*This article first appeared in the April issue of TimberWest Magazine and was reprinted with the permission of the author. 

By Nick Smith

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities (HFHC) was launched five years ago as a grassroots coalition advocating for better management of federally owned forest lands. Back then I couldn’t have foreseen the changes in Washington D.C. and within the forest products industry itself. It’s not easy to be part of an effort to turn around decades of federal mismanagement. But I know there isn’t a better time to be working alongside this industry, whose best days I’m convinced are yet to come.

Five years ago, it seemed there was little momentum for forestry issues in Congress and the White House. Few forest products companies and associations were utilizing newspapers and other media, let alone social media, to tell their stories and shape public opinion. Grassroots advocacy on timber issues had been largely abandoned since the so-called “timber wars.” Ongoing challenges — from log supply to labor — called into question the very future of the industry in the United States.

Social Media

These challenges still exist, yet today the industry is actively confronting them. Forest products companies and trade associations are now investing heavily in communications talent, social media, and public education campaigns. HFHC has attracted over 152,000 followers on Facebook, but I’m equally thrilled to see other organizations and companies gaining large audiences across all social media.

Speaking of Facebook, I’ve found dozens of private groups where thousands of loggers share photos, videos, and stories. How many people could we educate if those groups became forward-facing and gave the general public a sense of what loggers do and why they risk their lives to provide the products we depend on every day?

Partnerships

The industry is confronting its other existential challenges. Logging associations continue to bolster their certification programs to promote professional development and safety. New partnerships are being forged to provide training in mechanized logging and manufacturing to recruit and retain the next generation of loggers and mill workers. The forest products and insurance industries are working together to promote TEAM Safe Trucking to elevate the standards and performance of the log trucking sector.

New Products and Markets

More people outside the industry are beginning to recognize the importance, environmental benefits, and utility of wood. While the industry will continue to provide lumber, paper, and other essential products, new markets are opening and growing for new wood products. Architects are embracing advanced wood products such as Cross Laminated Timber, and now developers are planning wooden skyscrapers in the world’s largest cities. Scientists are developing new uses for wood fiber that were unthinkable a few years ago, from jet fuel to microchips and even to growing human body parts! What will they think of next?

New markets are essential to sustaining the industry into the future, especially as forest management and practices evolve. Many in the industry are familiar with the challenges of sustaining markets for wood-based biomass as natural gas and other energy prices remain low. This is one of the challenges that require leadership from policymakers at all levels of government, especially when doing so can help solve other problems. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently indicated it is preparing new federal energy policies to add wood-based biomass to its “all of the above” energy portfolio. Making biomass more viable will also make restoring the health of public forests more efficient and economical.

Better Management

Another issue that demands action from policymakers is log supply, especially where the industry is dependent on sourcing logs from public lands. Since the Spotted Owl, we’ve seen the consequences of “hands-off” forest management, where the dramatic decline in federal timber harvests has contributed to increased risks of catastrophic wildfire, insects, and disease. Today the U.S. Forest Service has estimated 80 million acres of National Forest System lands need active management treatments. After cutting off federal log supplies and decimating large parts of the industry, the feds are finally beginning to understand they need the industry as much as the industry needs access to federal wood.

There is strong momentum for reforming our broken system of federal forest management, even if our policymakers still can’t quite agree on the solutions. The Trump Administration has directed its land management agencies to break the status quo. And in fact, first quarter 2018 timber outputs soared 42 percent over the past year. The U.S. Forest Service has also initiated administrative rulemaking to make its cumbersome environmental analysis and decision making more efficient and more responsive to the needs of our forests and communities.

Collaboratives

Obstructive litigation against federal forest projects continues to be a major concern in many parts of the country. But fringe groups are not enjoying the same success in federal courts perhaps as they did before. Judges are dismissing lawsuits and injunctions as they recognize the legality and need for policy tools that agencies are now using to expedite forest projects. Fringe groups are losing as science catches up and informs us of the benefits of active forest management. Judges are acknowledging the role of forest collaboratives that come together and find consensus on forest projects.

We’ve made tremendous progress on federal forest management, but we continue to need Congress to pass sensible reforms. I’m optimistic as thousands of concerned citizens have contacted their federal representatives urging them to support forest reforms. As more people in the industry get informed and engaged in the issues and challenges facing the industry, they are helping to ensure its best days are yet to come.

Nick Smith is Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition advocating for active management of federal forest lands. More information is available at healthyforests.org.