Politics aside, a logging bill now halfway through Congress would transform Montana’s timber business from a trickle to a torrent.
The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act envisions a six-fold increase in timber harvest from Montana’s nine national forests, from 62.5 million board feet cut in 2012 to a regular production of 380.5 million board feet. The impact would vary greatly from forest to forest.
For example, the Bitterroot National Forest would be expected to produce 21 million board feet a year, up from 2012’s 11 million board feet. Next door, the Lolo National Forest would see its quota rise from 7 million board feet to 89 million. The Kootenai National Forest in the northwest corner of the state would expand from 24 million to 145 million board feet a year.
The numbers come from U.S. Forest Service records compiled by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., who is a co-sponsor of the Restoring Healthy Forests bill. Also known as HR 1526, the bill passed the House of Representatives on a 244-173 vote on Sept. 20.
The legislation mandates annual harvests of one-half the Forest Service’s long-term sustainable yield for each national forest. That would match the harvest rates of 20 years ago, according to Montana Wood Products Association executive vice president Julia Altemus.
“The big question is can existing milling infrastructure handle it, and I think they absolutely can,” Altemus said. “They would ramp up manpower, and be able to run at full capacity. Then you have to ask, does the Forest Service have the manpower to get the work done? I would love to have the opportunity to work through that.”
The Helena-headquartered Alliance for the Wild Rockies has recently stopped four Forest Service timber projects in Montana for failing to follow environmental laws. Executive director Michael Garrity said the House bill would gut the National Forest Management Act, which was enacted to reverse years of excessive harvesting on national forests.
“The Forest Service had done extreme environmental damage,” Garrity said of the older harvest rates. “Go down around Sula and you can see the terraces they made in the hillsides, where they tried to turn the area into a giant tree farm. That’s the world we could return to if they gut the National Forest Management Act. There’d be a whole lot less wildlife, clean rivers and fish, and a whole lot more corporate welfare.”
Garrity agreed with Altemus that the Forest Service would be hard-pressed to produce the volume of timber sales needed to meet the bill’s mandate. That was also a concern for Tony Colter at Deer Lodge’s Sun Mountain timber mill.
“I think the mills could get back up to capacity faster than the Forest Service is going to be able to offer it,” Colter said. “It’s going to take them some ramping up to get that kind of volume offered for sale.”
HR 1526 envisions the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest moving from 400,000 board feet a year to 12 million board feet. That’s the volume it produced in six of the years between 1995 and 2005. Sun Mountain processes more than three times that amount.
“We saw 45 million feet of logs a year, and the Forest Service provides only a small fraction of what we need,” Colter said. “The Forest Service is less than 10 percent. Most of our stock is private, BLM and state. We’re going clear into Idaho and Wyoming to find timber, which is uneconomical.”
Sun Mountain would see about the same amount of timber out of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest under another bill offered by Sen. Jon Tester, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. But that bill only applies to three Montana national forests in a pilot program for Forest Service timber management. The bill Daines supports covers all timber-producing national forests in the country.
“Don’t make me guess which one has a better chance of passing,” Colter said. “I’ve never seen so many bills aimed at fixing the Forest Service. I like to think they’ll reach some kind of compromise legislation in Montana.”
The national bill also envisions a return to a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes subsidy, where the Forest Service would give 25 percent of its timber sale proceeds to the county governments and school districts where the timber was cut. That proposal would actually reduce the amount of money those jurisdictions now get from the program that replaced PILT – the Secure Rural Schools fund, according to Headwaters Economics researcher Mark Haggerty.
The Bozeman-based think tank examined two scenarios for how HR 1526’s harvest might be applied. One assumed all national forests would equally increase their cuts. The second assumed some forests would produce more than others, at the same disproportionate levels seen in the 1980s and 1990s.
Neither delivered as much revenue to local governments as the current Secure Rural Schools fund does, Haggerty said.
“According to Congressional Budget Office figures, it’s not enough timber to create receipts at the same level as SRS,” Haggerty said. “That means SRS was pretty generous, and its current funding levels are quite high. But it was supposed to be a transition payment, as counties dealt with the decline in timber harvests. They were supposed to diversify their economies, find other sources of revenue and get off the timber economy. It was never intended to be a permanent replacement of the 25 percent fund.”
In an interview last week Daines said the 25 percent payment was designed to keep those counties and schools whole.
“It starts producing revenues again for these counties surrounded by national forests that don’t have a tax base, so they can use timber harvest for funding schools,” he said. “We’ve reached out to county commissioners and they’re very much behind us.”
So too is the national and international market for lumber. Prices for construction materials have been rising slowly but steadily in the past year. For Colter at Sun Mountain, the increased log volume is a problem he’d be happy to have.
“We’ve never had a problem being able to sell it,” Colter said. “In the next five years, we’re seeing a huge raw material shortage and demand for lumber as this market improves.”