**WARNING: Readers with a sense of humor only.  This is a parody.  While the forest facts are true, the dialogue is fictional.  This did not air on CNN.  The below did not come from, was not approved by, or sponsored by CNN or Wolf Blitzer.  Just so we are clear. *


Wolf Blitzer (from the New York City studio): Good evening from the Situation Room.  Tonight, breaking news.  Happening now, we are learning from inside sources that wood products – including lumber to build millions of homes in this country – do not, I repeat, do not, come from Home Depot or Lowe’s.  Our correspondent, Faux Green, is on the ground in Oregon for this exclusive reporting.  Faux, what can you tell our viewers at home about this shocking new development?


Faux Green (outside of Home Depot): Wolf, we have a few major, breaking storylines developing here in Oregon.  We are learning from our sources that the wood products you see stacked behind me, here at the Home Depot Lumber Yard, and countless wood products inside Home Depot were transported from local manufacturing facilities – popularly known as “mills” – rather than being made by hand here at the store.


It’s our understanding – and we are working with our team of experts to confirm this – the process works something like this: trees from a forest are cut and removed, followed by replanting.  The cut trees are trucked to nearby mills where thousands of workers throughout the state use modern technology to convert material from forests into useable wood products like lumber, plywood, doors, and cabinets.  We are also learning that even the byproduct of the manufacturing process – think sawdust and chips – is used as well, including for energy and heat for the mill.


Wolf, I am also hearing… and, yes, this has just been confirmed in my earpiece… breaking news, that even the Amazon Prime box used to ship the book “How to Pretend to Know What You are Talking About for Dummies” I ordered online – both the box and the book come from woody material from a forest.  It’s just… it’s hard to wrap your mind around Wolf.


Wolf Blitzer: Bombshell news from Oregon tonight.  Happening now, our viewers at home are now learning that wood products – dimensional lumber, paper, cardboard boxes, I assume even toilet paper – come from forests, not corporate home improvement stores.  Faux, with 325 million Americans in this country and billions worldwide daily consuming wood products, if your reporting is indeed accurate, I assume you are seeing the massive devastation of forests in Oregon and throughout the West.  Are there any trees left?


Faux Green: Wolf, to our surprise, it’s quite the opposite.  Just yesterday, we drove over one hundred miles of forest roads and saw trees as far as the eye can see.  I estimate there are billions of trees of all ages and size out here.  In fact, unnamed public officials are telling us – behind closed doors – that there are more trees standing today in Oregon than the number of trees standing in the 19th Century.  Of course, these officials can’t and won’t acknowledge this fact publicly.  This is highly sensitive and potentially explosive information.


Wolf Blitzer: Sorry to interrupt your excellent reporting, Faux.  Why?  Help our viewers at home understand: why is this information so explosive or controversial?


Faux Green: It doesn’t fit the narrative being peddled out here, Wolf.  We are being told here on the ground there’s a sense by some, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and laws requiring replanting, that once trees are cut and removed from a forest, forests never return and can never recover.  They’re gone forever.  But just to give you a sense, Wolf, there is one public forest here in Western Oregon we visited yesterday that grows 1.2 billion board feet of wood every year.  A “board foot” is the equivalent of one square foot of wood, one inch thick.  If that amount of wood was stacked in a column, it would reach 100 million feet in the air, or 35,000 times the height of Mt. Everest.  That’s just wood growth from one – ONE! – Oregon forest every year alone – not to mention the millions of acres of other public and private Oregon forests.


We are also learning that in many cases, the federal government is actually required by law to cut and remove trees from these forests but has failed to follow its own forest plans for nearly three decades.  My government contacts are privately telling us they hope the public does not notice or that politicians will continue to avoid asking tough questions about how hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent to not implement the law or manage these forests.


Wolf Blitzer: If you are just joining us in the Situation Room, stunning, breaking news tonight: wood products come from forests and there are still billions of trees standing in Oregon – and presumably in the West! Remarkable reporting from our inquisitive and persistent correspondent, Faux Green.  Faux, tell our viewers what else you are learning and hearing tonight from Oregon.


Faux Green: Wolf, it is with a sober and sad heart tonight to report that we have now confirmed, through multiple eyewitness accounts and interviews with scientists, old trees do not live forever.  It’s shocking, devastating news – but it is something we can now report with confidence.


Some have tried for decades to pass laws to protect old trees from the cycle of life and inevitable death.  Unfortunately, it appears those repeated efforts have been in vain as science, nature, and according to some experts – plain common sense – have convincingly demonstrated all trees perish.  But, as reported this evening Wolf, miraculously, forests do continue to grow and thrive here in Oregon and the West.  Replanting, science-based management, and the fact that people care about the future of public forests – including people who work in the forest products industry – are helping ensure forests flourish.  Wolf, it seems responsible stewardship is really a part of Oregon’s culture and identity out here.


Wolf Blitzer: Powerful words, if you will, from Faux Green.  Groundbreaking.  Faux, as always, outstanding reporting and extraordinary investigative work.  Thank you.


Stay tuned.  Next, our panel in the studio will try to address the age-old mystery: where does food come from?  More breaking news from a cornfield in Iowa and dairy farm in Wisconsin.  You won’t want to miss new shocking revelations that are leading families and consumers to question the source of their food: Safeway, Whole Foods, or somewhere else? Exclusive on CNN. We’re live.  We’re breaking news.  You’re in the Situation Room.  Stay with us.

‘Breaking News’: Another News Outlet Gets It Wrong on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

By Travis Joseph, AFRC President

In its December 7 editorial titled “Oregon should fight for an untouched Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument,” the Salem Statesman Journal editorial board makes several false and misleading claims that deserve clarification.

First, the editorial board wrote that the “federal government is planning to reduce some of the space available” to the public by reducing the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. That’s simply not true. No matter what happens to the monument, the federal land will stay in federal ownership and public access will remain.

In fact, limiting public access was one of the reasons so many Oregonians opposed the monument expansion in the first place. The expansion would lead to permanent road closures and road decommissioning making it more difficult for Oregonians – especially those with disabilities that depend on the infrastructure – to access some of their favorite places. The monument also restricts traditional uses of the land, such as grazing and timber, that have helped sustain the local economy for decades. If the monument stands, public access to public lands will decrease, not increase.

The editorial board also claims it has seen “no support from folks who use the land for recreation” to make changes to the monument size. Really? The counties that host the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the elected state legislators that represent Oregonians who live, work, and play in or near the monument strongly and publicly voiced their opposition to the expansion. But, apparently, the voices of the people most impacted by the monument don’t count – or were never heard.

Then, bizarrely, the editorial board argues that even though “the state has plenty of other open space” the monument is important because “once land is lost to development, it’s unlikely it will ever revert to the people again.” No one, on either side of the debate, is proposing that the land in question be developed. Although, it should be pointed out that several supporters of the monument expansion own cabins within the monument boundaries. State taxpayers will be on the hook to protect these structures if and when a wildfire occurs in this fire prone landscape.

What the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument expansion is really all about is whether or not a president – regardless of party – has the authority to override an act of Congress. In 1937, Congress passed a law that requires the Bureau of Land Management to manage all O&C lands for “permanent forest production.” The law has never been repealed, replaced, amended, or changed. The O&C Act is the law of the land.

But, with a swoop of a pen, the Obama Administration circumvented that law and re-designated the same lands for a completely different purpose. To add insult to injury, the monument expansion happened largely behind closed doors with minimal public input. The expansion was exempt from all public review and environmental laws – the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act just to name a few.

It’s disappointing that on such an important issue to the state of Oregon, which will have major legal implications for public land management into the future, the editorial board got the basic facts so wrong. Let’s have a conversation about the appropriate size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the appropriate role of the Antiquities Act, and how the O&C Act is being implemented. But, if we are going to have an honest conversation, let’s start with the facts.

Environmental Analysis too long to print

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Last summer I wrote an article for AFRC’s blog regarding the status of Environmental Analyses (EA’s) being completed on the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when conducting vegetation management projects, including timber harvest, on their lands.  At the time, I highlighted a 418-page EA and described it as a “mammoth” document.  That description seemed fitting considering that the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) described in its 2007 publication A Citizens Guide to NEPA that The environmental assessment (EA) is intended to be a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis.  418 pages seemed excessive and a far cry from “concise” and at the time was the longest EA published by the BLM for a vegetation management project that I had reviewed.  Of course, there is no limit to excess, a rule that I was reminded of this month following the BLM’s publication of a 460-page EA titled “Pickett West”.  Now I’m faced with finding an adjective more extreme than mammoth.  I briefly flirted with the idea of labeling the Pickett West document as “mammoth”, but after placing a phone call into the Medford BLM office I was provided with a more apt description.

Typically, the BLM will provide printed hard-copies of any NEPA document they publish.  Knowing this, I called the Grants Pass Field Office to request a hard-copy of the 460-page Pickett West EA.  The response I received was at first funny and bit surreal, but later simply depressing.  The BLM informed me that they would not be providing the public with hard-copies of the Pickett West EA because it is “too long to print”.  That’s correct, the BLM has officially prepared an EA that is either too costly or too time consuming for them to print on paper.  That’s when I halted my search for a single adjective worthy to represent the Pickett West EA.  If 2016 was the year of mammoth EA’s then 2017 is officially the year of “EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print”.

I can’t say that I’m shocked by where we’re at.  The digression of the BLM into the world of EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print was bound to happen.  This is an agency that constantly hears accusations that their EA’s are “insufficient” in scope and in content by opponents of timber management, regardless of how long they are (If you don’t believe me, call the Medford BLM office and request copies of the 170-pages of formal protests they received last year for all their hard work publishing over 1,500 pages of environmental analysis).  So, if a 300-page EA is insufficient, and a 418-page EA is insufficient, then I’m guessing that a 460-page EA will also be seen as insufficient.  The only relevant question now is what will 2018 bring?  The optimist in me likes to think that it will be the year that the Medford BLM District ignores the absurd claims that their Russian-novelesque EA’s are insufficient, and publishes an EA that is a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis (where have I heard that description before…).  But the pessimist in me suspects that I’ll be searching for a new word to describe whatever type of document gets published by the BLM next June.

The U.S. Forest Service and the "T" Word

As AFRC’s field forester in western Oregon I am responsible for reviewing vegetation management projects with a timber harvest component across four national forests.  All four of these Forests provide some level of timber products every year as a component of these projects.  I stress the word ‘component’ here as these are integrated projects, meaning that their objectives are numerous and diverse.  A garden-variety project may aim to improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation opportunities, and provide timber products.  A good project strives to strike a balance of these diverse objectives and offer up a sort of symbiotic relationship amongst them.  Naturally, the first step in achieving this symbiosis is to identify and acknowledge the various objectives.  For many years, the Forest Service took this first step in a straightforward and tacit manner: they knew what their objectives were and they listed them in no particular order.  Over the past few years I have noticed a change.  The change is simple: the omission of timber as an explicit objective alongside the other objectives.  Timber products are still being provided on these projects, they’re just not being acknowledged in the blueprints.  It’s almost as though the Forest Service is a bit ashamed of harvesting and selling logs.

Faced with this trending practice of veiling timber harvest from small-scale projects, I decided to turn to the forum where the agency is most visible and accessible at the large-scale: their website.  This is where most people would go if they were interested in what the Forest Service does and what its mission is.  Sure enough, the agency’s mission is identified clearly on the web:  The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.  Like most mission statements, this one is a bit abstract.  What are these “needs” that our generation gets from our forests?  Fast-forwarding past my trudge through the agency’s webpage I came to the conclusion that our generation apparently does not need wood products; at least not according to the Forest Service, otherwise I would have been able to locate the word “wood” or “timber” somewhere on their website.  I read about other resources: air, water, soil, recreation, wildlife, etc.  In this regard, the Forest Service’s website mirrors those vegetation management projects that I review in western Oregon.  By that I mean they provide wood products to the American public, they just don’t like to boast about it.

I suppose in an age where it seems that image is everything and substance is an afterthought, the Forest Service’s policy of hiding the fact that they permit the cutting of trees to provide wood products to the American public shouldn’t come as a shock.  Although it does to me.  Why not take pride in the fact that they are providing a renewable resource that every member of the public uses every day?  Why not take pride in the fact that this provision comes via integrated projects that achieve a swath of other resource objectives?  These are loaded questions of course.  I’m not that naïve.  The cutting down of trees, regardless of the reason, makes most people at worst distraught and at best a bit uncomfortable.  This is fine.  What isn’t fine is that the lead government agency tasked with providing the nation with all of its needs from our national forests seems to be tailoring it’s messaging to assuage these sentiments rather than tailoring it to reflect what the nation’s needs actually are.  In other words, their website, and the messaging it contains, seems to be handling the public with kids gloves.  Not only is this approach disingenuous, and a bit insulting to their audience, but it’s also leading down a questionable path.  If the Forest Service treats their timber products resource with such shame, why shouldn’t the rest of the American public? -Andy Geissler

The Worst Type of Government Waste

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance is typically the most costly part of implementing any type of vegetation management project on federally managed land.  Documents exceeding 200 pages are commonplace to comply with NEPA.  In 2015 the Roseburg District of the Bureau of Land Management completed one such analysis called Olalla-Camus.  This analysis focused on treatments designed to fulfil the BLM’s O&C mandate to provide a sustained production of timber on lands allocated for such production as directed by their 1994 Resource Management Plan.  Like all NEPA documents completed by federal agencies attempting to conduct active forest management and timber harvest, Olalla-Camus included an in-depth analysis on everything from wildlife habitat to carbon storage and beyond.  The timber sales analyzed under this document were estimated to provide about 16 MMBF of timber.

Next month the BLM will be offering the only timber sale generated off the Olalla-Camus EA for a total of 6.7 MMBF.  The remaining 10 MMBF considered in this EA will never be implemented.  This is due to the BLM’s new management plan completed in 2016, inconveniently finalized between the publication of the Olalla-Camus EA and the planned implementation of the treatments it considered.  Like the 1994 RMP, the 2016 RMP set aside many acres where sustained timber production cannot occur.  The only difference is that these “set-aside” acres grew exponentially.  Part of this “growth” includes the majority of the land included in the Olalla-Camus EA.  The BLM could have included a “grandfather clause” that would allow projects conceived and analyzed under the old management plan to move forward, but they didn’t.  The unfortunate result is the worst type of government waste-investments consuming large sums of money and time being squandered. -Andy Geissler

Forest Service Roads: Why We Need a New Road Maintenance Model

I was in the middle of writing this piece when Russ Vaagen posted “Roads are not the Enemy” on his blog, At first I thought about scraping my article but after reading his, I think the two pieces are complementary to each other. Mine is from the perspective of a forest engineer who has spent most of my career dealing with forest roads, both new construction and maintenance. Nearly all this work was on private and state trust lands in Washington State. I think this provides a unique perspective on the forest road issue, especially on U.S. Forest Service lands.

If you look around much of the road infrastructure – road surfacing, culverts, bridges, etc. of federal forests are crumbling away, much as we see across the federal highway system. For the most part this is not due to a lack of will or desire on the part of the hard-working field level staff of the Forest Service. Really, it is mostly due to the significant underfunding of road maintenance needs nationally on the Forest Service road system. This lack of maintenance of key infrastructure, admittedly primarily built for timber but providing access now for a broad range of users, has and continues to have negative impacts on access and the environment. Failed culverts, washed out roads, plugged ditches, and aging culverts and bridges are just a few examples of the type of issues impacting water resources or limiting access. Often cutting off recreational and economic opportunities in the forest.


What can we do about this?

Many people look at the success of the Washington State Forest Practices Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plan (RMAP) process and wonder if it can be applied elsewhere. Perhaps even on the National Forest? According to a Washington Forest Protection Association 2015 report, private forest landowners and state lands (mostly DNR Trust Lands) have spent over $300 million dollars since the year 2001 in Washington state, “resulting in removal or repair of more than 5,600 barriers to fish migration, which has restored nearly 3,900 miles of historic fish habitat.” While this figure primarily captures the investment in fish passage, there is another monetary metric that was not well captured in how DNR collects data.

That metric is non-fish passage road maintenance work, such as adding or installing larger cross drain culverts, road surfacing upgrades, and road abandonment. Additionally, there is the routine maintenance, not tracked through the RMAP program. Ongoing road grading work, culvert and ditchline cleaning, and road side vegetation management. All work to maintain a transportation system not only for regulatory reasons but also operational reasons.

As an engineer, I have spent much of my career identifying, designing, and complying this type of work. I have lost track of the number of truckloads of culverts I have overseen the installation of, but it is a substantial number. Private landowners and DNR trust lands have and are investing millions of dollars into the ongoing maintenance and upgrades of their transportation systems. This benefits, water quality, provides economic benefit from the work, and in many cases, enhances recreational access.

Is this a potential model for Forest Service transportation systems?

Ultimately, yes! A similar model on Forest Service lands can be developed, but some hurdles need to be overcome. Roads are such a contentious issue, especially on the National Forests. Can interest groups with such diverse opinions, those that want to keep every road and those who would like to see significantly less if not all roads obliterated come together on common ground? Some roads may need to go away, but conversely there may need to be new permanent road constructed to maintain access needs. Relocating roads out of flood plains or similar areas to higher ground are one example of the need to build new road while eliminating some existing road. Can agreement be reached?

Funding is the major road block to getting work done. Some Forests are using Stewardship dollars to conduct restoration level road maintenance, but this does not meet the overall need. Private and state trust lands harvested trees to pay for much of the RMAP work they conducted. A similar program can be used on Forest Service grounds, while still meeting ecological goals and within the confines of federal land management regulations. But it will require increasing “pace and scale” while also seeing congress add more funds to the Forest Service budget to accomplish this work.

In the end a new model needs to be built for the Forest Service because it is the right thing to do for many stakeholder interests. The RMAP program grew out of the Washington State Forest Practices Forest and Fish HCP. It was an effort to balance the needs of water quality and fish habitat with a viable and sustainable forest products industry. An effort that to date appears to be very successful on state and private forest land ownership.

On Forest Service lands this work would not only benefit access needs for recreation and vegetation management but also water quality and fish habitat. A successful program would enhance the environment while helping to maintain and enhance the economic infrastructure of road maintenance, logging, and milling. This could go a long way in working to create family wage jobs in rural communities.  – Matt Comisky

Reconciling Forest Needs in SW Oregon

Managing forest stands to put them on a trajectory that will increase their resiliency to wildfire, insect & disease, and climate change seems to be at the forefront of both the Forest Service’s (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) priorities over the past few years.  This concept is often characterized as “forest restoration” by both agencies.  The importance and validity of this priority is illustrated well in the current state of the federal forests of southwest Oregon.  A century of fire suppression in the region has resulted in a level of fuel accumulation that puts these forests at the risk of wildfires that would burn at unnatural levels of intensity.  The remedy to these issues is simple but often controversial: removing the in-growth; essentially cutting and removing the trees that have grown due to a century of fire suppression.  In fact, a paper titled A new approach to evaluate forest structure restoration needs across Oregon and Washington, USA published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2014 by the Nature Conservancy and others, describes these conditions and remedies for southwest Oregon.  Here, the authors describe much of the lands in southwest Oregon as having “moderate to high active restoration needs”.  The authors of this paper determined that these “forest restoration needs were dominated by the need for thinning” and that “disturbance alone cannot restore forest structure”.

The nice thing about such a remedy is that it addresses multiple resource objectives.  It restores forest stands to a more resilient condition while also providing timber products to the local industry.  Unfortunately, these types of forest treatments are often unimplementable.  The obstacles appear to be the management plans and regulatory guidance that direct the actions of the very agencies (USFS & BLM) that aim to prioritize such treatments.

In a recent environmental assessment published by the Medford BLM district the agency stated:  due to competing management objectives, some stands proposed for treatment (approximately 23% of the proposed treatment acres) would not meet the long-term objectives of shifting the trajectory of stands to more optimal growth and resiliency.  How is it that the objectives of the management plan of an agency whose priority is to increase forest resiliency conflict with actions that would increase forest resiliency?

One of these objectives is the recovery of the northern spotted owl (NSO), which is a species listed as threatened under the endangered species act.  BLM vegetation management projects, and subsequent timber sales, must always consider the effects of said project to the NSO and its habitat.  These effects are often measured by the level of forest canopy retained after any vegetation management is applied due to the NSO’s need for some closed canopy conditions.  However, in southwest Oregon where current closed canopies are unnaturally high due to the aforementioned fire suppression, the presumed habitat needs of the NSO conflict with the treatments necessary to meet the needs of forest resiliency.  The same environmental assessment referenced above goes on to state: retaining canopy cover in select stands would not allow for forest health objectives to be met. 

A rational mind would think that a native species of fauna would thrive in a setting composed of native levels of flora.  In other words, if the “natural” condition of forested stands in southwest Oregon is one of lower forest canopy density, shouldn’t those species of wildlife dependent on them thrive under such conditions?  The answer, according to vegetation management projects like the one referenced above, seems to be no.  Reconciliation of this strange relationship would be a neat trick. -Andy Geissler

You Can’t Thin Forever

Since the inception of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Western Oregon have limited their timber management paradigm to one of nearly exclusive thinning of young forest stands where post-harvest residual closed forest canopies make regeneration of Douglas-fir impossible.  This is an ecological truth: Douglas-fir seedlings need at least partial, but preferably full sunlight to grow and thrive.  AFRC has often clamored regarding the near-sighted nature of this management regime and questioned its long-term sustainability.  In recent months some federal agencies have come to terms with the same truth that AFRC and most foresters who practice their trade in the Pacific Northwest know well: you can’t thin forever.

The Salem BLM District recently published an environmental assessment that considered just how long they could manage their timber resources with a young stand thinning-only approach.  The results were disturbing but not surprising.  The EA, dated April, 2016 read: At the current rate of harvest it is likely the Salem District will exhaust most commercial thinning options in 40-80-year-old stands in a little over a decade.  In other words, the BLM timber program as we have come to know it, will expire in ten years on the Cascades Resource Area without a major shift in management practices.  And really, this timeline is likely pretty similar on other BLM Resource Areas, give or take five years.

I for one was elated when I read this.  It’s a gloomy outlook, but at least it’s realistic.  It’s akin to the longtime addict finally accepting that they are indeed an addict: Until the BLM overcomes the state of denial and accepts that their past twenty-year thinning-only regime is ultimately unsustainable then the likelihood of altering the trend is grim.  It appears that the Cascades Resource Area is on the path to recovery.  Perhaps an intervention is warranted for other Resource Area’s, or the Forest Service for that matter.  –Andy Geissler            

Is the BLM Over Cutting?

It is often said that the BLM is not managing their lands sustainably and they are “over-cutting”.  Elsewhere in this blog we have explained how one determines the amount of timber that can be sustained over time.  Using those concepts, is the BLM overcutting?  The answer is, it depends.  It depends on if the BLM is managing its land consistent with the assumptions made in doing the sustained yield calculation.

For example, if the sustained yield calculation was based on managing 2 million acres and was one billion board feet per year and for various reasons the BLM felt it could only manage 1.5 million acres and they still were selling one billion board feet then, yes, they would be overcutting IF all 2 million acres were established and maintained under the same assumptions as were made when doing the sustained yield calculation.  If on the other hand, the 1.5 million acres contained a higher volume than the managed stand used in the sustained yield calculation, they would not be overcutting and could maintain a sale level of one billion board feet until that excess inventory was gone.  Are you confused yet?

Let’s use an example.  Using the process described in the previous blog, the BLM calculates that the average acre within the one billion board foot sustained yield calculation was based on growing a 21” tree in 60 years for an average volume per acre of 40,000 bf.  If the 2 million acres within their land base consisted entirely of stands under 60 years old and were being managed in a manner that their volume per acre at 60 years was 40,000 bf, then if they continued to harvest one billion board feet per year when their land base was reduced by 25% then they would be overcutting.  If the land base is reduced by 25%, the sustained yield would go down 25% to 750,000 bf if the potential of all acres is identical.

Now let’s assume that the 1.5 million acres the BLM is left with after removing 25% from the land base contained stands that were older than 60 and contained 80,000 bf/ac.  This is way more than what is expected under the sustained yield scenario.  In this case, every acre cut contains twice the volume of a sustained yield acre.  The BLM would not be overcutting if they maintained a harvest of one billion board feet.  They could actually harvest 1.5 billion BF for 60 years from those 1.5 million acres at which time they would have to reduce their harvest to 750,000 bf which is what the managed stands can sustain over time.

Another instance where they could harvest above their sustained yield level is if they aren’t managing their lands using the land management practices that were assumed to be used when doing the sustained yield calculation.  For instance, they might not plant areas with the same genetic characteristic, might not apply fertilizer, might not control stocking or might not regenerate and plant new trees as assumed in the sustained yield calculation.  Under these conditions, the lands would not be growing as anticipated and they could be over cutting.

The industry is worried that this might be the case as the BLM has not followed the management practices that were assumed when they did their sustained yield calculation 20 years ago.  Since the NWFP was adopted, the BLM has not regenerated and planted new trees as anticipated but rather relied on thinning existing stands to produce their ASQ.  While this has increased the standing inventory beyond what was anticipated, it has created a 20 year age gap that will affect future sustained yield calculations.

The BLM has never “over-cut” their lands as the vast majority of their stands contain way more volume than the sustained yield acre as in the example above.  Claims that they are doing so are merely attempts to discredit the agency and deceive the general public and have no basis in reality. -Ross Mickey

The Principles of Sustained Yield

The lands (and the trees that grow on them) managed by the USFS and BLM are governed by numerous laws that require these lands to be managed sustainably.  The O&C Act, which governs the management of over 2 million acres of federally owned forestland in western Oregon, is very specific on this point.  It states that the O&C lands “shall be managed . . . for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply”.  So what is the “principle of sustained yield”?

In its simplest form, this means that the federal agencies cannot cut more trees than it can grow.  The next question is how one knows that they are doing this?  That’s complicated.  It is done by collecting reams of field data which are compiled and feed into computer models developed by teams of PhD’s from a wide range of specialties.  Understanding the interplay between all of these biological, social and technical factors form the basis of Forestry Programs developed by our major universities.  Short of that, I will give you my synopsis of a Sustained Yield 101 course.  I will start by assuming that I own ten acres of land and want to grow Christmas trees to supplement my income.  These same principle apply to growing trees to produce building materials.

To determine my “sustained yield” of Christmas trees, the first thing I need to know is the productivity of the soil.  My ten acres consists of one acre of really good soil, eight acres of OK soil and one acre of rather poor soil.  The next thing I need to know is how long it will take to grow the size of Christmas tree I want to sell.  To determine this I need to know the characteristics of the trees I am going to plant (genetics), what supplements I might add to the soil (fertilizers), what management practices I will employ as the trees grow (thinning, weed control, etc.) and how big of a tree I want to grow. I then combine the soil productivity and the tree data to find out how long it will take to grow the size of tree I want and how many trees per acre I can expect to have.

Doing this I find that I can grow 1,500, six foot trees in five years on my one acre of really good soil, 1,250 trees on my OK soil and 750 trees on my poor soil.

I decide to start small and just plant my one acre of good soil.  What is my sustained yield?  Well it is 1,500 trees every five years.  Most of the time, sustained yield is displayed on an annual basis and is referred to as the Allowable Sale Quantity (ASQ).  This is because our federal forestland is also managed under another forestry principle which is called “non-decline, even flow management”.  What this does is ensure that the communities and businesses that rely on a predictable, constant supply of timber will not be hurt by huge swings in the amount of timber being sold every year.  On our case, it means that instead of selling 1,500 trees every five years we would sell 300 trees every year. (1,500 divided by five years)  Our ASQ would then be 300 trees.

What would happen if I wanted to plant all ten acres?  I could grow 1,500/acre on one acre, 1,250 /acre on eight acres and 750/acre on one acre.  Doing the math, this pencils out to 12,250 trees every five years or an ASQ of 2,450 trees.  In order for this to truly be sustainable, 300 trees would come off the one good soil acre, 2,000 from my eight OK soil acres and 150 from my one acre of poor soil.  I would also have to immediately replant the acres that I cut.  Planting baby trees is the heart of sustained yield management.

As you can see, calculating the sustained yield combines many factors and is based on the assumption that you start with bare land.  What happens to the sustained yield when you start with land that already has trees on them? The answer is…nothing.  Sustained yield is calculated on the potential growth based on the myriad of factors mentioned above.  What existing trees do determine is when you can start selling at the sustained yield level.  In our Christmas tree example, we can’t start until five years from now.  When our federal agencies ask the same question, they look at the size of the inventory that they start with and determine if it can be metered out at the sustained yield level.  If not, they must lower their ASQ until such time as the inventory is sufficient to maintain the sustained yield level.  If the inventory is very high, they could actually sell more than their sustained yield level for a period of time but the principle of non-decline, even flow prohibits this.  -Ross Mickey

Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 3

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

What can we do about it?

In part 2 we covered some of the reasons you should care about the TLT program. In part 3 we will identify some ways to address the issue. While well intentioned, this program is broken and needs a tune up. Much like a new car off the lot, TLT was a shiny new program that worked at the time. Many miles later, it needs new tires, brakes, and transmission work to carry it over the future miles it must travel. The agency does need a mechanism to reposition underperforming assets just as any other trust manager would consider. But this system needs to be reformed for the benefit of the beneficiaries both today and tomorrow. But what can we do about it?


In the near term, there are several different ways to work on effecting change to this program, but all require engagement. Just at different levels and with different groups that can help to create change. Either individually or as a group (PTA, School Board, etc.,) get involved with the Advocates for School Trust Lands (formerly CLASS) or the Washington State School Directors Trust Land Task Force. These are the primary groups engaged on many of these issues. Look for other groups advocating for the sustainable maximum management of DNR trust lands, such as your local beneficiary tax district. Talk to your legislative representatives. Tell them your concerns over specific parcels or the program. Comment to the Board of Natural Resources on the topic or when transfer parcels come up for approval by the Board. And express your concerns to DNR staff and the Commissioner of Public Lands throughout the process. Ask for more transparency. Advocate for a broader picture of the immediate, future, and unintended consequences of transfer of the proposed parcels. All before the decision is made by the legislature.

Soon AFRC hopes to bring forward some concepts and ideas to tune up the program. Concepts to protect the corpus of the trust, protect future generations while providing for the current, and to allow the trust manager, DNR, the needed ability to reposition assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Why do we care? Because without the vibrant customer base our members provide, the value of the trust asset is greatly reduced. The reduction in harvest volumes due to decreases in available acres means potential curtailments or shuttering of customer milling facilities. Which means a reduction or loss of customers who competitively bid on timber sales. This ultimately is not good for our members or the communities our members and their employees live, work and play in. Nor does it support the beneficiaries; schools, libraries, fire districts, etc. today or in the future. Maintaining the maximum working forest land base in Washington is good for today’s generation and tomorrow’s.

Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 2

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

Why Should You Care About the TLT Program?

In part one we covered the basics and overview of the TLT program. In part 2 I am going to address the second question; Why should you care?

The answer; quite honestly the primary reason you should care about TLT is that it continues to erode the corpus (body) of the trust assets for near term gain at the potential detriment of future generations. So not only is the corpus of the trust eroded but the intergenerational equities (benefiting one generation over another) issue is also at play. But these are just the primary reason, there are many others, some broad and some finely nuanced, including the undivided loyalty concern.

What do I mean by erode the corpus of the trust? The corpus or body of the trust in this context is primarily timberlands managed by DNR. Under this program, the acres within the Common School trust are decreased through transfer or inter-trust exchanges. While providing the expectation of the agency buying replacement lands. In June of 2013 the DNR reported in its 2013-2015 Biennium TLT proposal document, there had been a disposal of 113,280 acres and only a purchase of 49,683 acres. This is a 66,772-acre loss of trust lands, mostly timber lands, from the TLT program alone. A decrease that is roughly 1.5 times greater an area than the City of Tacoma. This means that under DNR’s fiduciary obligation of inter-generational equities, today’s generation has been compensated but tomorrows generation may or may not be compensated through trust revenues. Especially in the current situation where the deficit of acquired lands is so large. While we are aware of some small acreage purchases since the 2013 report, we are working with DNR to learn what the current actual shortfall of replacement lands is. Reports published since the 2013-15 report have not included the totals for disposal and acquisitions under this program. It is our belief that the acquisition of lands still lags far behind the continued disposal, eroding the corpus of the trust.


The other nuance to this erosion issue is the inter-trust exchange process. I know this is going to be a bit dense in information but it is critical to understand this aspect of the process. Since Common School trust lands are the only ones which can be removed from trust status, other than County Trust lands re-conveyed to a county for park uses, TLT parcels which are not already Common School trust lands must be exchanged for similar value Common School parcels. For example, a 120-acre parcel of County Trust lands (State Forest Transfer lands) with high value timber is identified for TLT transfer. In order to accomplish this transfer, the 120 acres must be exchanged for Common School trust lands of the same value and preferably in the same rough geographical location. Often the Common School trust lands have younger trees growing on it. This means it takes more acres to create the same value. So the swap may equate to more like 120 acres in exchange for 250 acres of younger growth trees. While the dollar amount is the same, the county lands increase by 130 acres and the Common School decreases by 250 acres. The Common School trust gives up 250 acres in exchange for 120 acres that are then immediately transferred out of trust management. See the table below for the flow of acres.

Flow of Acres in an Inter-trust exchange followed by TLT disposition.
120 Acres of County Trust desired for TLT program with 85 year old trees 250 Acres of Common School Trust needed for equal value with 15 year old trees
Transfer 120 acres to Common School Transfer 250 acres to County Trust
Receive 250 acres from Common School Receive 120 acres from County Trust
Keep 250 acres Dispose of 120 acres to TLT (deposit to Common School Construction account and Real Property Replacement account per percentages)
Net gain of 250 acres in County Trust Net loss of 250 acres from Common School


This has impacts on both current and future generations. Also since most of DNR’s planning efforts are based on managed acres, this has varied impacts on individual trusts and ultimately the number of acres available for sustainably managed timber harvest. This process raises concerns over inter-generational equities, undivided loyalty, and preserving the corpus of the trust.

Additionally, there are concerns over the process the TLT program takes in approving the parcel list that is submitted to the legislature. Ultimately there is not an open public process which allows for public input and engagement on the program from a broad perspective. While it is true the agency sometimes holds local community education meetings for specific parcels, there is no opportunity to look at the big picture impacts to the trust and the beneficiaries. Because the complete appraisals are not conducted until after the legislature approves the list, it is not possible to fully understand some of the negative impacts. This is especially true with the inter-trust exchange aspect as those exchange acres are identified later in the process.

There is also controversy over the role the Board of Natural Resources plays in the approval of the list. While the Board has the general power to “[e]stablish policies to ensure that the acquisition, management, and disposition of all lands and resources within [DNR’s] jurisdiction are based on sound principles designed to achieve the maximum effective development and use of such lands and resources…” RCW 43.30.215(2). The Board prior to approval by the legislature only has informational briefings on the proposal. As described in DNR’s own documents the information is “…assembled into an informational package that is presented to the Board of Natural Resources and then to the Governor’s Office for submission to the Legislature.” The Board does not weigh in on the policy, documentation, appraisals, impacts to the trust or other issues of concern related to the TLT proposed package. No discussion. No in depth review. No vote. No Board Resolution. Usually just a head nod and DNR staff proceed. A transfer parcel list developed by DNR staff, appraised by DNR staff, and ultimately disposed of after funding from the legislature by DNR staff, with little to no input from the beneficiaries or the Board other than a rubber stamp of approval of one transaction at a time.

These are just a few of the reasons why you should care about this program. Ultimately the concerns over fiduciary obligation, intergenerational equities, and undivided loyalty, play heavily into the impacts to the trusts both for today’s generation and tomorrows. And I did not even cover the lost revenue when these parcels are no longer managed. In part 3 we will explore what we can do about it.

Trust Land Transfer – Good or Bad…Sure! – Part 1

by Matt Comisky
AFRC Washington State Manager

This is part 1 of a 3-part series about the Trust Land Transfer program in Washington State. In this series we will cover 3 basic questions. The first question will be “what is trust land transfer?” In our following post, we will explore “why should you or anyone care?” And in our third post we explore “what can we do about it?” Let’s get started.

What is Trust Land Transfer or TLT?

Trust Land Transfer Program or TLT as most people refer to it, is a Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) managed program which began in the late 1980’s. The program involves DNR staff identifying (prior to each legislative biennium) certain trust lands that which they view as underperforming as revenue generators due to their difficulty to manage, but otherwise “provide greater social benefit through non-revenue generating activities.”

The list of cimg_0909andidate trust lands is reviewed by DNR staff, other agencies and the Commissioner of Public Lands. Staff presents the list to the Board of Natural Resources for informational purposes and once approved by the Commissioner it is forwarded to the Governor’s office. The list is submitted to the legislature, and approved lands are transferred out of the trust land base to conservation status under DNR management or other public agencies to be managed for non-revenue, generally conservation and recreational, purposes. The transfer package approved by the Commissioner, Governor, and Legislature is “authorized and funded as a section in the Capital Budget Bill.” The legislature funds the program by authorizing the transfer and providing an appropriation for the value of the land (which goes to the Real Property Replacement Account) and timber (which goes to the Common School Construction Account).

As the biennium proceeds individual transactions are brought before the Board of Natural Resources for approval of each transfer. In some situations, where the proposed TLT parcels are not currently Common School Trust, an inter-trust exchange must first take place. Typically, in these situations the parcels proposed for transfer are County trust lands. These lands must first be exchanged for Common School lands of similar value. Often the acres and timber age classes are different, but the dollar values are roughly the same. This creates potential issues of intergenerational equities, undivided loyalty, and erosion of the corpus of the trust. All issues we will explain in part 2 of this series.

Upon BNR approval of the transfers, and inter-trust exchanges if needed, DNR staff completes the necessary work to complete the real estate transactions. The appropriated funds are then distributed to the two accounts based on the values identified in the appraisal presented to the Board of Natural Resources.

One caveat to the program is the expectation that the parcels selected have an 80% “aggregate timber value” with 20% of the total value in the land. This is to assure the maximum amount of the appropriation is deposited into the Common School Construction Account. This does however create challenges when some parcels which are perfect candidates for this program have a lower timber to land value ratio. Often these parcels are viewed as unsuitable for the program and they remain in trust management status.

This covers the TLT program mechanics at a high level. While there is guidance in the selection of proposed parcels, there traditionally has been very little oversight of the true need to transfer parcels and whether DNR is adhering to its trust mandates. These mandates include its fiduciary obligations to generate revenue, undivided loyalty, inter-generational equities and to protect the corpus of the trust. In part 2 we will explore some of these issues in our effort to answer the question “why you should care?”

As Sawmills Close, so too do the Doors on Rural Communities

I was born in Prineville and grew up in rural eastern Oregon in the 1950’s. Prineville had four active sawmills and several secondary wood manufacturers. Unemployment was low, and jobs were readily available. We were proud of our work and what we contributed to the wealth of the state. We had the opportunity for education, a career, and advancement if one had the desire to work hard to achieve our goals. Now after nearly sixty years of carrying the belief that rural Oregon residents could have these expectations and make their own way, I no longer believe it is true.

Something has changed in Oregon, and maybe in the United States in general, regarding opportunities for people living in rural communities. Rural Americans have become some of the most forgotten and discriminated against people in our society. I offer this perspective based on current government policies which have put the needs of rural Oregonians behind those of eco-alarmists, obstructionists, ill-informed judges and misguided lawmakers who haven’t taken the time to walk a mile on rural streets or understand the role we play.


Many of Oregon’s rural communities were built around the timber industry, which prospered after World War II. Our federal government made a contract with rural Oregon that they were going to manage our national forests and BLM lands, and in lieu of paying property taxes, those forests would help provide jobs and pay a portion of the timber stumpage receipts back to the counties in the form of road and school funds. This was a win/win situation for our forests, our rural communities, and for Oregon.

During the 40’s and 50’s, Oregon had an influx of people from states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Minnesota, Kentucky allured by the growing forest products industry. While these people were not minorities by ethnic standards, many of them faced similar hardships to those faced by migrant farm workers. They left the Dust Bowl to live in logging camps and to work one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The grit of these people built the roots of communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The opportunity for many rural Oregonians to carve out a lifestyle, maintain independence, and flourish was provided by the forest products industry and by federal forest management policies. As a result, Oregon, and Oregon’s rural communities, flourished for most of the 20th century. Timber in Oregon was big business, growing to become the state’s largest industry. Rural Oregon was proud of its role in the state and contributed to economic health just like their urban counterparts in Portland, Eugene, and other cities.

Beginning in the 1990’s federal forest policies began changing, with implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in western Oregon and the development of the East Side Screens in eastern Oregon. Harvest from public timber land was greatly reduced (by over 80 percent). However, even those reduced harvest levels were never again reached and our legislators have done little to help deliver the promises of sustainable harvests from our federal forests.

There have been many missed opportunities throughout the past fifteen years that could have increased harvest levels and helped struggling rural communities near our federal forests, but partisan politics and misinformation regarding sustained forest management has prevented any meaningful actions in the forests and left dozens of sawmills idled.

When opportunities do arise for rural Oregon we often find they are minimized or rejected as with blocking the implementation of the Bureau of Land Management’s Western Oregon Plan Revision. This plan was the culmination of five years planning and called for a sustained harvest of timber from O&C county lands while creating 1,200 new jobs and preserving 3,800 additional rural Oregon jobs. Legislators appear to be siding with environmental extremists who have denounced sustainable forest management policies and prefer to see rural Oregon living on unemployment rather than on forest products jobs coming from BLM timberlands. Unfortunately, with those policies and attitudes in place, communities like Prineville, Baker, North Powder, Burns, and a host of others have no sawmills or the jobs and dreams that go with them.


Well-meaning forest management legislation that has been proposed in recent years is misguided. Instead of opening up areas for expedited forest health harvests, these laws would only take another slice out of forest management opportunities by limiting the ages of trees that can be harvested and also put more forest land off-limits to management. These limitations would also remove a certain segment of the industry infrastructure that relies on larger trees from being able to access federal forests, thus further breaking down the contract with rural America our government once honored.

Rural Oregon residents, the federal forests, and the forest products industry are much like a garden that needs to be tended and watered. If you cut off the spigot of management dollars and treatments for the forests as has happened for the past decade and a half they will all die! We need our Government and legislators to understand that only a healthy forest products industry will deliver our rural Oregon towns from double digit unemployment; not promises based on tourism or other such panaceas. Our forests need managed, not just set aside to burn. They need the spigots of active management turned back on to allow them to flourish along with the forest products industry located there; and our rural citizens need the opportunity to once again have family wage jobs and opportunities and hope for the future.

– Tom Partin

Timber, OR: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Building With Wood

There is a bucolic nostalgia about wood buildings. Structures built from wood tend to have a rustic, outdoorsy feel; very ski chalet, very grandparent’s cabin. Although the aesthetic and sentimental appeal of wood buildings lingers, it, like most nostalgia-tied imagery, has been antiquated, pushed aside in favor of the new. Or has it?

No chagrin can be placed on someone who believes building with wood is an obsolete practice given the current technology. For many, the argument that wood could be used as a permanent and wide-reaching material for multi-story buildings stops at the mere mention of wood’s inherent flammability. That’s the perception: steel and concrete can’t burn up like wood does, so why use anything but? Images of the Great Chicago Fire and other urban disasters conjure an unflattering and misguided view of how wood acts as a building material.

Recent studies at Oregon State University (a research institute in the heart of timber land), show that wood can surpass the structural standards placed on similar building materials for multi-story structures. Concrete is used to help bond joints in the wood, giving it a strength that rivals steel. Cross-Laminated Timber has set a new standard for strength, and has proven that there is still more that can be done with timber.  Advancements like these have started a revolution of sorts, as architects and engineers begin to look at wood as the primary building material for structures in excess of twenty stories. As a result, building codes in most of North America are being reexamined to allow for taller wooden buildings.

Not to mention it sure it pretty.

The good news doesn’t stop there, though. Compared to the production of steel and concrete, harvesting, production, and building with wood produces 31% less CO2. Wooden structures also represent a massive carbon sink, one of the largest available for urban areas. This, in addition to massive replanting efforts by timber organizations, makes timber one of the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly building materials. Who could find a way to oppose that?

Well, one town did.

In the face of overwhelming data and research proving otherwise, the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs has banned wood construction in buildings more than three stories high and over 100,000 square feet claiming that the material’s combustive properties and lack of structural integrity creates an unsafe environment.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul asserts that the decision to ban certain wooden structures from being built in the town is purely in response to safety concerns regarding the material and that he does not feel his decision will hurt the overall Georgia timber industry, which has historically done very well in the area.

Wooden structures are not only more sustainable, but they can be erected much faster.

This refusal to acknowledge the advances in wood products and wooden buildings comes alongside a movement from the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, whose “Build with Strength” campaign rails against wood as a building material. In a direct quote from NRMCA, “Wood burns, rots and molds, and that is not a product we want in schools, multi-family housing, or retirement homes.” The implication of wood as a dangerous building material has long been debunked, and only makes those who advocate against it appear foolish.

Fire Borrowing is Bleeding the Forest Service Dry

The first thing any new session of Congress hopes to accomplish is the designation of the coming year’s federal budget. As well as being one of the most important legislative acts, it is also one of the most contentious. Every year Congress must fund every agency and department in government.  Naturally, when dealing with a multi-trillion-dollar budget, there isn’t room for everyone to get exactly what they want.

Sometimes there are cuts to education, the arts, agriculture, even the military. Recently, though, there has been a troubling trend of not providing enough financial support to combat an omnipresent threat in our forested lands: catastrophic wildfire.

As conditions become more dry and dead trees populate the landscape with increasing density (for evidence of this see California’s estimated 70 million dead and dying, a major fuels concern for foresters), the risk of catastrophic wildfire rises. At this moment, Congress has provided insufficient funds to the Forest Service for both general forest management and combating wildfires, many of which burn all summer and threaten not only our forests, but also the livelihoods of those in the neighboring communities.

fire un resize

Studies have estimated that the fire season has become 78 days longer since 1970. This, in combination with a lack of understanding of the need to better fund fire response, has caused the  U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to divert hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars away from its management budget. In 2015, the USFS announced that it would alter its budget to move $250 million from routine operations to fire suppression and emergency fire response.

This seems intuitive, even necessary, in certain ways. If the forests are experiencing more destructive wildfires more often, of course, more funds should be given to suppressing those fires. It must be a contingency already built into the USFS budget, right? Well, it’s complicated. The USFS does allot a certain percentage of its annual budget to fire suppression – usually an amount equivalent to the ten-year average of fire costs.  However, when that amount is exceeded, which is becoming a yearly occurrence, the USFS “borrows” funds from other management accounts.  This includes borrowing from management accounts intended to make our forests more resilient and less fire prone by performing thinning and healthy forest treatments.

The practice of “fire borrowing” has had a devastating impact on the agency’s ability to complete its mission of managing our nation’s public forestlands.  To put the problem in perspective: In 1985, only 16% of the annual budget was set aside for firefighting, and this money was usually only used in fighting the small number of fires that grew past the point of rapid containment.

But in 2015, for the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, fire suppression and containment took up more than 50% (52%, to be exact) of the annual budget. To make matters worse, these numbers are projected to become even more lopsided, as the USFS predicts firefighting will account for 67% of the budget by 2025.

Here are some startling figures representing the USFS programs impacted by fire borrowing:

  • Vegetation and watershed management has suffered a 22% reduction in spending;
  • Facilities are down 67%
  • Roads are down 46%
  • Trails are down 14%
  • Fisheries are down 17%
  • Deferred maintenance is down 95%

Foresters are concerned of course, worried that the money spent on forest fire containment is masking the underlying causes of overall slumping forest heath. It ripples outward, of course, to anyone who works and lives in the forest. Logs are burning, meaning mills can’t get enough raw materials to stay afloat. Animal life already threatened by adverse weather are being forced out of their habitats. Recreation is being halted in impacted areas.

resize compress

The bottom line is fire borrowing is impacting everyone. The kicker? The solution is right in front of us: active management.

For many of the key decision makers, including those who allocate federal budgets, the idea of active management isn’t very sexy. Implementing it means a lot of work, and work means money. Those outside of impacted states can have trouble understanding the need to spend money on management when fires still rage across the landscape, but it is essential to impart to them that active, hands-on management is the solution.

Active management can help reduce the risk of catastrophic fires thus providing myriad environmental, wildlife, air quality, and water quality benefits; it can help kick-start rural economies by providing more raw materials to mills and create good paying jobs; it will generate a better economic return to the American taxpayer by increasing revenues for county governments and the U.S. Treasury while simultaneously reducing public outlays to suppress fire. By fixing fire borrowing, Congress can turn an economic and environmental ticking time bomb into a benefit for our forests and rural communities.

NEPA and the Antiquities Act: When is Public Input Needed?

On January 1st, 1970, Congress passed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Billed as the “environmental Magna Carta”, NEPA marked the early stages of the country’s environmental policy agenda, and mandated that all federal agencies must perform environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs) for public land being managed or developed in any significant way, and should state any environmental impacts that could result from federal action on the land.

Apart from its landmark status as an environmental oversight measure, NEPA was also lauded for its inclusivity. Since its inception, NEPA has encouraged public input on federal actions concerning public lands, including Federal forests. The public has been able to view, comment, and question EAs and EISs, with the hope that this involvement will create a more holistic outcome for those who would ultimately be impacted by any proposed changes. This has been made even more inclusive by the presence of NEPA documentation on the internet.

However, for all the inclusion within NEPA, it is the exceptions which give those who work on public lands pause. NEPA does not apply to federal courts, Congress, or the President, a clause which has caused problems when butting up against other environmental legislation, namely the Antiquities Act.

Like NEPA, the Antiquities Act (signed into law in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt), gave the President authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments on public lands in order to preserve and protect natural and scientifically relevant areas. Although presidential powers related to the Antiquities Act have been reduced twice (both accounts were state specific), overall the President has almost unchecked power from Congress, the courts, or the public when designating monuments in this way.

Nat Mon
Changing one word sure makes a lot of difference. Credit: NPS historic photo

At their hearts, both the Antiquities Act and NEPA want the same thing, to, as NEPA puts it, “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage”. The Antiquities Act, due to its rapid nature, does not require or allow EAs or EISs, and thus, does not have to abide by NEPA, eliminating public comment on public land designation.

NEPA considers citizen opinion, and even releases EA and EIS documentation for public consumption, although this too can cause problems. EA and EIS reports are long by design, often reach into the hundreds or thousands of pages, can cost millions of dollars to complete, and include complex, sometimes contradictory, figures that can be impenetrable to a public audience. NEPA documentation has gotten to the point of alienating, rather than inviting, public comment through reports filled with bloat and jargon.

Neither NEPA or the Antiquities Act is perfect, and neither seems to have total consideration regarding public opinion. The key difference between the two is the level of oversight. The public, those who would use and benefit from lands attributed under NEPA, act as a balance to the federal agencies governing the process. This balance is not present in the Antiquities Act, and gives authoritative power to the President, eliminating any sense of public involvement regarding the lands they will ultimately become the beneficiaries of.

It is in the best interest of all those who reap the benefits of federal legislation leading to preserved natural spaces that the public be informed and have a period of response regarding new projects, founded through NEPA, the Antiquities Act, or otherwise. Anything less creates an environment where the needs of the few are put before the needs of the many. No judicial or legislative action has been taken regarding the Antiquities Act’s evasion of the public process, which undercuts the very notion of preserving lands for public use.

President Barack Obama using the Antiquities Act. Credit: The White House

The appropriate use of the Antiquities Act, however noble, has come under serious scrutiny by Congress. Modern environmental laws such as NEPA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Forest Management Act (just to name a few) have become the primary statutes to protect and manage America’s incredible natural resources.

The wealth of governmental agencies managing federal lands begs the question about why the Antiquities Act, which has operated under the executive actions of Republican and Democratic administrations for the better part of a century, is not subject to public review as any other federal agency action would be. Presidential designations under the Antiquities Act should fall under the same strict guidelines for ecosystem health and forbearance that NEPA does. Only then can federal agencies truly be involved in community discourse about the future of the country’s public lands.