Speech delivered at the 2017 Family Forest Landowners and Managers Conference
“Idaho’s Working Forests: Are they working for you?”
University Inn, Moscow, Idaho
Monday, March 27, 2017
Boy, do I have a story for you!
James D. Petersen
Founder and President
The Evergreen Foundation
When Bill Love invited me to be your lead-off speaker again this year, I reminded him that when I was wrapping up last year, one of you said, “Gee, we wish you’d come back next year and just tell stories!”
It’s easy to pump up a storyteller’s tires, so I readily accepted Bill’s invitation, though it came with a caveat.
Perhaps fearing that I might talk about something that has absolutely nothing to do with your conference theme, Bill said, “You can talk about whatever you want to talk about so long as you throw in some statistics.”
The dismal science.
Liars figure and figures lie.
I hate sadistics. See, there I go again.
But at Bill’s request, I’ve assembled some pretty eye-popping numbers that not only fit your conference theme, but also the title of my remarks: “Boy, do I have a story for you!”
If these numbers turn your stomach, don’t shoot, I’m only the messenger.
20.4 million acres of beautiful Idaho – fully 40 percent of the state’s entire land mass and 75 percent of its total forest land base – are owned by the United States Government and cared for by the U.S. Forest Service.
Here, I will stipulate that the phrase “cared for” should be used advisedly, and should generally appear in quotes, meaning that the Forest Service views its motto, “Caring for the Land and Serving People” from a much loftier vantage point than the rarely visited outposts you occupy.
Of the 20.4 million acres of land the Forest Service “cares for” in Idaho, 16.3 million are classified as forestland, meaning these acres are capable of producing at least 20 cubic feet of wood per acre per year.
The 20.4 million acres the Forest Service cares for in Idaho are held in seven National Forests, five of them south of the Salmon River and two of them here in northern Idaho: the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
At 3.2 million acres and 1.8 million acres respectively, the “Panhandle” and the “Nez” were created by merging National Forests whose names are now found only in history books. I grew up fishing the Wallace District of the old Coeur d’Alene National Forest, Ground Zero in the Great 1910 Fire.
Of the 16.3 million acres of Idaho forestland under Forest Service control, 12.8 million are classified as timberland, meaning they are not reserved in land classifications that preclude active management – Wilderness for example.
The other timberland owner groups in Idaho are the State, Indian Tribes, and you who own or manage industrial or non-industrial private timberlands.
Privately-owned timberlands – yours included – span about 2.2 million acres and account for 18 percent of Idaho’s total timberland base.
The State and Tribes own and manage 1.6 million acres, or about 9 percent of total timberland in Idaho.
As you can plainly see, the federal government and its’ chief agent – the U.S. Forest Service – are the big dogs on the block in Idaho in terms of forestland and timberland owned.
They are also the 5,000-pound elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about that everyone should be talking about, no matter the discomfort.
And why should we be talking about these elephants? Because the 12.8 million acres of classified timberland held in Idaho’s National Forests constitute a land mass more than three times larger as that of all other ownerships combined. What happens, and isn’t happening, in Idaho’s National Forests impacts the risk assessments, management decisions and capital investments of every other timber landowner in Idaho.
How big are the elephants? Consider this: the combined 3.8 million acres of timberland owned by the State, tribes and private landowners, like you, still falls 1.2 million acres short of the combined five million acres held in northern Idaho’s two National Forests.
In fact, if you combine all the land owned by every private timberland owner in Idaho, you still fall one million acres short of the land held in just the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.
Now for the bad news. Of the earlier mentioned 12.8 million acres of federal timberland, 8.8 million acres – 68.75 percent of the 12.8 million acres – are in what fire ecologists call Condition Class 3, meaning they are ready to burn, or Condition Class 2, meaning they soon will be.
Here I am casually tossing around decimal points: 68.75, 8.8, 12.8, 16.3, 20.4, 3.2 and 1.8. Wouldn’t you just love to own the .8 or the .75 or the .4 or the .3 or even the .2!
But there’s more! If you order a .8 in the next five minutes, we’ll send you a .3 and a .2 absolutely free. All you pay is shipping!
Here’s a number only a mother could love. Of the 8.8 million acres of Idaho National Forest in Condition Class 2 or 3, 1.8 million acres were identified for immediate restoration by the Idaho Department of Lands under terms of the 2014 Farm Bill. This is an area 81 percent the size of all the privately-owned timberland in our entire state – an area the size of the entire Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest!
I’ll get to the meaning of the word “restoration” in a moment, but first I want you to know that these 1.8 million acres are the sum and substance of 50 projects that already have buy-in from Idaho’s nine forest collaborative groups and – bless their hearts – the U.S. Forest Service.
Let’s briefly summarize these numbers with their ho-hum decimal points, most of them courtesy of the Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Group in Ogden, Utah:
20.4 million acres of federally owned land in Idaho
40 percent of the state’s entire land mass; more than any other state.
16.3 million acres of forestland classified suitable for some form of management, however obscure
76 percent of all forestland in Idaho
12.8 million acres suitable for some form of active management.
8.8 million acres in Condition Class 2 or 3
About half of all forested National Forest acres in Idaho
And 1.8 million of those 8.8 million acres ready to burst into flames from the first lightning strike or errant campfire.
So, Jim, what’s your point?
My point is this: I don’t know how any of you who own or manage timberland in Idaho sleep at night.
You live in the Fire Swamp in the Princess Bride. Not just figuratively, but also literally.
How do you sleep at night knowing that, with the U.S. Forest Service as your next-door neighbor, your entire life’s work could be destroyed by insects, diseases or a stand-replacing wildfire that doesn’t even start in your forest?
How long does it take to grow a forest to harvest size here in northern Idaho? 60, 70, 80 years? Longer depending on site productivity.
All gone in a matter of hours, or perhaps even minutes.
And there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it, except get on your knees and pray that it doesn’t happen to you.
What’s that famous Dr. Phil line? “How’s that workin’ out for ya’ so far?
I really don’t know how you stomach it.
In this Maalox moment, it is entirely appropriate that your conference theme asks if your forest is working for you.
Equally appropriate is our Evergreen motto: “What do you want from your forest?”
Our motto comes to us from the late Wes Rickard, my father-in-law and Julia’s father, who is widely credited with having “invented” high yield forestry for the old Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in the 1950s.
The story is much too long to tell here this morning, but it was Wes and his diminutive colleague, a brilliant and engaging forest economist named Phil Woolwine, who put our nation’s private timberland owners – and perhaps you – on the path you are on today. Phil died just last week; Wes about a year ago. Their story is now the stuff of legend. Apart from Thornton Munger, who built and ran the Forest Service’s first research station near White Salmon, Washington, and Bill Greeley, who was the Forest Service’s third chief, I can’t name two men whose contributions to forestry’s magnificent American journey are more significant.
Earlier, I used the term “restoration” in referencing the work planned on the 1.8 million acres of in-crisis National Forest timberland designated by the Idaho Department of Lands for treatment under the auspices of the 2014 Farm Bill.
Forestry’s vocal critics – and there are many – were quick to pounce on every conservationists’ worst nightmare: “Stumps on the hill, money in the till.”
We are doing our best to help calm conservationist fears by pointing out that restoration is generally measured in terms of acres treated annually, not board feet harvested.
Thinning and prescribed fire are the preferred treatments, and the goal is to restore natural resiliency – meaning the ability of a forest to right itself it times of great discord, with little or no help from foresters who, like policemen and women, are trained to run toward danger, not away from it.
Sadly, millions of acres of Idaho’s National Forests have moved well beyond the point where they can right themselves. And we lack the human capacity to launch a rescue mission large enough to all save them. We are on the Titanic. There aren’t enough lifeboats.
But we can and must do our level best to pull as many acres as possible back from the brink of ecological collapse.
The message here being that foresters – and good, practical forestry – can help restore and maintain the right balances between tree densities, tree species diversity, age class and structural diversity, fire frequency and intensity, biomass accumulation and ever-present insects and diseases that also help keep things balanced in well managed forests.
Of course, all of you already know this, so let’s return to the question of the day: “Is your forest working for you?
When I say “working for you” I presume that they are working for you in the same way that your retirement plan is working for you – or your stock market investments.
But then I gently remind myself that most of you are probably “all in” in your forest, meaning that you don’t have a retirement plan – or vacations – and you aren’t investing in the wild and woolly stock market, which probably poses even greater risks to your financial well-being than having the Forest Service as your next-door neighbor.
I’d like to advance a theory for your consideration, which is something I almost never do unless I am trying to lure big trout out from behind large rocks with small flies.
My theory goes like this: the cumulative value of your investment in timberland, as it is listed on your financial statement, ought to include the hard money value of more ethereal forest outputs for which the Internal Revenue Service is loath to offer you any kind of credit against severance taxes owed at the time of harvest.
These outputs include: clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.
I picked these four intangibles because they are the four benefits most frequently cited by randomly selected Americans who know absolutely nothing about what you do for a living.
I first heard this list recited by members of a Memphis, Tennessee focus group assembled by pollster, Frank Luntz. I was part of a group that hired Frank to do polling and focus group work during the campaign leading to President Bush II signing the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
Clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity: Isn’t that what we all want?
I think it is.
We sure as hell have it in abundance in Idaho on state, tribal and private lands, though none of you gets even a smidgeon of credit for what you provide.
Moreover, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Forest Service’s once enormous share of this bonanza – which is its moral, if not fiduciary responsibility to all of us – is in free fall.
Interestingly, this whole business of valuing the aesthetic assets of forests was first publicly advanced by Oregon Wild – then known as the Oregon Natural Resources Council – during the spotted owl wars of the late 1980s.
Not recognizing what a gift ONRC’s suggestion was, Oregon’s timber industry had a very public hissy fit, one of many they had during the godawful owl years. You could hardly blame them given the daily shellacking they were taking in the press.
What ONRC was trying to show was that the cumulative dollar value of the scenic bounty held in Oregon’s National Forests exceeded the dollar value of timber held in those forests.
I remember wondering at the time if there was anything to the idea that a forest landowner ought to get a bankable credit for creating or protecting natural assets that were deemed so important by ordinary Americans who know next to nothing about forestry, and aren’t even aware that, collectively, they form the largest forest landowner group in the nation.
In recent years, quite a few economists have toyed with the idea of valuing aesthetics, but still no action on the tax writing front, so I still wonder: Why don’t you get credit from the Internal Revenue Service for doing all this work?
How do we put a dollar value on your contribution to air and water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and year-round outdoor recreation opportunity?
Hunting and fishing guides charge the gullible a fortune for taking them to their favorite hideaways.
Ski resorts charge you hundreds of dollars a day for risking your neck on their precipitous downhill runs.
Most municipalities charge you to bathe, wash your dishes or water your lawn. DEQ charges you for annually checking tailpipe emissions from your car.
But you get nothing.
The closest example I can cite that gets at this injustice is the fund that pays sheep and cattle ranchers for the losses they are suffering because the federal government’s controversial wolf reintroduction program has, shall we politely say, exceeded expectations.
But we may soon have another example that helps us establish the value of the aesthetic assets the federal government requires you to protect under the aegis of its Byzantine and often conflicting regulatory maze.
Just last week, Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Tribe pulled the trigger on a long simmering lawsuit in which it alleges that it has suffered grievous economic harm because Forest Service land that borders its tribal forests has become an insect and disease-infested firetrap.
The lawsuit also takes a swing at the BIA’s Division of Forestry for not doing sufficient thinning work on White Mountain Apache land to promote tree growth and fend off insects and disease infestations. Never mind that there is no market for these trees within economic haul distance.
I have no idea where this lawsuit is headed, but it will be interesting to see how values and losses are calculated – if they get calculated at all.
The suit is a long shot, for sure, because it is based in part on 2002 losses the tribe suffered in the half-million-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire – the Chediski half started by a lost hiker who lit a location fire in the neighboring Coconino National Forest in hopes of being spotted from the air, and the Rodeo half, which was set purposefully near the tribe’s rodeo grounds by a deeply disturbed Indian boy. In a matter of days, the two fires found each other, creating an unstoppable colossus.
In the aftermath, the White Mountain Apaches had no choice but to shut down their small-log mill at Cibicue, about an hour northwest of tribal headquarters at White River – ironic given the fact that it is the small log mill that could have handled the thinnings the BIA is accused of not doing.
The tribe still intermittently runs its big log mill at White River, but it is so outdated that it cannot compete against state-of-the-art mills as distant as central California.
I know the White Mountain story well because I have Apache friends, and I was their emissary when Columbia Helicopters salvaged logged the tribe’s Rodeo losses, which were purchased by Sierra Pacific, then railed to California because there is – for all intent and purpose – no milling capacity left in Arizona. Be happy that you have no problems with mill capacity or proximity here in northern Idaho.
So, is your forest working for you?
Most of you are probably conditioned to answer this question the same way your accountant answers it – and he or she answers it by filling in the blanks of state and federal tax forms.
And most of the numbers they write in those blanks come from receipts you provide that together tally your annual cash outlays for site preparation, seedlings, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, precommercial thinning, prescribed burning, commercial thinning, road and bridge construction and maintenance and final harvest.
Then you pay your severance taxes and start over again.
Wouldn’t this be a whole lot more pleasant if you got cash money credit for providing the aesthetic assets that the public values – that they more-or-less expect you will provide for them, even though they don’t pay a damned dime for your work?
And wouldn’t you sleep better at night if you knew the elephant in the room was managing his forests as well as you manage your forests?
If the elephant did, we wouldn’t be stacking so damned much firewood on Idaho’s scenic front porch every year.
How much wood? Picture a solid block of wood the dimensions of a football field stretching a mile into the sky. That’s the volumetric equivalent of the amount of timber that died in Idaho’s National Forests last year, and will again this year and next year, and on and on until Nature reclaims its dead.
How do you sleep at night?
More to the point, what can you do to drain the Fire Swamp?
Well, at peril of sounding greedy, if every private timberland owner in Idaho contributed 25 bucks a month to the non-profit Evergreen Foundation we could help you drain the Fire Swamp by showcasing the wonderful work you do, again and again and again, day after day after day, year after thankless year.
We do this for forest collaborative groups in Idaho, western Montana and eastern Washington; we’ll soon start doing it in eastern Oregon and possibly Colorado, and we’re starting to do it for the Idaho Department of Lands.
Why aren’t we helping you?
Why is it that not one private timberland owner in Idaho choses to support Evergreen’s educational mission? And it is a choice, and we can’t make it for you.
We are helping you as best we can – but there is a helluva lot more we could do if we had your financial support.
What might we tell our 100,000 website followers on your behalf?
For openers, the non-industrial private landowners in this room this morning are part of our nation’s Great Forest Brigade. You provide most of the timber we Americans consume annually.
The first time I saw this statistic – some 20 years ago – it took me by surprise. I would have thought the Weyerhaeuser’s of the world would be in the No. 1 position, especially now that Weyerhaeuser owns Plum Creek.
But they aren’t. The Mom and Pops are. This from readily available data assembled by the Forest Service’s State and Private branch.
Even more astonishing than your No. 1 ranking is the fact that you say your No. 1 management objective doesn’t have much to do with timber production. Your No. 1 objective is the creation or maintenance of wildlife habitat.
Your No. 2 management objective is the maintenance of forest health and resiliency. Squishy terminology for sure, but most of us know the difference between a dead tree and a live one, and many of us can recognize a timber stand that needs thinning.
No. 3 is timber production – although 1, 2 and 3 often change places from the South to the Pacific Northwest. Timber production is No. 2 on the list in the Pacific Northwest, where non-industrial private ownerships are generally larger than they are in the South.
No matter the choice: 1, 2 or 3, all of you are creating a tremendous amount of early succession habitat – sun-filled openings – that are quickly colonized by plants, mammals, amphibians and birds.
And lest you think I have forgotten the industrial landowners who are here this morning, may I remind you that my late father-in-law, and his pal Phil, put all of you on the road you travel today. We’d be pleased to help you tell your part of the Idaho story.
The Idaho private lands story is one every Idahoan ought to hear. Likewise, every member of Congress and every environmental journalist in the country.
How do you create and maintain all that wildlife habitat and still manage to provide the lion’s share of the timber our wood-hungry nation consumes annually?
Indians figured this out eons ago. Lacking chain saws or mechanical harvesting systems, they burned their lands to clear away woody debris and unwanted vegetation and stimulate production of herbs and berries that were staples in their diets, as well as grasses and forbs that were staples in the diets of deer and elk that they hunted.
We’ve been helping America’s timberland-owning tribes tell their haunting and winsome story for nearly 20 years. The tribal forestry story is a real beauty, especially here in the Intermountain West.
Why? Because our mixed conifer dry site, fire-dependent forests respond so well to the kinds of thinnings and patch cuttings Indian foresters favor, patterns that mimic pre-European natural fire.
How I wish the Forest Service would simply copy what Indians do in their forests. Emulating tribal forestry, and its cultural and spiritual underpinnings, would go a long way toward draining the Fire Swamp that has become your office.
My friend, Jack Ward Thomas, and I spent countless hours discussing the Fire Swamp and the hell hole in which the Forest Service has found itself. Jack, you may recall, was named Chief of the Forest Service not long after the northern spotted owl was listed in 1990. He headed the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team that made the listing decision. It was a decision he regretted on many levels, but he had no choice but to follow the Endangered Species Act, or be sued, and he did not want that because he knew he could not win in court.
Jack quit the Forest Service six years later, having discovered that, despite his own Herculean efforts, there was nothing much he could do about what he called the “crazy-quilt” of conflicting environmental laws, rules and regulations that make it impossible for the Forest Service to do its job. Ecosystem management as Jack envisioned it remains an impossible dream.
Years after Jack retired, I asked him what he thought the Forest Service’s management objective was at the time he was Chief. He turned my question over in his mind for what seemed like an eternity, then said, “I think it was to conserve late succession species.”
“Did you do it,” I quickly asked.
“Hell no,” he replied in his next breath.
Only Congress can undo the Gordian knot it has tied.
I share this anecdote with you in closing because there are thousands of bright and very dedicated people – fire scientists, foresters, technicians, “ologists” and engineers – working in the bowels of the agency who are as frustrated as the rest of us. We share the knowledge of what needs doing that isn’t getting done, and there isn’t much any of us can do until Congress reconciles the Knot of Conflict it has created.
I know I’m giving you a lot to think about, and I’m sorry that Bill insisted that I throw you a pile of statistical bones so early in the day. But the more I thought about the godawful risks you face day in and day out, the more I realized that it is vital that we drag out the appropriate statistics and start talking about the 5,000-pound elephant in the room.
Dennis Becker is very good at dissecting elephants – it’s basically what he does as
Director of the University of Idaho’s Policy Analysis Group – so I’m sure he will reduce all of this to a more digestible form in the next half hour.
And if not Dennis, then for sure Craig Foss from the Idaho Department of Lands, who will explain the congressionally inspired Good Neighbor Authorities to you later this morning. It is easily the best good news forestry story in Idaho today.
Julia and I want to leave you with the very first question her always thought-provoking father asked all his new timberland clients:
“What do you want from your forest?”
“What do you want from your forest?”
Thanks for inviting us to be with you again this year. We wish you well.