Why timber is essential to the Biden Administration’s wildfire strategy

By Travis Joseph, AFRC President

The Forest Service and BLM timber sale programs are essential to preserving and growing the physical and human forest infrastructure that is not only critical to providing carbon-friendly wood products to meet society’s needs but is essential to helping the Forest Service and BLM accomplish their respective federal forest management goals.

The Biden Administration has launched a 10-year Wildfire Strategy to address an environmental and public health crisis affecting communities across the west. This strategy will not be successfully implemented, nor its goals achieved, without viable markets for wood products, operating mills and wood product manufacturing facilities (of all sizes), loggers, private contractors, truckers, equipment, the forest sector workforce, and associated supply chains.  The forest products sector is a complex and integrated industry.  A lack of a predictable and sustainable supply of timber outputs from Federal lands is a major barrier to sustaining and growing the existing forest infrastructure.  A lack of supply from Federal lands also deters major infrastructure investment, upgrades, and innovation from the private sector.

The Forest Service often cites the lack of industry infrastructure as a barrier to accomplishing its forest health and resiliency goals.  As the Administration begins implementing its 10-year Wildfire Crisis Implementation Plan, it is imperative that the agencies continue to maintain and grow the respective timber sale programs to sustain this critical infrastructure.  We are concerned that the historic funding provided in the Bipartisan Infrastructure law for forest management and wildfire prevention has and will come at the cost of other core agency missions, including timber production.

We are already seeing this effect in the Pacific Northwest and USFS Region 6.  In Fiscal Year 2020, the Region sold 720 million board feet of timber.  Despite the new, significant investments and creation of new management tools by the Congress, Region 6 is expecting to sell less than 550 million board feet of timber per year until at least Fiscal Year 2024.  The real-world impact of these timber supply reductions is lost infrastructure (mills and markets), lost workers and contractors (expertise and partners), and lost opportunity and increased cost to accelerate the pace and scale of forest health and restoration treatments (successfully implementing the 10-year Wildfire Strategy).

These timber supply reductions threaten the remaining infrastructure in areas where the Forest Service hopes to increase mechanical treatments to reduce wildfire risks.  We would point to Josephine County in Southwest Oregon, a county 70% owned and managed by the Federal Government and one of the most fire-prone and at-risk landscapes in the state.  It used to be home to nineteen sawmills that employed hundreds of local workers.  Today, it has zero.  The last sawmill to close cited a lack of timber supply from the Forest Service and BLM as a major reason for its decision to cease operations.  This trend and pattern – a lack of a predictable timber supply, loss of infrastructure, increase in high-risk, overstocked forests with no mills or markets – is occurring across the West.  One only need to look at the examples in California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.

The timber supply reductions from the Forest Service are also occurring at exactly the wrong time.  According to an analysis completed by the Beck Group, the Pacific Northwest is already expected to see significant reductions in timber supply over the coming decades on most forest ownerships.  This is due to a number of factors, including: the impacts of the Oregon 2020 Labor Day fires to industrial private lands (7 billion board feet reduction over 40 years) and other landowners including the Forest Service; the Oregon Forest Accord that is expected to reduce private industrial log supplies (270 million board feet (MMBF) reduction per year); changes to Washington state’s DNR Sustainable Harvest Calculation (85 MMBF reduction per year with a shortfall of over 140 MMBF this year alone); and expected changes to the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Habitat Conservation Plan (45 MMBF reduction per year).

Combined, annual harvests in Oregon will likely fall by more than 490 MMBF per year over the next 40 years costing an estimated 5,390 job associated with 7 mills.  Washington’s losses equate to a loss of at least one mill and 935 jobs.  These impacts will reach beyond Oregon and Washington boundaries, impacting physical and human forest infrastructure in California, Idaho, and Montana.

At a time when the Forest Service is receiving historic funding from Congress – combined with a 10-year Wildfire Strategy that calls for quadrupling the at-risk acres treated – the Forest Service and Federal land managers should be increasing and growing timber outputs and outcomes, not decreasing available timber supply essential to the forest infrastructure and agency partners.  This supply is also critical to meeting increasing domestic demand for wood products and lumber to build homes.

For the purposes of effectively reducing fire risks on Federal lands, the biggest ongoing challenge to healthy forest products markets is the unreliable supply of raw materials from National Forest System lands.

This is where there are both opportunities and challenges.  The challenges come from maintaining the status quo on Federal lands – slow, expensive processes to actively manage a tiny fraction of our at-risk forests.  The opportunities come from rethinking our approach, and fully utilizing one our nation’s greatest natural assets and resources – our forests – to help solve complex problems and create a more sustainable future.

AFRC strongly encourages the Forest Service to robustly increase its forest products and timber outputs in all Regions and across at-risk landscapes, and to fully utilize all available management tools provided by the Congress to bring predictable, sustainable timber supplies more efficiently and expeditiously to market.  Supporting and growing the remaining forest infrastructure and supply chains should be a priority for the Forest Service to successfully implementing its ambitious wildfire strategy.

Timber is essential to the Biden Administration’s wildfire strategy.  It’s essential to the health and resiliency of our forests and communities.  Now is the time to seize the moment.