What does active management mean for National Forests? When people hear this or read this for the very first time, there are many different thoughts. For those that are in the Forest Industry, it sounds like a good plan that we should have been following for some time. For those who care mainly about recreation, it can create concerns about how the landscape might change and affect areas they hold dear. Anyone who’s primary concern is for the environment might fear that active management might mean developing or damaging some of the last great places on public lands.
All are valid thoughts and concerns. Experience gained from the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition (NEWFC) has shown that where is as important as what. More precisely, defining where we will manage is just as important as the management practices themselves. The area, depending on the National Forest, is somewhere between 25% and 40% of the land base that would be suitable for active management. There could certainly be exceptions, but it seems to hold true in the forests of the West.
How did we arrive at these percentages? It’s really not that difficult. When you overlay the wildland-urban interface (WUI) with active road systems and historical management activity an area is created. This is the basis for the active management area. The next refinement that needs to be made is any of that area that falls under roadless* or other designation that would make harvest off limits. In Northeast Washington, we had specific areas for Lynx and Grizzly Bear habitat that prevented active management as an example. The last step is to review the maps and mix that with good local knowledge. There may be areas that were not included based on the process described that need active management, and there might be some other considerations that might remove some acres as well.
*Note that roadless doesn’t mean the area is prohibited from management, it just means that it has been identified as an area without roads. Collaboration may recommend action to restore forests that are in dire need of treatment within roadless areas.
What’s remaining? Roughly about 2/3 of the land base. When NEWFC created the original blueprint for the Colville National Forest, we had two other designations, Restoration Management Area and Backcountry. Over time I have come to see that “Restoration” may not be the ideal description for the middle ground. I read something Tom Tuchman had written for the Western Governors Association a few years ago that described lands that would be managed with a “Conservation” focus. Maybe Conservation Management Area is a better description of those lands. Essentially the middle 1/3 has some roads and some historical management but doesn’t have the density of roads or history of management like the active management area. It also isn’t in an area that would be considered as potential wilderness or even roadless. Management can take place in the conservation management area, but the focus needs to be on conservation and restoration first, then economics.
The last area is Backcountry. This is a mix of existing wilderness, monuments, potential wilderness, inventoried roadless area, and motorized backcountry/recreation areas. These areas are straight forward. They haven’t been managed actively in the past and have other values that exceed wood product values. Identifying lands that are not going to be targeting for development helps us create common ground with nearly all groups. This isn’t to say that other considerations like grazing, recreation, mining, and special use permits are sorted out, but it can help address the forest management considerations.
More on those two designations in future posts. Back to active management.
How do we move this process forward once we have identified an area? This is when collaboration needs to kick in. Sit down with local stakeholders and start talking about the needs for the forests. If we are in areas of high fire danger, how do we create a plan that balances aesthetics while reducing fuel loads to acceptable levels? We need to discuss the type of management activities that will get us to the desired future condition. Balancing the need in a way that is economically viable is critical. In the case with NEWFC that meant discussing and agreeing on a mixture types of logging practices based on the need of the landscape.
What types of practices? Most think of thinning as the common collaborative management practice, but it’s much more than just one activity type. With a variety of land types and desired outcomes, we need a variety of practices. In some areas, the land will only require moderate thinning, in other areas a regeneration harvest might be necessary. In other areas with steep slopes, there may be a need for cable based systems or helicopter logging solutions. Again, the most important consideration shouldn’t be the method used, but rather the desired future condition of the forest. Economics cannot be overlooked. These projects are so important for the health and vitality of our forests, yet they can also be used to create jobs and economic growth.
Economic benefits should be a driving factor of the active management area. Keeping in mind that we have 2/3 (plus or minus) of the forest that is focused on something other than economics should help settle concerns about the environment. These economic benefits need to be extended to the communities. This means more than just logging and the associated jobs on the ground and at the mills. The counties need to be funding as well.
Once we can establish a plan that creates revenue, we need to develop a distribution plan for those dollars. Many of the rural, forested counties are in rough financial shape. Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) and Secure Rural School funding have struggled to help these communities. A new active management area, consistently producing wood products can generate the necessary funding these communities need to sustain themselves. This will take time, but it should be one of the aims.
Developing a percentage based system from both traditional timber sales and stewardship projects that get paid directly to counties is critical. Some of those funds go directly to the county in which the wood is harvested, while a small percentage goes into a fund that pays all the counties that have National Forest acres. This way even if some counties don’t have any mills nearby, they still benefit in small part to the overall benefit of better management. This will also encourage these rural counties to assist companies in getting new infrastructure established. My thought would be to stay with 25%, which is the historical payment from Timber Sales. Then distribute 20% directly to the county, then 5% to the National Forest Counties fund. The fund would be paid out based on the number of acres within the county divided by the total USFS acres. Other federal land management agencies should be subject to the same process.
There are no doubts more details need to be addressed. Many areas, like the Colville National Forest, have had much of the heavy lifting completed. Now we just need to see the scale of these treatments to match the needs of the forests. Once we do that everyone wins.