Clean | Green | Sustainable

Talking Sustainable Forestry at the Mill

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 12, 2009

Last night I went over to Mark’s mill below the Scott St. Bridge in Missoula to drink some beers and talk sustainable forestry with Mark and another forester named Greg. No, not the type of “sustainable forestry” you hear our favorite logging lobbyist waxing not-so-poetically about during her monthly commentaries; but true, honest to God, ecologically-based, small-scale, locally-produced, locally-consumed Sustainable Forestry.

I’ve known Mark for years and consider him to easily be one of the best woods-workers I’ve ever met. We’ve worked together to successfully improve the Forest Service’s management of our public lands. We’ve worked together to reduce fuels around the homes of elderly and disadvantaged members of the DeBoriga community. And a few years prior to that Mark and I joined forces for an ecologically-based fuel reduction pilot project on the Lolo National Forest near Ovando (which, ironically, a few months later the Forest Service allowed Plum Creek to log right over!).

And when it was time for the wife and I to turn our small attic into a useable space, we turned to Mark for some beautiful blue-stained pine that was logged and milled a few miles from our house. Suffice to say, if every forester in Montana did things Mark’s way (and had his background as a soils scientist) our forests, wildlife and watersheds would be in much better shape.

The other forester, Greg, I’ve just recently met. A few weeks ago, Greg wrote a letter to the editor in the Missoula Indy. It was in response to a column I wrote about wildfires, elk and our successful efforts to save an old-growth forest from misguided “healthy forest” logging.

So, like I normally do, I called Greg up and we got together for some coffee. We’ve been exchanging ideas and info ever since. Greg’s current passion seems to be small-wood utilization and he’s got his eyes on a nifty portable sawmill with a laser guided jig that could turn very small trees (the type removed from legitimate fuel reduction work around homes) into impressive, strong and locally-produced truss logs. What Greg lacks is the $21,000 to purchase the portable sawmill. A modest amount to be certain, but currently out of his reach nonetheless.

Which brings us to another topic we discussed at the mill last night. Looks like the politically-connected big boys in the Montana timber industry will be getting a $10 million loan courtesy of US taxpayers via the stimulus bill. Apparently the loan will be for the big timber mills in the state to cover payroll and buy more logs. Buy more logs? Fact is, lumber demand is at an all time low and the number of US housing starts will fall dramatically again this year and any honest projections for 2010 and 2011 don’t look much better. At what point do we start to look at these facts squarely and make informed public policy?

Truth be told, the Montana timber industry actually requested a minimum taxpayer financed loan of $65 million. Think about it folks, if the Montana timber industry needs, at a minimum, a $65 million loan from taxpayers maybe the industry wasn’t very sustainable to begin with. Or maybe their business plans were flawed. And keep in mind that the Montana timber industry only produces 3% of the softwood lumber produced in the US. Therefore, how many billions of taxpayer dollars would be needed to bail out the entire US timber industry?

As I’ve been saying for quite some time now (cue the broken record) this economic crisis is rooted in over-consumption and over-development. Therefore, more of the same is not an option. We cannot, and should not, return to a situation where all the big timber mills are running full bore producing lumber and paper products that have no demand or, just as bad, go to building more 5000 square foot homes sprawled across the landscape or more throw-away products.

The economic crisis has proven that such a situation was woefully unsustainable. So much so that our entire economy is on the brink of collapse! Haven’t we all heard that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

I predict this $10 million Revolving Loan Fund so the timber mills can cover payroll for a few months and buy more logs (even though there’s no demand for lumber) will have very little impact on anything, other than to just unwisely spend more taxpayer dollars. Too bad we couldn’t use the money to truly develop a more sustainable timber industry. Too bad a guy like Greg with a good idea and a passion for bona-fide Sustainable Forestry couldn’t get $21,000 for his portable sawmill and get a small crew together. I’d rather see 475 outfits like Greg out there than see $10 million dumped into a black hole.

The future must be clean, green and sustainable. There is no other option. The sooner the public and elected officials come to terms with this fact the better off we will all be in the future.


5 Responses to “Talking Sustainable Forestry at the Mill”

  1. wendell berry wrote about an unemployed furniture maker in appalachia who could get food stamps and welfare from the government but all he needed to be self-sufficient was a small loan for power tools. the welfare and food stamps for one year for this man’s family cost ten times what the government would have spent on the loan of tools (which it would have gotten back) of course, the man was turned down for the loan.

    people’s eyes are slowly opening to the idea of micro-loans. not just wild eyed dreamers either. many entrepeneurs are seeing the folly of investing in the fake propped up macro economy and are taking a good hard look at investing their money locally in small companies close to their homes, where they can watch what their money is doing rather than relying on the bernie madoff’s of the world to “invest” their money in glory holes. it is i suppose too much to ask our government to spread the money around in small endeavors with some solid promise to put people to work on sensible sustainable ideas. the habit of handing over big checks to big business is just insane.

  2. […] I pointed out in a previous post last week, truth be told, the Montana timber industry actually requested a minimum taxpayer financed loan of […]

  3. Sean said

    Great post, I couldn’t agree with you more. Our government seems more intent on sustaining poverty than anything else with the constant number of new taxes, lack of accountability, and ridiculous fiscal policy.

    I have been researching/reading up on forestry/timber issues in developing regions of the world and the problems are pretty similar globally. They cut down massive amounts of timber and export it for a pittance (or worse, to burn for charcoal which some poor worker earns a dollar or two for their days work). I wonder why there aren’t more programs aimed at getting portable sawmills and small woodworking shops set up, and teaching woodworking. It’s one of the best ways to create and instill sustainability in such instances.

    Instead of exporting X number of board feet, being able to turn the same amount of wood into furniture, crafts, trim, works of art creates more jobs, teaches more skills, creates an appreciation of one’s environment and surroundings, helps people find self-sufficiency and pride and get off government dependency. It encourages sustainability because those engaged in woodworking are naturally drawn towards a mindset that believes in shepherding the resource which gives one so much enjoyment and puts food on the table…by the very work they do.

    A portable sawmill, even a chainsaw mill, and basic woodworking shop equipment could have a significant impact in many places. Alas, large timber companies buy up all the land and it’s hard for small operators to survive in that economic landscape. I’d love to see a forest co-op initiative spread across the USA and other places, where several regional woodworkers go in on timbered land together and practice good management.

    Beyond that…a concept I would truly love to see would be a multi-industry co-op of forestry/resource management where you might have–just for an off-the-cuff example–a few woodworkers, some pecan growers, sassafras tree farming, cherry growers, Christmas tree farmers, and various others owning those huge tracts of land instead of timber companies…and working in a synergy that benefits all. Growers, farmers producing nuts & fruits…woodworkers harvesting hardwoods after they have produced for so many years and portion of softwoods in exchange for arborist services & clearing, in large co-ops that would be essentially tended forests/orchards over multiple generations by small businesses. Local business/individual ownership and stewardship of large tracts that keeps/brings money into local living economies rather than filling the coffers of some corporate giant with no stake in the environment other than dollars and staying in compliance and out of prison.

    Again, great post. You highlight a lot of issues that have been overlooked by many Americans with the Federal stimulus efforts.

  4. Interesting post! Thanks for the information.

  5. […] Talking Sustainable Forestry at the Mill Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)That’s still anemic at bestWorst is over for Aviation Industry : Indian AviationDepression, 2009 style. […]

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