Wildfire

The topic of wildfire raises the level of awareness of our forests.  Some of this is good.  People become aware and then they are compelled to act.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure if they are going to act in the right manner.

Wildfire in the West

In the fire-prone forests of the Intermountain West, fire is part of life.  These forests have adapted to survive regular fire intervals for centuries.  Ponderosa Pines and Western Larch are prime examples of species that are specifically capable of withstanding significant fire.  Unfortunately, some of our actions have put even the most capable trees at risk.  These actions and subsequent inactions have put entire forests and massive ecosystems at risk.

Actions: Consequence

Overstocked forests
Overgrown forests from years of fire suppression and no management.

The US Forest Service and other agencies across the country started putting out every fire as soon as they could.  At least they used to.  When those fires were put out, the debris those fires may have burned has now built up.  Those Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch trees were widely spaced in the past. Few trees grew tall enough to even get close to their limbs.  As these fire crews put these fires out, those conditions changed.  The brush built up, the other trees, Grand Fir, Douglas Fir, small Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, and others new grew taller.  Instead of a few hundred trees per acre, now there are thousands.  The entire forest canopy is touching side to side and more importantly from the forest floor to the tallest trees.

Inaction: Consequence

Aftermath of to action
Massive fuel loads, even near roads lead to massive fires

Putting out the fires is good, especially when the fire threatens homes, communities, and other valuable resources.  Those actions would have been fine if they had come back in and managed those forests.  Land managers should have planned to thin trees that didn’t belong there.  Making sure that the tree spacing allowed the fire to reach the forest floor and stay there.  Maybe even thin the forest, do some logging, and then come back when the season is appropriate to use prescribed fire to remove undesirable material.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of land received inaction after the fires were put out.

Now we find ourselves with forests that are not only overstocked, but they are dead and dying.  They are absolute tinderboxes of fuel.  Ready for dry lighting, hot days, and high winds to turn what were once green forests into black and gray wastelands.

Inconvenient Truth

To make matters worse, the Forest Service is incentivized to keep this happening.  Funding for fires is almost unlimited while forest management funds keep getting cut or held at levels that are pathetic.  In 2015 on the Colville National Forest, which is only 1.1 million acres, our government spent over $300 million fighting fires.  The entire annual budget for the forest hovers around $15 million.  Many of the people that are tasked with managing the forests, or at least doing the planning so projects can get put out for bid, are training to fight the fires.  When the fires come many are away for months.

We need to take a close look at how and why these fires are funded.  So many people are fired up (pardon the pun) about getting fire funding fixed so we can stop “fire borrowing.”  The USFS borrows money from other budgets and then hope some sort of special funding source pays it back.  It’s a strange system that is certainly broken.  We aren’t asking enough questions. Like why we are spending so much money on fires and seeing little to no results?  How is this money being spent?  How much do we spend on complex fires when they burn uncontrollably?  If it’s too out of control to fight, what the hell are all those firefighters doing?  How much are we paying for equipment to sit in fields and never go to work?

For some time, I have been noticing things.  They add up to some interesting observations.  Here are some of the things I have noticed and then I’ll provide my theory.  Resources get dispersed sparingly until fires get very big, and then spending is unlimited.  “After all it’s a disaster, how can you put a price on that?”  Crews from all over the country get shifted to places they don’t know and have little to no connection with.

These fire camps look like summer camps.  Food trucks, ice cream trucks, tents covering entire school playfields or repurposed ag lands.  Stories of things like having no new chains for chainsaws, but unlimited new chainsaws.  Gear from each fire like hats, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and who knows what else worn like badges of honor.  Lack of coordination between crews where local equipment operators are asked to stand down or in some cases have their equipment moved to other parts of the region.  These are enough to paint a picture.

Theory

This theory is a situation where wildfire funding is unlimited and we have no incentives to change it and no accountability.  A culture has been created that glorifies the forest firefighting.  It’s addictive and lucrative for these workers.  Some work very hard, others work the system hard.  Does the Forest Service really want to solve this issue?  Actions say no.  Does Congress realize that we get almost nothing from spending all this money on complex fires?  What would happen if we cut the funding to the complex fires by half?  Would there be a difference in fire behavior?

Based on the example on the Colville National Forest from 2015, what if we had capped the spending at $200 million and put $50 million into the annual budget for management?  Would the long-term effects be better or worse for our forests?

Real Solutions Needed

I’m not suggesting that we abandon firefighting.  I’m demanding that we look at this holistically. How can we be scraping the bottom of the barrel to find money to manage our forests and expect a different outcome?  We allow unlimited money to fight fires that are the result of fighting fires and not managing our forests. This is equivalent to using credit cards to pay off other credit cards and expecting one day to be out of debt.

We are smarter and better than this.  We need data and maps to figure out how to reduce our fuel loads and we need to do it immediately, even if it’s at the expense of fire funding in the short term.

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A to Z Update

A to Z Hearing Video

Since publishing the A to Z blog post, readers have been asking how the court appearance actually went.  Many of you may know how to find these videos, but in case you didn’t here it is.  This is the 34-minute video of the appeal hearing.  It was quite interesting to be there in person.

 

The courtroom wasn’t full, maybe less than a quarter capacity.  Of those in attendance, most were there to show support for the A to Z  project.   It was great to have the support of Sustainable NorthwestThe Nature ConservancyThe Northeast Washington Forestry CoalitionPend Oreille County Commissioner, Karen Skoog, and special thanks, to The American Forest Resource Council.  Lawson Fite, AFRC attorney, represented the collaborative interveners.  His testimony is near the end of the hearing. These people were in attendance to ensure the court knew that this project was truly collaborative.

Healthy Forest
Recently thinned stand in the A to Z project

As of the time this blog is published, we don’t know the decision of the judges.  We remain hopeful that the good work in the forest will continue. The group that worked on this did their very best to influence a project that was balancing the needs of forest thinning with wildlife habitat and clean water.  The early indications from the project are all overwhelmingly positive.  The forest looks amazing as it gets back to a natural spacing. The forest can now withstand fire when it comes, which is a far cry from the condition it was in.

Sustainable Northwest Summer Board meeting in Colville

SNW on A to Z
SNW Board talks about the A to Z project

Two weeks following the appeal hearing, the SNW Board had the opportunity to go into the woods and tour the project.  Seeing first hand what the forest looked like before and what it looks like immediately after restoration work.  It was a great time to provide a Q & A to better understand the goals of the project.

Forest Industry Infrastructure Creates Value

SNW VBL Tour
SNW Board Tours Vaagen Bros Lumber in Colville

The following day the group had the opportunity to visit the Vaagen Bros. Lumber mill in Colville.  Seeing both the work in the woods and then the way the small logs were turned into lumber, chips, biomass, sawdust, and shavings created a clear picture of the value created from and for the forest. Having healthy forest industry infrastructure helps offset the cost of forest management.

Crane Log Yard
Picture of the Vaagen log yard from the crane

In the case of Northeast Washington, the infrastructure is so well developed that the Forest Service actually gets retained receipts from the products (logs).  These retained receipts are able to fund other forest restoration work and we hope even more.  If we build more right-sized infrastructure we might be able to solve funding issues for other parts of the Forest Service like recreation, road maintenance, and possibly even money back to the counties.

VBL in Colville
Vaagen Sawmill in the Colville Valley

With fires burning again and homes being threatened and destroyed at an increasing rate, changes will be made.  We need to engage and make sure that we create a positive future for our forests.  There are some legislative bills in Washington DC that have many people talking.  We need comprehensive engagement so we can make changes that benefit everyone and the forest.

 

Prescribed Fire

There’s a great deal of talk in today’s forest management circles about the use of prescribed fire as a tool to manage forests.  Fire can certainly be a great tool to reduce forest fuels and maintain tree spacing.  It’s been used by mother nature for eons.  So much so that many tree species like Ponderosa Pine and Western Larch have become resistant to fire in order to survive the regular intervals of lightning caused fires.

Active Management and Prescribed Fire

Forest Restoration: Management then Fire
Active Management then Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire should be used in conjunction with active forest management.   There are certainly areas where fire might be used on it’s own. It’s ideally performed in the front country with established road systems. In these areas we can commercially thin or log these areas to achieve historical spacing.  The next season it could be very beneficial to conduct prescribed fire.

Continue reading “Prescribed Fire”

A to Z

What is the A to Z project?  This is a US Forest Service project that is very unique.  It’s located on the Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington State.

What makes A to Z Unique?

This project is a forest restoration project that is approximately 54,000 acres of forest land in NE Washington.  Most projects on federal land are sold after the Forest Service has conducted the necessary environmental analysis as part of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  This process can take many years to complete for a variety of reasons.  In this case the Forest Service sold the project prior to completing the NEPA process.  Hence the name, A to Z. Continue reading “A to Z”

NAHB Comments Highlight Need for Outreach

The following is from a Column that I write for Timber Processing Magazine and appears in the June 2017 issue.  Special thanks to Rich Donnell and the team at Hatton-Brown Publishing for providing the platform for me to share my thoughts.

A Hatton-Brown Publication
Timber Processing June 2017

The duties imposed on Canadian softwood lumber imports to the United States has everyone talking.  That includes the National Association of Home Builders.   As I was reading and writing on this subject I came across several quotes and ideas that simply aren’t accurate.  Some statements from the NAHB stood out.

Bad Math

The first comments I will highlight are from comments made on NAHB’s own website dated April 25th, 2017.  This statement is titled “Statement from NAHB Chairman Granger MacDonald on Comments by Commerce Secretary Ross Regarding Canadian Lumber Tariffs.”

NAHB Logo

“If the 20 percent lumber duty remains in effect throughout 2017, NAHB estimates this will result in the loss of nearly $500 million in wages and salaries for U.S. workers, $350 million in taxes and other revenue for the governments in the U.S. and more than 8,200 full-time U.S. jobs. Lumber prices have already jumped 22 percent since the beginning of the year, largely in anticipation of new tariffs, adding nearly $3,600 to the price of a new single-family home.

“Clearly, protectionist measures to prop up domestic lumber producers at the expense of millions of U.S. home buyers and lumber users is not the way to resolve the U.S.-Canada trade dispute or boost the U.S. economy.”

These numbers do not pass the smell test.  Lumber has gone up about 20% since Trump was elected President.  In the world of wholesale lumber that equals about $85 per thousand board feet.  If a single-family house uses 15,000 board feet of framing lumber that increase represents $1,275 increase over the period, not $3,600.

What about the loss of jobs?  Are we to believe that due to an increase of $1,275 per new home start would have such a disastrous effect on home building?  US Census figures put the average home price in the US over $350,000 including land.  An increase of .3% will not have those effects.

Realities of International Trade

Another quote from another statement dated April 21st, 2017 from Mr. MacDonald, NAHB Chairman says:

“The fact that Canada is seeking alternative sources to the U.S. for its lumber exports should serve as a wake-up call to Washington policymakers. More than one-third of the lumber used in the U.S. last year came from exports because the U.S. does not produce enough lumber to meet the nation’s needs. Home builders need a consistent, reasonably priced supply of lumber to keep housing affordable for hard-working American families.”

Granger MacDonald seems to be referring to a statement made by West Fraser about looking to export more lumber to China.  Before I continue, I want to state that I have a great deal of respect for West Fraser.  It is one of the most forward thinking and intelligent forest industry companies in the world.  The only reason West Fraser would choose to send lumber to one market over another would be for strategic pricing purposes.  Even with the duty, West Fraser along with every other mill in Canada will continue to send lumber to the market that gives their company the best chance to succeed.  In the long term, that’s the United States.

China, Japan, Australia, and other worldwide consumers of lumber will continue to buy lumber from the US and Canada if it makes financial sense.  Until this most recent increase in lumber prices, the United States and Canadian builders enjoyed some of the lowest lumber prices in the world.  Not only that, North American wood fiber is some of the best quality and strongest lumber in the world.  Even at $435/mbf, home builders in the US are getting a fair deal when it comes to lumber. (UPDATE: As of June 8, 2017, the price of framing lumber as reported by Random Lengths has dropped to $398/mbf.)

More Bad Math

On April 25th, 2017 NAHB released another statement, this time with both bad and good information. This one was titled “Proposed Lumber Duties Will Harm Consumers, Housing Affordability.”  Here’s the bad:

These price hikes have negative repercussions for millions of Americans. It takes about 15,000 board feet to build a typical single-family home and the lumber price increase in the first quarter of this year has added almost $3,600 to the price of a new home.

Let’s show some simple math using these numbers. If this is true, that means that lumber would have increased $240/mbf ($3,600/15mbf = $240).  If we were seeing a $240 increase on lumber I think it would be time to consider cashing in your chips and wait for the crash, and buy back at a discount.  I don’t know where they are getting their information, but it’s not accurate and it has to stop.

What about Logs?

As for the good, from the same statement referenced above:

Increase domestic production by seeking higher targets for timber sales from publicly-owned lands and opening up additional federal forest lands for logging in an environmentally sustainable manner.

This could open the door for discussion that would allow the NAHB and the Forest Industry to jointly enter into discussions with the Trump Administration and Congress on doing a better job managing our forest resources.  The United States has some of the best forest practices in the world.  We should be focused on making the most of our resources while balancing the needs of society and the environment.

In another quote from Bloomberg in a piece from Joe Light titled “Homebuilders Could Be Losers in Early Test of Trump Trade Policy,” there were numerous parts of this piece that didn’t come together for me, much of which we already covered.  The most troubling part was at the tail end.

“Fearing further supply disruptions, the homebuilders’ association has searched for lumber in other countries.

Chile looked like one promising source and the homebuilders sent a delegation there in September to meet with producers. But weeks of fires this year ravaged Chile’s forests, making it unlikely the country will be a large supplier anytime soon.”

Time to come together

The US lumber producers really need to work with groups like NAHB to educate them on the issues.  If their interest is more stable pricing, then we should develop a coalition to make more wood or logs available to US producers.

It’s time to reach out and build collaborative strength with groups like the NAHB.  The builders certainly have a stake in this value chain.  It’s up to us to inform them of our issues and interests.  This whole issue is about fair trade.  We all have more in common than what may put us at odds.  Identifying our collective interests is the best way to find solutions everyone can prosper from.

SLA 2017

What does SLA mean?  For those of you that haven’t been in the lumber world, it means Softwood Lumber Agreement.  This is used to refer to the agreement that the United States and Canada had for 10 years starting in 2006.  Essentially it is the agreement between the two nations that regulate the trade of softwood lumber.

Complicated Issue

This issue it complicated because there are so many different details. Since we have two countries supplying the same market it is important the playing field is level.

Continue reading “SLA 2017”

The Backcountry

Beautiful Places

Some of the most impressive places on our public lands are the vast and wild backcountry.  These snow-capped peaks, high mountain lakes, and untamed landscapes are special to most Americans.  Some of these areas deserve the protection of legislated wilderness or national monuments, while others should merely be recognized and managed for their wild characteristics.

Beautiful Kettle Crest Vista in Washington State

Regardless of the type, we should use collaboration to identify these areas that haven’t already been designated. You may wonder why we are going from Active Management in a previous blog post, directly to Backcountry.  During collaborative work within the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition we have found that by focusing efforts on the two bookends, the middle section (Conservation Management) shows itself. Continue reading “The Backcountry”

Forest Videos

Beyond Blogging

This medium is very important for sharing information and ideas about how we can successfully manage our forests.  Writing stories and posting pictures helps transport readers where the issue is front and center, the forest.  Forest Videos are the next step.

The world is changing around us and we must change our behavior and actions to keep up.  We live in a video dominated world.  Theforestblog has created a YouTube channel and will be creating video content.  These videos will focus on many of the topics you see here.  Like this one:

Continue reading “Forest Videos”

Active Management

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 Continue reading “Active Management”

Federal Land Management 2.017

If we are going to get better at managing lands we need a better land allocation method.  All lands need to be inventoried and grouped together based on desired outcomes.  We see three necessary land designations. Actively managed lands, conservation managed lands and protected as backcountry.  In doing this we can align management that is appropriate for each specific landscape.  We need to create a management strategy that is efficient, compassionate, and effective.

With so many acres facing the imminent risk catastrophic fire, we need to develop a nationwide strategy for effective forest treatment.  Many collaborative groups have laid the groundwork for what is appropriate in their local areas.  By identifying which lands are eligible for active management and conservation focus we can assign the appropriate treatment for each area.  Continue reading “Federal Land Management 2.017”