Is this the future of America’s national forests, or will Congress wake up before it is too late?
During these times of depressed lumber markets, lack of traction for biomass utilization infrastructure and markets, the poor economy and reduced budgets and personnel for our land management agencies, it’s hard to be an optimist about both forest products businesses and federal land management. However, I would like to discuss what I think are some big opportunities that exist as a result of these severe economic times. The opportunities are for both forest product businesses as well as for land managers.
TWO VERY LARGE UNDERFUNDED MANAGEMENT NEEDS:
1. PLANTATION THINNING
Many plantations established over the past 15 to 40 years (1972 to 1997) that are not of sawlog-size are currently backlogged for either precommercial (i.e. thinning without utilization) or commercial thinning (i.e. thinning with utilization of posts, poles, biomass, small diameter pulpwood and incidental smallwood sawlogs).
Aerial view of several plantations that could be in need of mechanical thinning treatments. Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
Current Forest Service budgets for conducting precommercial thinning are small compared to the need and are declining. For example, there is only enough funding to accomplish about 250 acres of precommercial thinning plantations on the Bonners Ferry Ranger District for fiscal year 2012 (personal communication with the North Zone timber stand improvement program manager). This trend is national in scope. Put in a Regional perspective, data provided to me by the Forest Service Northern Region office in Missoula indicates that there are currently about one and a half million acres of plantations that are between 15 and 40 years old. These are the age classes that are normally desireable for thinning treatments in order to reduce the stocking level, control the desired species mix, maintain the health and excellerate growth of the remaining trees. Trees that would be cut during the thinning create a fire hazard if the resulting slash is not disposed of either through piling and burning or by removal from the site.
This need for thinning and slash disposal creates an opportunity for the Forest Service and other forestland managers to enlist the aid of businesses that possess small-scale mechanical thinning machines where a combination of forest product markets and available funding mechanisms such as service contracts, stewardship contracts and forest product sale contracts (pulpwood and small sawlog) can accomplish this work even when markets and funding are limiting.
The costs of accomplishing thinning treatments, combined with the values of available forest products, may in many cases strike a balance where thinning can be accomplished at or near zero for the government (otherwise known as us taxpayers).
In other cases, the cost of mechanically thinning 15 year old plantations by mulching without utilization of biomass may equal the current cost of hand-thinning followed by piling and burning. Mulching has the benefit of eliminating smoke and incidental mortality of residual trees that would otherwise result from burning slash piles. This is a way for small businesses to survive forest product market downturns and continue to make payments on their equipment.
2. FOREST ROAD MAINTENANCE
A brushed in forest road in need of roadside vegetation removal. Priest Lake Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Photo by author.
A recent Forest Service issue paper titled: “USDA Forest Service Update September 2009; Subject: Legacy Roads and Trails Funding” discloses the following information about the Forest Service road system:
Congress continues to be concerned about the condition of Forest Service roads and the potential environmental impacts.
The Forest Service Road System includes 378,000 total miles. The best estimate is that the Forest Service can only maintain about 25% to standard through appropriation dollars.
Issue Key Points:
These two Forest Service management needs for plantation thinning and road maintenance are vastly underfunded. Yet the lack of funding creates a huge opportunity for exploiting the value of forest products to provide the funding for the needed work, if only forest product businesses can be developed to help meet the need.
The concept of using small-scale machinery that can harvest small trees while accomplishing plantation thinning and road maintenance vegetative clearing objectives is not just hypothetical; people are already at work at making this concept successful.
Following are a few examples of how plantation thinning and road maintenance can be accomplished without requiring additional funding for the Forest Service.
Meet Ehrmantrout Thinning Services; Owned and operated by Dave Ehrmantrout and two of his sons, Mackey and Nick; (firstname.lastname@example.org, cell ph: 1-208-290-1177) Priest River, Idaho
Mackey Ehrmantrout putting his Cat 314 harvester through its paces while thinning a small diameter timber stand. This machine also includes a bucket attachment and Ehrmantrouts are considering the purchase of a mulching head for it. Photo courtesy of Ehrmantrout Thinning Services.
The Templemental Stewardship Project on the Bonners Ferry Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forests is a 1,000- acre Healthy Forests Restoration Act project designed to reduce hazardous fuels within the Wildland Urban Interface Area in Boundary County, Idaho. Included in this project is a 270-acre 40-year old plantation that is to be mechanically thinned to a spacing of approximately 15 to 20 feet and will require removal of excess slash from the National Forest, hopefully to be utilized as biomass energy or other products such as mulch, wood shavings for animal bedding, etc.
Most of the trees to be cut will be useable as small diameter pulp logs, with some meeting size standards for very small sawlogs and rest as biomass. The value of the sawlogs that will be cut on the remaining 700+ acres will be traded for paying a subcontractor, Ehrmantrout Thinning, to complete the mechanical thinning in the plantation. This project has not started operations yet.
Ehrmantrouts’ business model is to fill the niche in the forest products business community by concentrating on working in mostly small diameter timber stands. They operate their two small-scale harvesting machines and a small-scale forwarder to thin stands and market small pulplogs, small diameter sawlogs, posts, poles and also chip biomass when the local market is economically feasible.
According to Dave: “The (business) harvesting started in late spring of 2005. The boys were doing 60 % post & pole at that time, and for the next 2 seasons. As of February 2012 we have completed 1,210 acres of private lands and 460 acres of Agency wood (State of Idaho and U.S.F.S.). We now are capable of harvesting up to 500 acres per year, if the work is there.”
The Ehrmantrouts’ have worked mostly on small private woodlots. They have recently started work on their first Forest Service project, a stewardship project located on the Collville National Forest. They are also the designated sub-contractor for the Templemental Stewardship biomass thinning contract which has not yet commenced operations.
Next meet Jeff Thill, slash piling and mechanical thinning business owner-operator; P.O. Box 292, Troy, Montana 59935 ph: 406-291-5849.
Jeff Thill thinning some juvenile trees by using this Kobelco 50SR with a mulching head. This machine can easily maneuver around these small trees while thinning to a 12 foot spacing due to its narrow width (less than 6 feet). Photo by author
Jeff has been a slash piling contractor for the Forest Service and private land owners for years and also does small scale logging on private lands. He has recently begun to expand his business model to include mechanical fuels reduction thinning-mulching services combined with forest product utilization when feasible. Jeff owns and operates a very small Kobelco 50SR excavator with a bucket for piling, a small mulching head for thinning very small trees and a small felling head for felling small trees up to about 8 inches in diameter. The excavator has a 39 horse power engine, which is no bigger than the authors riding lawn mower!
Jeff is willing to contract with the Forest Service to thin young plantations, and to use the combination of mulching with harvesting small trees where forest product removals are economically feasible.
I believe either service contracts or stewardship contracts could be used by the Forest Service to accomplish mechanical thinning of plantations either at equal cost to hand thinning with slash piling and burning or at costs cheaper than hand thinning. The cost to the government could approach zero dollars per acre if enough value from small diameter pulplogs and incidental small diameter sawlogs are available within the plantations to be thinned.
Next meet Evergreen Wood Energy LLC, a partnership owned by Alan Flory, Vance Warden and Jamie Barton from Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Ph: 208-290-2417 Email: email@example.com
Evergreen Wood Energy LLC, Bonners Ferry Idaho, thinning a private woodlot and grinding biomass near Bonners Ferry, Idaho. Bob Rummer from the USFS Southern Research Station watching the action. Photo by author.
Alan Flory and his brother Kevin, along with their partners have been pioneer small log harvesters for over 20 years in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. They have recently expanded their business model to include the biomass market, when economically feasible. Besides purchasing the horizontal grinder shown in the photo below, they also purchased a small Cat 311 excavator that includes a tree shear, a mulching head and a bucket in order to maximize the versatility of their operation.
They recently completed a small Forest Service commercial thinning timber sale and are currently working on a road maintenance vegetation removal timber sale on the Bonners Ferry Ranger District, Idaho Panhandle National Forests. With their small excavator and mulching head, they are willing to try their hand at mechanically thinning young plantations as well as older 30-40 year old plantations that would have small diameter pulplogs, incidental small sawlogs and biomass available for utilization, either through a standard timber sale or stewardship contract.
Evergreen Wood Energy LLC is the purchaser of the Bonners Ferry Ranger Districts’ first small timber sale that was designed to accomplish roadside vegetation clearing to accomplish road maintenance objectives. This project encompasses a 9-mile stretch of forest road where trees were needed to be removed in order to facilitate snow plowing and to improve public safety by eliminating blind corners. The small timber sale also provided the financial means to place gravel along the worst 1 mile segment of rough rocky road surface. The timber sale includes approximately 250 thousand board feet of sawlogs, and the contract also requires the purchaser to remove all slash from within the 20 foot clearing limits of the project and from the National Forests. This is the first time the Bonners Ferry Ranger District has made biomass removal a mandatory requirement for a standard timber sale contract. The project started in 2010 and should be completed by the end of 2012.
In conclusion, the use of small machines for thinning plantations and accomplishing road maintenance objectives on the National Forests and other ownership lands provides a big opportunity for both forest product businesses and land managers. By exploiting the values of forest products including small trees and biomass, an economical means to accomplish this much needed work provides a viable solution to inadequate appropriated funding.
All it will take to make this happen is for land managers and small forest product business entreprenuers to work together in finding what works best for both parties within individual communities and National Forests.
Photos from left to right: 1. Placing fresh gravel on a one mile stretch of rocky road. This small timber sale road maintenance project provided the financial means to improve 9 miles of road on the Bonners Ferry Ranger District. 2. Fresh pit run gravel providing a much needed improvement to this road surface. 3. Forest products resulting from the road maintenance timber sale include sawlogs, pulplogs and biomass to be ground up and removed from the National Forest. 4. A segment of Bonners Ferry Ranger District road prior to receiving maintenance shoulder clearing. 5. Same segment of road immediately after roadside clearing and before final road blading and ditch improvement work. 6. The roadside clearing shows an immediate improvement in the ability to cast snow off the road surface and provide safe turnout areas for the public. Photos by the author.