USFS officials expect improved efficiency, legal defense will speed forest work

2012-02-23T23:45:00Z 2012-02-24T05:47:03Z USFS officials expect improved efficiency, legal defense will speed forest workBy ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
February 23, 2012 11:45 pm  • 

Speeding up the pace of work on national forests should mean more wood for Montana sawmills – but it won’t mean more money for the agency, U.S. Forest Service officials said on Thursday.

That’s going to happen through a combination of more efficient project planning and better legal defenses, according to Agriculture Department Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman, who oversees the Forest Service. It won’t involve a lot more federal money.

“It’s not just federal contribution – there’s local contribution, too,” Sherman said in an interview with the Missoulian. And those local contributions, which could range from utility companies matching expenses on clearing powerline corridors to city governments sharing the cost of watershed improvements, are essential to helping new projects win Forest Service backing.

That will play out in the Forest Service’s Collaborative Landscape Restoration Program, to which Congress appropriated $40 million this year. About $8 million of that will be spent in the Forest Service’s Northern Region, headquartered in Missoula.

It includes about $4 million for the Southwest Crown of the Continent stewardship contract, which features a mix of logging, hazardous fuels thinning, road removal or repair, and habitat improvement.

“Is the region or the Forest Service anticipating a large increase in budget to accelerate the pace of restoration?” asked forest management director Cal Joyner. “The answer is no. We’re going to get at this through fairly flat budgets. So typically one factor in grading new projects is whether there is significant local input. Then you work out the budget for how to move forward, and what will be the local match.”

Overall, the Forest Service wants to see a 20 percent increase in forest products coming out of the woods. Most of that would be lumber, although some fraction would also be pulp and biofuel material. Sherman said the agency wants increased emphasis on energy-producing projects.

“In 2011, we were successful in mechanically treating 195,000 acres,” Sherman said. “In 2012, we anticipate that will increase to 211,000 acres, and by 2013 we want to increase that number to 230,000 acres.”

That corresponds to 2.4 billion board feet of lumber in 2011, 2.6 billion in 2012 and 2.8 billion in 2013. By 2014, the Forest Service expects to be producing 3 billion board feet of lumber. That includes at least 300 million board feet in Region 1, which covers Montana and much of Idaho.

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Those are the crucial numbers for people like Chuck Roady, vice president of Stoltze Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls and board member of the Montana Wood Products Association. He also met with Sherman last week in Washington, D.C.

“I think they’re going to try,” Roady said of the promised production targets. “Between the bug epidemic we have across the Continental Divide and the huge fires they had in Arizona and New Mexico, I think it’s raised the level of awareness that we have to do some active management. And the only way to manage the forest is to maintain the infrastructure of the forest products industry.”

But that also means the activity has to include the kind of wood the industry needs.

“What pays for all the other projects is sawlogs that the mills can use,” Roady said. “Not little 2- and 4-inch trees – those are a cost. I know the Forest Service is pushing biomass, but it doesn’t pay its own way out of the woods.”

Roady said he was encouraged by the Forest Service’s new direction on reducing legal challenges to forest projects. While those aren’t expected to take effect until this summer, he predicted they would help speed up production.

Sherman said considering larger landscape projects should reduce the workload and the points of argument over forest management.

“One way we’re trying to gain greater efficiencies is to improve how we handle National Environmental Policy Act reviews,” Sherman said. “We want to see more focused environmental assessments. Instead of elaborate environmental assessments going on for hundreds of pages, we want to make them shorter, more efficient documents.

Those environmental reviews would also cover much larger swaths of territory. A pilot version in South Dakota involves about 350,000 acres of beetle-infested forest. It also provides “adaptive management” tools that allow forest managers to change tactics if conditions evolve – like if a beetle infestation reaches a new level of intensity.

“That way, land managers would have in place the necessary environmental work to go forward with a project without having to redo or update the environmental impact statement,” Sherman said. “They’ll know what the suite of mitigation measures will be if different conditions occur.”

Friends of the Wild Swan director Arleen Montgomery said that idea didn’t give her much comfort. The volunteer organization has been monitoring and frequently suing the Forest Service over land management in the Flathead and Swan valleys since 1987.

“Adaptive management requires monitoring, and that’s something that the Forest Service has done very poorly,” Montgomery said. “Maybe they monitor their timber-sale contracts, but after the logs are all taken out of the woods, there’s not the money to do that other stuff.”

To further save money, Missoula’s Northern Region is piloting a new budgeting system in which forest management dollars are put through a simplified accounting process. Joyner said it should free up personnel who now won’t have to keep separate tallies for wildlife, road, watershed and other restoration tasks. All those will be wrapped into the budget of a single, multipurpose project.

“Because of the federal deficit, we will have to be leaner and meaner in efforts to get the work done,’ Joyner said. “But we still think we will be able to expand the work we’re doing to a certain extent.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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