The War on the West, Part II

The War on the West, Part II

One of the Evergreen faithful asked me yesterday if I didn’t think my February 8 use of the word “war” in “War on The West,” wasn’t “a little too harsh.”

“No,” I replied, “I don’t think so given Congress’ failure to confront the wildfire crisis that annually consumes millions of acres of federal forestland in the West.”

What isn’t widely understood is that today’s War on the West isn’t like the old rural-urban battles that pitted loggers and sawmill workers against their urban brethren during the spotted owl era, some 25 years ago.

Today’s war pits the 77 million people who live in the 11 western states against a terribly polarized -Congress that, like Clint Eastwood’s mule in Fistful of Dollars, “just doesn’t get it.”

I’ll explain.

The mills that survived the federal government’s 1990 decision to list the spotted owl as a threatened species have moved on. Now the survivors get most of their logs from private, state and tribal lands. Many of these companies oppose federal harvesting because it undermines the competitive values of their logs and land.

Listing the owl as a threatened species – ending old growth logging in National Forests in Oregon, Washington and northern California – did not lead to expected increases in owl populations. Their numbers are still in freefall, possibly because of the increasing presence of predatory barred owls, though common sense suggests that the loss of millions of acres of old growth owl habitat in stand replacing wildfires is a major cause of the owl’s continuing decline.

Even so, there is little public appetite for renewed logging in old growth stands in National Forests. I know of only two western sawmills that still process big logs, and they buy them from Indian tribes, private landowners or from the Province of British Columbia. All of the big lumber manufacturers in the West prefer smaller, high quality trees grown in privately-owned forest plantations.

Some 700 western sawmills that once depended on a steady diet of federal timber have gone out of business since the spotted owl war erupted in 1987. Most were family-owned businesses that got their start after World War II. In the 40-some years that followed the war, they were major suppliers of lumber sold into homebuilding markets in the West and Midwest.

Less than 30 family-owned mills in the Interior West survived the purge that followed the owl listing. The largest concentrations are in Idaho and western Montana.  I count seven more in eastern Washington, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and northern Arizona.

Why does this matter? Because the forest restoration work needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in western National Forests won’t get done if there aren’t family-owned sawmills that are willing and able to buy and process small diameter trees that are fueling these fires.

The Vaagen Brothers mill at Colville, Washington comes immediately to mind. It can process trees no more than three inches in diameter on the small end tapering to 5-8 inches on the big end. Three inches is about the same diameter as your morning coffee mug.

We’ve interviewed company owner, Duane Vaagen, two or three times over the last three years. No lumberman has done more to encourage collaboratively-led forest thinning work designed to restore natural resiliency in National Forests that are dying and burning in horrible wildfires.

The collaborative movement owes its existence and hard-earned success to a handful of visionaries scattered across the West. Among them: Duane, Mike Petersen of the Lands Council in Spokane, Washington; Montana Governor, Steve Bullock; Bob Boeh, who will soon retire from the Idaho Forest Group; and several conservation groups including the Nature Conservancy and the members of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership.

Although it has taken the Forest Service several years to warm to the idea that these collaborative groups can help it get more work done, new Forest Service Chief, Tony Tooke, appears to be a solid supporter of collaborative decision-making. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, while Congress provided some regulatory relief within the scope of the 2014 Farm Bill, its members continue to treat the western wildfire crisis as a bargaining chip in other equally contentious duels, most recently federal budget negotiations.

Worse, House and Senate members from states that aren’t on fire, or obscured by wildfire smoke for months on end, are still casting their free environmental votes in favor of “saving” National Forests by allowing nature to take its course. This is worse than unconscionable. It’s criminal.

Let’s be clear here. “Logging” no longer occurs in western National Forests. And there are no “greedy lumbermen” who want to “chop down all the trees.” That’s bullshit. There, I said it. It’s bullshit.

You’ll still see lots of commercial logging on private lands, and some on state-owned lands, especially in the Pacific Northwest’s Douglas-fir region, but there is no commercial logging program in National Forests. You’ll find thinning projects that have met the strictest environmental standards in the world, but you won’t find any commercial logging. That all died with the spotted owl listing.

I suspect most westerners – especially those living in urban centers – are quite comfortable with the demise of the federal timber sale program. I am not, and it isn’t because I want to “chop down all the trees.”

There are three reasons why I fear we are headed down the wrong trail.

First, nothing can or will replace the loss of timber-related revenues that once flowed to schools and local government units across the rural West. The federal government does not pay property taxes on the land it owns within counties, so without shared harvest receipts, county governments are out of luck.

Second, forestry teaches that even in older forests, one of the best ways to increase age-class and species diversity is to do some cautious thinning. I know two private landowners who do this as a matter of routine to increase the size of their best quality trees.

Third, when we lost our logging industry, we also lost the first responders to our wildfires. In years past, many small fires were put out by logging crews before Forest Service equipment even arrived on the scene.

Today, for reasons that make no sense to me, the Forest Service often allows wildfires to burn too long before initial attack. Last year’s 191,000-acre Chetco Bar Fire, which burned across southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, is a perfect example.

We will have more to say about Chetco Bar in a few days but, for now, it is enough for you to know that rumor has it that it could have been put out when it was less than an acre in size. Why didn’t the Forest Service act quickly? We aim to find out, no matter how long it takes us the separate rumor from fact.

Clearly, Congress’ failure to adequately fund the Forest Service’s research, forest management, forest restoration and wildfire budgets is symptomatic of a larger problem. Call it ignorance, call it political gamesmanship, call it a deep-seated hatred for the free enterprise system, call it whatever you like. But for heaven’s sake, don’t blame these tragic wildfire losses on “nature” or “climate change.”

Nature doesn’t give a damn about human need, and the climate has been changing at irregular intervals since time began. What we have here is a knot of terribly misguided federal forest policies – all of them blessed by Congress – that are rooted in some very screwy and scientifically baseless ideas about forest management and nature itself.

The bottom line here is that the War on the West will continue in the halls of Congress for as long as we allow it - and for as long as we allow it to fester, the West’s publicly treasured National Forests will continue to die and burn to the ground. Somehow, I don’t think this is what Americans who love the outdoors have in mind when they talk about “saving forests.”

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Evergreen Magazine.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.