Right-sizing the Forest Industry

Integrated Facility

Our federal forests suffer from the chicken and egg conundrum.  The Forest Service has reduced its harvest volumes over the last 30 years, which drastically changed the landscape of the forest industry.  Now we have large voids where mills used to dot the map.  We currently face a forest health where the Forest Service needs to create large, landscape-level projects to make a difference.  How do we do this without mills?  The answer is that we can’t.  New, right-sized milling infrastructure is required to pull this together.

Crane Log Yard
Small and medium-sized logs resulting from forest restoration projects.

It’s time to build a right-sized industry that adds value to the by-products of forest restoration.  We need to quantify which trees and how many need to be removed over time with new forest restoration programs. Then use that data to align with the mills.  These mills are the physical and financial tools needed to get our forests back to health. Many mills already exist, but more are needed.

Big projects require big investments

Much of this can be done by removing some of the self-imposed Forest Service policy constraints.  My desire is to see the private sector, collaborative groups, and the Forest Service come together to build upon our successes.  We need to make projects scalable and adapt them to each unique landscape.  As we do this, we will be building a sustainable supply for the infrastructure of the future.

Right Sized Forest Industry
Logs being fed to a modern sawmill.

What does this future infrastructure look like?  Many of the dimensional mills in the west are good indicators of what we need more of.  Mills focused on efficiently using small and medium sized logs.  Many of the companies successfully engaged in collaboration and Forest Service contracts have already invested in technology for the future.

We need to see this expand.  The mills that are in place need to be provided with enough supply to invest in more equipment.  With more success will provide the confidence to invest in areas currently devoid of milling infrastructure.  This is the only way to finance wide-scale forest restoration.  Forest restoration must pay for itself.  The immediate focus needs to be paid to forests generating the most retained receipts.

Collaboration is Key

These companies are participating in successful collaborative groups.  Companies in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana are all making serious headway by spending time with conservation groups and other interested stakeholders to come up with plans that work for everyone.  This support is key for the long-term viability of an expanding infrastructure.

New Reality Forest Industry
These forests need mills to help pay for the restoration work.

In my experience, the collaborative groups are eager and ready to go further and faster than the Forest Service.  The reasons for this are the typical ones: Not enough budget, not enough staff, waiting to hear back from the Regional Office, leadership changes, etc.  How many challenges could be solved or improved with policy changes?  The policy is part of it, but attitude is another.  Even if we were to see wholesale changes passed in legislation, we still need people to implement the work to create action.

We can do this

The last 30 years has created a culture of risk aversion in the Forest Service.  We need to change that and inspire confidence in people to make decisions and try new things.  Collaborative groups have done much of this heavy lifting.  We have seen solutions develop that are creating real log volume for mills.  Now we need the Forest Service, at the highest levels, to help these collaboratives do more.  The volunteer groups have been providing an incredible service to our public lands.  It’s time the Forest Service recognizes that value and put money and resources behind it.

If we can combine the efforts of collaboratives with new changes to policy, we might have a fighting chance to save our forests.  The Forest Service seems like it’s starting to realize this.  Chief Tony Tooke needs to continue to apply pressure and focus on changes to make the agency better and more confident.  Doing this immediately will show us what changes Congress needs to make to effectively restore our forests.  Pulling this off will attract the kind of investment we need to restore our rural forest and the communities that surround them.

16 thoughts on “Right-sizing the Forest Industry”

  1. What you are saying is all well and good, but managing the health of a forest resource requires professionals, not a group of citizens trying to negotiate with one another on a basis of belief. Trees are biology. They grow, decline and die. The USFS maintains no forest inventory or any plan to achieve a healthy forest. It is the large, old trees which should be harvested and replaced with new plantations. This significantly reduces wildfire risk and is economically self-sufficient. This is where the industry infrastructure should be pointed. The real problem is US tax payers have accepted a decision-process based on belief rather than fact. We would not accept a collaborative to manage a cattle ranch where old cows are allowed to rot in the field and only calves are allowed to be harvested. This is not about re-sizing the forest industry. This is about responsible stewardship of our natural resources…

    1. Jim,

      That’s all fine and good. However the system we have in the United States on federal lands require public input. The fact is we need to walk before we run. We also don’t have mills and infrastructure in many areas of the west to carry out the necessary work.

      I will also say that your assessment and science might be 100% accurate. There are a whole group of scientists claiming their science is right and they are stating the exact opposite of what your saying. This is why collaboration is critically important.

      Lastly, if we stick to our positions and “being right” we will very likely stay in the stalemate that we’ve found ourselves in for the past 30 years. I prefer working with others and achieving 70% to 80% of what we’re looking for rather than holding on to positions and getting little to nothing.

      The work we are doing is clearly good for the forest and we will continue to do more of it at scale.

  2. Great post, Russ. I agree with your assessment of collaborative efforts and have been involved with the Klamath-Lake Forest Health Partnership for many years. KLFHP is a multi-jurisdictional group of industry, agency, private, educational and public representatives that is accomplishing good work on the ground on private, USFS and other forestlands. Our discussion at the last meeting brought up the need for more trained and experienced loggers and woods contractors, as well as the markets to utilize the material that we’re generating. We’ve lost good markets, but also a lot of the in-the-woods workforce.

    1. Thanks Anne. You’re correct. We need more in-woods workforce as well. The mills are the catalyst to help pay for all of it, but the work in the woods is critical to not only do the necessary work, but also get the material to the infrastructure.

      There are many layers to this, but one thing is for sure. We need large scale, landscape level projects that brings on investments at all levels.

  3. Nice proposal and insight, BUT there is no outside money with banks or investors for mill construction. Thanks to the nice people that sit in trees, dump garbage, and grow dope, what investor or banker’s are going to loan $30 millions dollars plus for a sawmill with a uncertain supply and a whack out forest service,you are well aware of the mess they have in Arizona with the problems down there with the forest service. The only people that will build sawmills will be the big corp. or family operations as yourself that have the banking relationships. The supply of the log is the main problem and until there is some sort of agreement with these groups on protesting timber sales, there will be hardly any new mill construction in the foreseeable future.

    1. Patrick, I understand your pessimism. I disagree and I have a plan to offer a solution. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I think you’re focused on the negative aspects of this situation, of which you’re entitled.

      We are about to see some large, landscape level projects that will feed investments. Also, the price of building products, Lumber in particular will drive interest in investing. Lastly, the development of Mass Timber Products for new markets in North America will start to replace steel and concrete in certain segments of the marketplace. This will consume more wood than ever before and will be supported by conservation groups because of its eco-friendly attributes.

      Increasing prices will drive further investment, so long that we have large projects that can support the bulk of their supply needs. We all know the forest needs the help. My solution builds on the strength of successful independent forest products companies and combines that with the desire for local business people to help provide solutions for their communities and surrounding forests.

      Thanks for reading and engaging.

      1. Russ, I do understand the ups and down of the timber industries. My family has been in the logging and trucking end of things since the redwood glory days and so forth. I love the logging business but if the next generation that you are counting on to do these LANDSCAPING JOBS can not find the MONEY to buy all the logging equipment that is required and people, it will not matter how much timber is going to be available. I understand that you might have a better grip on the public relationship with these other groups, but their track record is not that wonderful over the years and that is not being negative. I have watch this back and forth for at least 40+ years and the only newbies that will be getting into the logging or sawmill business will be the family members that have parents in it already on the hand me down method. I also see that there is some flak on your A TO Z timber project , but I think you are right about that will be the future if there is enough money in it to log. Thanks for your time and I do enjoy reading your articles.

        1. We are on the same page. I understand how multifaceted these issues are. That being said, if we can create projects that are large (50,000 to 200,000 acres) and extend the contract life from a 10 year max, to 20 years then it becomes much easier to get loans to either expand a logging operation or even start a new one. It’s my experience that these should be contractors to the mill and not run by the mills.

          The last part is critical. These contracts need to be awarded to groups that have Forest Service contracting experience. Either themselves, or partnered with a group that has. I won’t name names, but if you have any experience with Arizona you may know the negative consequences of choosing someone with plenty to say, yet no real world experience.

          A to Z is going very well. Alliance for the Wild Rockies is still pursuing a legal challenge, but they have no merit and they have not worked on the project at all. Support for local, regional, and national environmental groups as well as counties and the community is unique to this project. In fact the collaborative is pursuing another A to Z type project to help the Forest Service reach its pace and scale of forest treatments. This model can be used and should be used elsewhere.

          Thanks for taking the time to connect and engage!

      2. The comments on CLT is the magic solution to solve the small timber problem? I have yet to find in the literature a market estimate (volume)?

        1. I think the overall market for lumber and other wood markets are the potential solution to our forest health problems. CLT is a growing part of that future market and provides a great value proposition for wood. There’s no magic in my opinion, rather lots of hard work and intelligent planning.

  4. Excellent article and responses. I agree there is a path forward. It is through the collaborative relationships and support from environmental and conservation groups and individuals understanding the benefits of both using wood for carbon and energy and treatments that make the forests more resilient. If we going to achieve a sustainable society this path is essential.
    Keep up the good conversations.

    1. Thanks Dave. These conversations are important. We need to create more action and keep having conversations as we develop a better, more refined process. We cannot talk, develop a solution over the next decade and then act. We built the forest industry from scratch once, now armed will all the data and technology over the last 120 years we can surely build something much more in line with what our society deems appropriate and good.

  5. I hope that you are not anticipating this all working because of continued federal dollars coming from Washington to pay for large projects over decades with a continuing negative cash flow…!!! If we don’t manage the whole forest with a positive cash flow basis, you can plan on our forest industry going away. Tax payers in the eastern States can anticipate paying for western wildfires for a long, long time. These western forests have the capacity to be economically self-sustaining, but not by light, frequent thinning of small trees across expansive acres. This is reality, not a belief.

    1. I would urge you to read my prior posts, and even the specific language in this blog post. I absolutely understand the need for forest to pay for themselves.

      We created a forest industry from scratch once with a very simple premise; make the material available to the marketplace at prices that allow entrepreneurs to build businesses. This is all that needs done again. First, put more projects up for sale in areas that have mills that are designed to process those logs. Second, use a fraction of those dollars created to get sale programs or prospective projects in place requiring investment in order to qualify for large projects where mills don’t currently exist.

      This can and should happen. It should be funded by the forest, not taxes.

  6. Russ, this is the kind of innovative thinking we need. How about giving a talk on this to 150 forest collaborators from across Idaho, Montana and Eastern Oregon & Washington in Coeur d’Alene on March 20-21, 2018? Let me know.

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