Keep Public Lands Public

Public lands can and should remain public, with a caveat.  These federal lands need to be managed appropriately. Currently, they are not.  There is a reason that so many people living in rural America are shouting for a change in ownership or management of public lands.  Much of that angst is directed toward the Forest Service, but other federal land management agencies get heat as well.

Is it warranted?  In my opinion, absolutely.  If the federal government cannot figure out how to manage the lands for the benefits of all citizens, or as the Forest Service says “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” then another solution will be created.  If solutions aren’t brought to bear soon enough momentum could be created to insert new management or sell some of those lands to States, Counties, and other entities.

Rather than dissolve these great public lands, I think it deserves one more, good, honest try.  What needs to be solved?  We need more of the lands designed for management, active management.  So many acres have essentially been in storage for the last 30 years.  This has starved the forest industry to the point of extinction in parts of Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Nevada.  These places have massive amounts of forested public land with roads and prior management, yet managers don’t have markets to sell even small projects.  This results in a larger forest health problem that ultimately becomes a forest health nightmare.  That nightmare shows up in the form of massive forest death from insect and disease, ultimately ending in a catastrophic wildfire.

                     From the campaign led by the Outdoor Alliance

Unfortunately, the debate has been between the people who love the outdoors and people who love to make a living working with forests.  Most of the time these opposing views are talking about different landscapes.  The forest industry isn’t interested in wilderness, national parks, or monuments.  They want the opportunity to manage the lowland areas that have road systems and historic forest management.  When outdoor enthusiasts hear that public lands might be sold off or given to the states a fear of loss sets in.  The loss isn’t that the land near communities will be now managed at a more appropriate level.  The loss is a fear that special recreational places will be sold off and developed.

We can have a robust forest management program and excellent recreational opportunities.  It’s time that groups like the Outdoor Industry Association look to the forest industry as a partner.  If recreation enthusiasts and public land lovers were for broad-based, sustainable forest management, a change would be inevitable.  This is the way to protect the places that are most important to outdoor enthusiasts.

Much of this issue is in the West

If we can do that, tackling other issues like effective, long-term grazing on public lands could be addressed as well.  Avoiding these issues and ignoring them doesn’t help.  The problem gets worse.  We need a fair, open, and science-based dialog on these subjects.  Doing things in an open setting with stakeholders participating is key.  These kinds of discussions will require professional facilitation and ground rules.  With open minds and empathy for other interests, I am certain we can create lasting solutions for all.

Forest management is the tool to keep forests in the public domain.  It’s not a threat.  I found some data put together by the USFS that is interesting.  I believe it drives my point home.  All volume in million cubic feet for the West.

Years Standing Growth Harvest Mortality Net
1987 314,344 6,220 4,901 1,573 (254)
2006 354,859 6,120 2,865 2,657 598
2012 359,902 5,344 2,345 3,350 (351)

From: USDA, Forest Service. 2014. US Forest Facts & Historical Trends, August 2014, page 24.

This chart clearly demonstrates that we’ve missed the mark of sustainability.  In the late 1980’s harvest levels on federal lands were at an all-time high.  Mortality was down, but the combination of trees dying and trees harvested was more than the total growth.  In 2006 the forests were still growing at a good rate, but the harvest level dropped and the mortality increased.  The result of which was a net increase in standing volume, thus being sustainable.  I do think that 2006 had reduced harvest too much as indicated by the 59% increase in mortality.  That is evidenced by the numbers in 2012 which shows a mortality increase of more than double, while harvest levels dropped to less than half of what they were in 1987.

This chart demonstrates that we are missing a solution in the middle.  It appears that we need harvest levels to be at a volume over 3 billion cubic feet.  Please keep in mind, in 1987 the industry was not using top sizes under 8”, possibly down to 6”.  Some of today’s most advanced small diameter mills use an average log size that is less than 7”.  The point here is that much of today’s volume didn’t even exist 25 years ago.  We can apply the types of harvest that the public supports while providing much-needed material to mills.

If we don’t do this, I think we will be facing a future that breaks our federal land into pieces.  There’s a bigger push than you think asking for that to happen today.  The only way to turn that tide is to remove what’s fueling it.  Manage forests better and create better recreational opportunities for all types.

8 thoughts on “Keep Public Lands Public”

  1. You are exactly correct Russ.
    To observe that many in our social fabric today that drive forest policy, have never interacted with the landscape either as youth or into adulthood. Their views are largely driven by propaganda from one fund raising group or another or the latest agenda films from Hollywood.
    The broader issue is about perspective. Many who are accustomed to things being the same or a world view that is quite narrow, often miss trends and underground shifts not readily seen unless one’s views are from a point where interaction with the landscape is a daily or cultural normality.
    Just as winter never remains as spring always comes to light, thus myopic policy will remain in place until it doesn’t. What makes it change is generally when one end or the other of the policy rubber band is stretched so tight that it breaks or a major snap back occurs. Case in point, sweeping victories across the board for the current occupant of the white house in the 2016 elections. All, literally ALL the pundits, prognosticators and purveyors of smugness never saw it coming. Now as the denial sets in and policy changes are starting to gain momentum, the rubber band is snapping back as the proponents of status quo are being rendered naked to their policy positions as merely partisan tools and fundraising activists and not at all what they have sold to the public for 30 years, their agenda to be in trade for cash.
    I think a new era is dawning. One that realizes the cost of doing nothing far outweighs the opportunity and benefit that changing to a more rational policy presents. Particularly when framed in context of large regions of urban populations be without drinking water as the watersheds and winter snowpack retention ability are rendered to zero functionality from a high intensity wildland fire. The closer is gets to one’s own personal world affected, the quicker the mind changes. Its not something way out in the hinterland anymore. It’s on America’s doorstep.

    1. Thanks for reading John and nice to hear from you. I too see the political changes. That being said, I think we can create some solutions that span the broad center of political support. Working with many conservation groups and leaders in the Democratic party leads me to believe this could be substantively altered to benefit everyone.

      Take care,

  2. Russ, excellent analysis. May I offer a technical correction? The table showing growth mortality and harvest in the west (taken from pg. 23 ,FS-1035) is for all timberlands (both public and private) in the west. The data for public lands are much, much worse. Here are the figures for 44 national forests in the interior west for the period 2005-2014
    Annual growth ______1870 million cubic feet (mmcf)
    Annual mortality_____2063 ”
    Net annual growth____- 193 ”
    Annual harvest_______(97) ”
    Inventory change_____-290 ”

    The NFs in the interior west are cutting 5% of the growth while 21 times that volume dies. and 98% of the mortality is not harvested.
    Source: growth and mortality, USFS FIA custom search. 2005-20014. Harvest, USFS cut and sold reports 2005-2014.

    I’ve constructed a chart showing these data visually that I’d be happy to send to you if you send me your email address.

    1. Mac,

      Thanks for digging a bit deeper. I knew those numbers were broader, but they still tell a story. I’ll do an updated table in a new blog post with these numbers.



  3. Russ:

    It is far more complicated than you think. I would be happy to discuss with you. But time is running short.

      1. Russ,
        You’re right, the complexity ascribed is only the construct of those who benefit from its smokescreen. The politics are complicated – true, but clearly navigable when common sense gains the day.

  4. In Wyoming and Utah, the majority of voters support the take back of public lands. In fact it a foundational part of the Wyoming Republican Party Platform. Nevada and Idaho will be next.

    I support the American Land Council’s efforts to make the return of public lands to the states. The federal government could not have done a worse job over the last 20 years.

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