Clean | Green | Sustainable

Key Assumptions behind Sen Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Restoration Act”

Posted by Matthew Koehler on November 24, 2009

The following commentary concerning Senator Jon Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act” is from Dr. Thomas Power. Dr. Power is the former Chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, where he currently serves as a Research Professor. Dr. Power is widely considered one of the country’s leading natural resource-based economists. This commentary is only the first in a series of commentaries Dr. Power will devote to critically exploring the assumptions behind Sen. Tester’s bill. Please check back in a few weeks for the next in the series. – MK

“What I want to do here is simply outline the conventional wisdom from which Senator Tester appears to be operating. That will sound familiar, and, to many, convincing, but those assumptions are, in fact, highly debatable.  In commentaries over the next two months, I will then seek to critically explore each of those assumptions ….As common and familiar as all of these underlying assumptions are, they are far from being factual assumptions. They are a mix of folk wisdom, economic nostalgia, wishful thinking, and barely disguised commercial and bureaucratic government special interests. Before jumping onboard with Tester’s proposal, each has to be critically analyzed.”
– Dr. Thomas Power

The Key Assumptions behind Senator Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Restoration Act”
By Dr. Thomas Power

Montana’s Senator Tester is attempting to cut the Gordian knot that has tied up any action on the management of more than six million acres of roadless federal land in Montana. He has been praised by some for his courage and audacity while others have attacked him for not keeping faith with those who elected him and for selling out to one special interest group or another.

One reason for this mixed emotional reaction is that when it comes to the public dialogue about forest management there is no common agreement about the underlying facts and economic context. Senator Tester and his allies are operating from one set of what they believe to be factual assumptions while their critics begin with a quite different understanding of the facts on the ground.

What I want to do here is simply outline the conventional wisdom from which Senator Tester appears to be operating. That will sound familiar, and, to many, convincing, but those assumptions are, in fact, highly debatable.  In commentaries over the next two months, I will then seek to critically explore each of those assumptions before coming to any conclusion about whether Senator Tester is actually offering a viable solution to the paralysis that has kept a grip on Montana’s roadless wildlands for more than a quarter of a century.

The title of Senator Tester’s bill makes clear its primary focus: forest restoration. The basic assumption is a familiar one: The National Forests in Western Montana, as a result of a variety of human and non-human causes, are in poor, even dangerous, condition. They biologically are well beyond natural and sustainable conditions. As a result major human intervention is necessary to move these natural landscapes back to a healthy, safe, and sustainable condition. From this point of view, we cannot just stop stressing and damaging the forests and allow them to rest and recover on their own. That is why roadless area or wilderness protection for most of these lands will not solve the problems. We have to actively intervene with landscape-scale vegetative manipulation, including logging, thinning, prescribed burns, etc. Tester’s bill seeks to start doing exactly that.

This need to work the forests to move them back to safe and stable conditions is also why it is important for the region to maintain a functioning forest products industry. Without that, we will not have the commercial infrastructure to make use of the logs that need to be removed from our forests. Without a significant forest products industry, the wood fiber in our forests loses commercial value, and the harvest of trees from these unhealthy forests cannot help finance the forest restoration work that needs to be done. That is one of the reasons Tester’s bill seeks to prop up the region’s forest products industry.

The other reason that Tester proposes legally mandating the harvest of more timber from federal lands is the belief that the economies of Western Montana heavily depend on the forest products industry and those economies have been disrupted by the inability of the US Forest Service to maintain a flow of logs to our mills. Tester’s bill seeks to solve that problem by mandating a steady annual flow of logs. That, he believes, will help save those mills and stabilize our economies.

Landscape-scale forest restoration of the sort that would be mandated by Tester’s bill will cost a lot of money, money that the federal government does not really have. With existing large federal deficits and increasing demands on the federal budget for economic recovery, ongoing wars, medical insurance reform, and energy policy, it is unlikely that we can count on Congress to appropriate the money to fund all of the forest restoration work that we are told needs to be done. Senator Tester proposes to get around these funding limitations by paying private contractors with the harvest of commercially valuable logs to do the needed work. Instead of the US Forest Service selling the logs and sending the cash back to the US Treasury, the logs would be used to pay for the forest restoration work through what are called Stewardship Contracts.

The approach that Senator Tester has taken in developing his bill indicates his solution to the conflict among competing uses of National Forest land that has thus far led to paralysis and gridlock.  Senator Tester relied on having some of the competing interests sit down at the table and negotiate in a collaborative manner. That sort of negotiation allowed many parties to get part of what they wanted from the National Forests, producing what has been called a win-win-win outcome. The idea is that these competing uses can be balanced so that the forests can simultaneously support an expansion of the timber industry, more off road vehicle use, improved wildlife habitat, enhance non-motorized recreation, as well as the environmental services provided by natural forests and watersheds. Allowing such local and private negotiations over the management of our National Forests is seen as an appropriate decentralized solution to a broken centralized federal system.

Finally, the forested landscape of Western Montana is seen as so huge that significant timber harvests are possible without doing any serious environmental harm. With millions and millions of acres of federal forestland available, mandating the annual harvest of ten thousand acres or so of trees could not possibly do significant damage to the overall forest. In fact, we are told, that mandated logging, when carried out as part of a larger forest restoration effort, will actually improve the health of the forests.

As common and familiar as all of these underlying assumptions are, they are far from being factual assumptions. They are a mix of folk wisdom, economic nostalgia, wishful thinking, and barely disguised commercial and bureaucratic government special interests. Before jumping onboard with Tester’s proposal, each has to be critically analyzed.

Advertisements

One Response to “Key Assumptions behind Sen Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Restoration Act””

  1. Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner,I found that to be more helpful well let me know how it turns out. Keep up the great works guys I’ve added you guys to my blogroll. This is a great article thanks for sharing this informative information.. I will visit your blog regularly for some latest post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: