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Forest Service increases size of timber cut

In a move with implications for both the rural economy and the 2012 elections, the Obama administration announced quietly last week that it has decided to increase the size of the timber cut in the national forests.

The announcement was made only days after the release of a poll of western states that provided detailed information on voters’ views on conservation and public lands issues in those states. See story below.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that an “accelerated restoration strategy” would allow the amount of forest products sold in 2014 to go up to 3 billion board feet, up from 2.4 billion board feet in 2011, an increase of about 20 percent.

The issue of the size of the timber cut is so controversial in environmental circles that the numbers were hidden within an announcement discussing increased “treatment” of the forest — a term that refers to various ways in which forests are actively managed and noting a series of collaborative forest restoration grants.

But Vilsack noted the jobs issue in his statement.

“Through our partnerships with states, communities, tribes and others, we are committed to restoring our forests and bringing jobs to rural America,” said Vilsack. “Whether the threat comes from wildfire, bark beetles or a changing climate, it is vital that we step up our efforts to safeguard our country’s natural resources.”

Vilsack said that the $40 million for 20 forest and watershed restoration projects have been announced for the upcoming year and that the funding includes 10 new projects under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) Program, continued funding for the original 10 projects selected under the CFLR program in 2010, and an additional $4.6 million to support other high priority restoration projects.

Both the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, which is made up of small and large companies and regional trade associations whose members manufacture wood products, paper, and renewable energy from federal timber, and the Nature Conservancy praised the announcement.

Bill Imbergamo, a lobbyist for the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, said his members were “happy” with the first announced increase in the timber cut in some years.

Howard Hedstrom, president of the coalition, said his members “commend the administration” for the move. But he added that the proposed increase “is helpful, but far from adequate to achieve forest management objectives or meet timber demand.”

Hedstrom said coalition members in more than two dozen states employ more than 350,000 workers in more than 650 mills, with payroll in excess of $19 billion.

The Nature Conservancy said in an email that the initial Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program projects, which cost $10 million over 10 sites, had resulted in 1,550 jobs, the sale of 107 million board feet of timber, reduced risk of costly fires on 100,000 acres and improved 66,000 acres of wildlife habitat.

The 13 new forest restoration sites Vilsack announced are projected to help maintain and create 3,300 jobs and save $220 million in firefighting costs, the conservancy said.

Laura McCarthy, a New Mexico-based senior policy adviser on fire and forest restoration for the Nature Conservancy, said in a telephone interview today that the conservancy views the timber cut in the context of a need to thin forests where fire has been suppressed for a century and to raise money for further restoration.

“There is ample, scientific evidence in many parts of the country that small diameter trees need to be removed from forest ecosystems,” McCarthy said. “In many cases the small diameter trees are merchantable.”

She noted that in the Ashland watershed in Oregon, fire has historically thinned out the white fir trees, leaving ponderosa pine. But without fire, she said, those white fir trees need to be cut.

Although there remains a lot of conflict over forestry policy between lumber companies, environmentalists and local citizens, McCarthy said “there are places all over the country where there are people who used to have different views of forest management but come together on a mutual agreement that timber cutting needs to take place in the context of an agreed upon forest restoration plan.”

She also credited the Obama administration with recognizing those situations and putting forward the collaborative agreements.

McCarthy acknowledged that there are other situations where there is disagreement, such as over the impact of new forestry rules on wildlife habitat. Environmentalists are often worried about the impact of forest cutting on wildlife, but McCarthy said there are situations in which timber cutting can enhance habitats.