The Forest for the Trees

With loggers rallying for more government lumber, the feds are proposing the biggest timber sale in decades. But what’s the big picture?


Last week, as the rainless wind began drying the landscape into what many predict will be a crisp by summer’s end, many parts of western Montana were experiencing a whirlwind of another kind. Loggers rallied in Eureka to protest Forest Service bureaucracy; homebuilders were buying thousands of board feet of cheap Canadian lumber; and the wheels began to turn on the debate over a proposed gargantuan salvage logging sale in the Bitterroot National Forest. Though on the face of it these events bear no connection, a broad view shows that the caprices of the timber market, combined with some of the driest forest conditions on record, have created a complex twist of fate. These forces are threatening to make this summer’s salvage logging in the Bitterroot, an operation that the Forest Service proposes will remove an astronomical 130-180 million board feet of timber from fire-affected areas, the center of an increasingly hot controversy.

One key to understanding this controversy is a quick primer on the current economics of the timber industry. Simply put, if you want to build anything out of wood this summer, there’s never been a better time to buy than now. A glut of timber on the world market has pushed the price of lumber to Depression Era lows, brought about by the tariff-free trade mandated under NAFTA, and increasing competition in the international lumber market. Canada, for instance, now exports 80 percent of its wood products to the U.S. at prices mills here can’t begin to compete with. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor’s NAFTA Transitional Adjustment Assistance program concluded in a March report that Canadian trade was the single biggest factor in the closure of 100 independent mills across the nation; closer to home, it was also a clear detriment to Montana operations like Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake—which nearly shut its gates for good this spring—and the Owens and Hurst mill in Eureka, in whose honor last week’s rally was held.

But the blame, both timber and environmental interests agree, is not Canada. The real culprits, they say, are multi-national corporations that can afford to flood the market with cheap timber, cutting wherever labor and the logs are cheapest.

Jim Olsen, former head of the grassroots group Friends of the Bitterroot, describes the financial impacts of timber activity this way: “There’s really two sides to this. There’s the giant timber corporations with their boards of directors and their stockholders and their profits, and then there’s the local perspective, which is much more emotional: How much of this local resource is going to stay in the community for the benefit of people who live here?”

Pyramid Lumber owner Gordon Sanders, not completely blind to the irony of last week’s Log Haul in Eureka, just two miles from the border of the country that is taking business from mills like his, echoes Olsen’s sentiments. “You have to ask who’s better suited to conduct business in small communities,” Sanders says, “multinational corporations, who are able to lose millions of dollars and make their decisions based on profit for stockholders, or smaller companies, who somehow have the wherewithal to lose money and still put their assets on the line every day.”

While both Olsen and Sanders would like to see legislation mandating that a larger portion of forest resources remain in nearby communities, there’s quite a lot of ground to cover between the two camps before anything like a united front could be presented. These differences are contrasted sharply when the topic of salvage logging in the Bitterroot comes up.

Olsen questions the ecological and economic viability of salvage operations, and points to the recent history of logging in Ravalli County as evidence. “Take what happened with the Sula State Forest,” he says. “Twenty-two million board feet were cut from there over the winter, and we asked the State Land Board for assurances that at least some of that resource would stay in the community. They brushed off the idea, saying to do so would violate state commerce laws, and NAFTA, and whatever else they could come up with. Well, the upshot is that people from Ravalli County who want to work in the woods got little or no opportunity, a good portion of the logs didn’t even stay in the state, and a lot of post-fire recovery habitat is gone for good. All that for six months of work?”

Olsen also points out that less intensive state environmental reviews of timber sales have left Montanans footing the bill in the Sula State Forest for slash piles that haven’t been cleaned up and—despite reassurances from Gov. Judy Martz—no plan in place for replanting cut-over areas. Most disturbing to Olsen was his group’s realization that the promises the State Land Board made to only cut burned timber proved to be false.

“There was green slash all around the area we toured, and we kept getting reports of healthy trees winding up on trucks,” he says. “If forest managers are planning on doing the same job with the national forest they did with Sula, we all might as well move someplace else, because there won’t be much forest to stick around for.”

Sanders, for his part, seems ambivalent about rolling back environmental laws in the name of profit, though he seemed a little less sure of their role in a local economy. “One area we are looking to environmental groups for is a level playing field globally,” he says. “What I mean by that is, some of these countries—Russia, Chile, even Canada—are cutting without regard for the environment or even the welfare of their loggers. To the extent that we can get some of those protections in place, we support the efforts of environmentalists.”

Closer to home, Sanders is a little less supportive of efforts like Olsen’s in the Bitterroot. When asked if he thought dumping 130-180 million board feet of timber on an already saturated timber market might only hasten the advantage large companies have over mills like Pyramid, Sanders demurs. “I think what it will do is create an economic incentive for smaller companies to be innovative and get the most value out of the raw materials they get,” he says. “Processing small-diameter material is one possibility. And as far as Sula is concerned, the logs we were able to get out of there over the winter were really what helped us make the decision to keep our doors open. If you remember, last fall there was some question as to whether or not we would be around.”

Given the choice between having small independently owned mills and having a chance at full recovery from last summer’s fires, Olsen and his Friends of the Bitterroot are heading for the trees. On Tuesday, May 22, a consortium of environmental groups presented the Forest Service with an alternative to salvage logging, which featured timber harvest in residential, urban-forest interface zones, some cutting in more natural areas, and a whole lot more watershed protection, replanting and set-aside than any plan the Forest Service is currently considering. Whether or not timber interests or the Forest Service take the plan with more than a grain of salt may decide if last week was as friendly as things ever got in the debate over salvage logging in the Bitterroot.


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