging heydays when, for decades, it sold more than 150 million board feet and twice hit annual totals in excess of 400 million board feet.

Finding a Balance

Providing a sustainable supply of timber is one of the missions of the U.S. Forest Service. So, too, is protecting water quality and wildlife habitat. The tension between the two goals often has led to public controversy.

Timber harvest on the Nez Perce-Clearwater forest and on federal land across the country was slashed starting in the 1990s, following changing public attitudes toward logging and its environmental effects. The public’s desire for conservation arrived about the same time that spotted owls on the West Coast and salmon and steelhead in Idaho became protected by the Endangered Species Act. The listings, along with concerns for environmental values like preserving old-growth forests and clean water, led to more regulations and often lawsuits that dramatically narrowed the flow of timber.

The clamp down, along with mechanization, cost timber jobs and led to mill closures throughout the West, spawning high-profile battles — often referred to as the “timber wars” — over the direction of forest management.

But the emotions dissipated over the past decade or so as many former adversaries agreed to participate in collaborative talks aimed at reaching a balance of environmental protection and timber production. At the same time, federal legislation reduced some of the environmental reviews required to carry out timber sales and gave agency officials more tools to do so. The result has been a gradual increase in the flow of timber.

Officials on the Nez Perce-Clearwater forest said the increase is reflective of much-needed work to address insect and disease problems and to reduce fire danger by thinning overstocked stands.

“The volume is the byproduct of the really important work we are doing,” said Scott Godfrey, vegetation and stewardship staff officer for the forest. “The more volume we produce, the more miles of roads we maintain, the more sediment we reduce and the more fish passage culverts we install — and the more wildlife habitat gets improved.”

Probert reiterated that point, saying the expanding timber program is not only addressing forest health problems where logging happens but also allowing the agency to leverage proceeds from its timber sales to accomplish other work. Through the Forest Service Stewardship Program and its Good Neighbor Authority, forest officials are able to retain some of the receipts from timber sales and use them elsewhere. She said the agency is using timber dollars to do things like stabilize roads, replace undersized culverts and match grant funding for large restoration projects.

“We were fourth in the nation for timber volume sold and also fourth in the nation for our five-year average of stream miles restored, and those are directly related,” she said.

Not only does the timber program help feed logs to local mills and sustain rural economies, Probert said work to stabilize roads helps maintain access and recreation.

“One of the things we try to do is take care of those high-access routes that are important to our counties and our communities,” she said.

Old tensions still present

Environmental groups are split over the uptick. Some, like Gary Macfarlane of the Moscow-based Friends of the Clearwater, say it is damaging water quality and habitat for salmon and steelhead. While others, like Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League, say current logging levels appear sustainable as long as the work is done with proper environmental review and robust public participation.

“If they maintain the current riparian buffers, if they don’t harvest old growth and they provide adequate wildlife habitat security, I think 125 million board feet (per year) is sustainable,” Smith said.

That annual target was included in an early draft of the agency’s revised forest plan, a document that is still under development. A later draft kept the target of 125 million to 150 million board feet but also included an alternative that could see the annual goal skyrocket to 261 million board feet.

“I just don’t think that number is sustainable for wildlife, habitat and fish,” Smith said.

If logging is to increase from levels of recent decades, he would like forest officials to commit to reviewing the environmental consequences of timber sales. Federal legislation has increasingly given the agency the ability to reduce the intensity of the review process, which he said limits the public’s ability to participate.

“These are public lands, and people should have the ability to provide meaningful comment and understand the environmental impacts and ultimately shape the (agency’s) decisions,” he said. “If we continue to move toward expedited timber sales and limited public involvement and environmental review, we are cutting the public out of the process.”

The Idaho Conservation League is a participant in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, a group of diverse interests that meets regularly to discuss management of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

The Friends of the Clearwater has declined to participate in that process and views the upward trend of timber harvest as an environmental threat. Macfarlane, the group’s ecosystem defense director, said more logging will compromise water quality at a time when salmon and steelhead runs have been on a general downward trend. He doesn’t buy the agency’s contention that logging leads to improved environmental conditions.

“To conflate logging with restoration is one of the biggest hoaxes perpetrated on the American public,” he said. “There is no science that supports that — none.”

He said despite the agency’s effort to reduce sediment leaching into streams by doing things like removing old roads from the landscape, it often fails to meet standards in its 1987 forest plan. Macfarlane fears the update officials are working on will weaken many of the existing protections

“They are always predicting an upward trend (in water quality) for all of the road decommissioning they are doing, but when they go back into the watershed (to monitor water quality) they are still not meeting forest plan objectives. That is why they want a new plan that removes those objectives.”

‘Zone of agreement’

The increased pace has been welcomed by members of the timber industry and some political leaders. Tom Schultz, vice president of resources and government affairs for Idaho Forest Group, credits some of the upward trend to the work of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative that his company has participated in. It has produced what he calls a “zone of agreement.”

“I think on the forest side there is a general agreement on what forest restoration entails and the need for forest restoration,” Schultz said.

He said federal forests in Idaho have some of the highest levels of insect and disease in the country, and he believes timber harvest targets of 125 million to 150 million board feet included in the Nez Perce-Clearwater’s draft forest plan are environmentally sustainable. But he questions whether the agency has the ability to pull it off.

“Do they have the staff and funding to do so?” he asked. “The other piece is do they have the support, the social license? Part of that is communication and collaboration. The (Clearwater Basin Collaborative) has been effective in working with diverse interests to identify agreed-upon output.”

Greg Danly of Empire Lumber Company at Kamiah and Weippe credits Probert and her team for increasing the amount of timber offered for sale.

“It’s easy to label the Forest Service as a nebulous entity that isn’t real people, but I know these people personally, and they work awfully hard,” he said.

Danly, another member of the collaborative, noted that, despite the forest’s large size, the timber base is quite small. When wilderness and roadless areas are taken into account, plus places with steep slopes, unstable soil or those that are too close to streams, it leaves little area for loggers to work.

“We operate on so little of this national forest,” he said. “We really only actively manage 17.5 percent of it. It’s a minuscule amount.”

Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt is a member of the Clearwater Collaborative as well. While Brant is pleased that more timber sales are helping sustain jobs in his county, he wishes the agency would carry out the sales in a different manner.

Because the agency uses programs like the Good Neighbor Authority and stewardship contracting highlighted by Probert, less money flows to local governments. Counties historically receive 25 percent of the proceeds from federal timber sales that occur within their boundaries. But the programs allowing the agency to reinvest proceeds of timber harvest into restoration cut the county out of its share.

“It doesn’t leave anything in the 25 percent fund for schools or roads,” he said.

Brandt also wishes the increase would have happened sooner, before many of the region’s mills shut down.

“The downside is it’s too late for Clearwater Forest Industries, Konkolville, Blue North and the Elk City mill,” he said.

With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris headed to the White House, Brandt, a conservative Republican, fears recent gains could be reversed.

“If the Green New Deal comes into play, we are going to go backwards,” he said.

The Green New Deal is a mix of social justice, economic and climate-change-fighting goals pushed by some Democratic members of Congress. It emphasizes measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and speaks broadly of protecting public land and fragile ecosystems, while restoring areas that have been deforested. It doesn’t specifically address logging.

While Biden has said he has his own plan to fight climate change and doesn’t support the Green New Deal, he has called it a “crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

“The volume is the byproduct (timber) of the really important work we are doing. The more volume we produce, the more miles of roads we maintain, the more sediment we reduce and the more fish passage culverts we install — and the more wildlife habitat gets improved.”

Scott Godfrey, vegetation and stewardship staff officer for the forest

“To conflate logging with restoration is one of the biggest hoaxes perpetrated on the American public. There is no science that supports that — none.”

Gary Macfarlane, cosystem defense director for Friends of the Clearwater

“These are public lands, and people should have the ability to provide meaningful comment and understand the environmental impacts and ultimately shape the (agency’s) decisions. If we continue to move toward expedited timber sales and limited public involvement and environmental review, we are cutting the public out of the process.”

Brad Smith, Idaho Conservation League

“If the Green New Deal comes into play, we are going to go backwards.”

Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt