By Julie King, Supervisor, Bitterroot National Forest
A fair and adequate amount of accurate information is central to a healthy discussion and reasonable decision-making process. In the Forest Service we practice this as a matter of direction under the National Environmental Policy Act when it comes to public involvement and interaction on our land management decisions. I believe it is imperative that communication lines remain open and we work together to find solutions and ways to survive the current economy and poor market conditions of our timber industry.
So it is unfortunate for us all that incomplete information in a recent article in local newspapers claimed that the Bitterroot National Forest, unlike other national forests, was not selling timber. The article went on to suggest that if national forests would sell more timber, local jobs would return, shuttered mills would re-open, and the boom days of the Bitterroot Valley would be back. While I certainly wish all our challenges were this easy to solve, I feel compelled to share some facts and information with you regarding timber sales on the Bitterroot National Forest.
First and foremost, the Forest is continuing to sell timber. In 2011, 9 million board feet was harvested on the Forest. Trees were cut on more than 2,000 acres sending an estimated 1,933 truckloads of logs to Montana sawmills. The Bitterroot’s largest timber project, Trapper Bunkhouse (2,700 acres) continues on the Darby Ranger District and is our largest stewardship project in ten years. There were eight timber projects under contract on our Forest this year.
The Bitterroot currently ranks number three among the nine national forests in Montana in total saw log volume. This despite the fact, that we have less acreage available for timber as half of our Forest is dedicated to the largest expanse of continuous wilderness in the lower 48 states. Perhaps most importantly, all of our current timber projects accomplish needed reductions in hazardous fuels, address wildlife habitat needs and forest health issues. While the timber industry is a valued partner in land stewardship, our timber sales are not offered simply because a buyer desires a certain product like house logs. All timber projects must meet multiple land management objectives outlined in the Forest Plan.
Some of you may be wondering why timber is not being sold as it was in previous decades when the Bitterroot routinely produced 20 million board feet or more. One of the main reasons is, no one is buying the wood. For example, the Bitterroot National Forest recently offered two different timber sales on land that is easy to access near paved roads, and neither sale received any offers. That’s right, not one buyer or company was interested in 250 acres of timber near Lake Como or in 40 acres of already cut and stacked logs in the Sapphire Mountains. These were not isolated incidents. In 2011, the Forest brought four timber sales to the public that did not receive one bid from an interested buyer. Why is this happening? Much like the housing crisis, the answers can be found in the market.
Many of the problems occurring in the timber market today are not due to a lack of supply, but rather a lack of demand. Logs that were selling for $80 a ton during the housing boom, are worth less than $45 a ton today. This loss of demand has had a significant local impact on acres harvested. Dramatically lower timber prices have also changed the way we do business including how we prepare our contracts. In today’s market of fewer and smaller logging operations, we have tailored our contracts to be much smaller in response to feedback from potential purchasers. Poor market conditions have also forced us to use scarce taxpayer dollars to pay to remove timber to meet our Forest fuel reduction goals in areas adjacent to private property.
Here in the Bitterroot, the problem is compounded even more with the recent closure of many sawmills, including Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. in Frenchtown. Saw logs must now be hauled to the closest operational mills in Seeley Lake or St. Regis, more than doubling hauling distances and costs. Rising fuel prices have added yet another obstacle when you consider that some timber projects on our Forest are now located more than 150 miles from the nearest mill. It all adds up to the “perfect storm” and it’s going to take all of us working together to find answers and solutions moving forward.
Despite all these challenges, I am still optimistic about the future of forest products and there are some promising signs that the market may be improving. The opening of a new chip processing facility in Bonner provides hope that demand for small diameter materials may be improving. Until then, we need to continue building partnerships and collaborating on projects that can keep people working in our woods. That is exactly what the Bitterroot National Forest is focusing on. This year, we completed a 200 acre, first-of-its-kind ponderosa pine plantation thinning project on the Sula Ranger District on terraced landscapes. The Swift Creek project was a partnership with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. In addition to improving soil conditions and habitat for deer and elk forage, the project also provided 12 local jobs and many of the trees removed were recycled for fence post, poles or other biomass use.
The Forest also applied for and received more than $2 million in Recovery Act funds for the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction Project in 2011. Among 43 different projects supported by Recovery Act funds, the Middle East Fork project helped protect homes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) while also providing more than 30 local jobs. The project, which began in 2007, salvaged approximately 16.3 million board feet of timber for use in Montana sawmills and log home manufacturing. The $2.1 million contract was awarded to a Bitterroot company – R & R Connor Aviation Logging.
Just last week, we announced an additional 500 acre timber salvage and thinning project at Lost Trail Powder Mountain Ski Area that will provide for skier safety and help protect the ski area infrastructure.
It’s part of a $3 million project the Forest will undertake in 2012-13 to remove and salvage trees killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic. These projects will employ more local people and will lead to more opportunities and jobs for companies here in the Valley. The Grasser Family, which has operated the ski area since 1967 under a special Forest Service permit, has been a partner in this project.
In 2012, the Bitterroot National Forest is planning additional timber sales in the Larry Creek and Ambrose Saddle Areas on the Stevensville Ranger District and the Lower West Fork, among others. These three sales alone, which all meet land management and stewardship objectives, are estimated at 14.6 million board feet. The big question is – will anyone be interested in buying the wood?
We live in very challenging times, and if we spend energy opposing and not communicating on these issues it will only contribute to our demise. I am open to hearing ideas or being part of meetings or forums where timber industry and supply are discussed. I am also available to meet with groups or individuals to discuss this or any other issues concerning the National Forest. Please contact me at (406) 363-7100.
Forest Supervisor Julie King has worked on the Bitterroot National Forest since 2008.