HAMILTON - A fair and adequate amount of accurate information is central to a healthy discussion and reasonable decision-making process. In the U.S. Forest Service, we practice this as a matter of direction under the National Environmental Policy Act when it comes to public involvement and interaction on our land management decisions. I believe it is imperative that communication lines remain open and we work together to find solutions and ways to survive the current economy and poor market conditions of our timber industry.
So it is unfortunate for us all that incomplete information in a recent article in local newspapers claimed that the Bitterroot National Forest, unlike other national forests, was not selling timber. The article went on to suggest that if national forests would sell more timber, local jobs would return, shuttered mills would re-open, and the boom days of the Bitterroot Valley would be back. While I certainly wish all our challenges were this easy to solve, I feel compelled to share some facts and information with you regarding timber sales on the Bitterroot National Forest.
First and foremost, the Bitterroot National Forest is continuing to sell timber. In 2011, 9.6 million board feet were harvested on the Bitterroot National Forest. Trees were cut on more than 2,000 acres, sending an estimated 1,933 truckloads of logs to Montana sawmills. The Bitterroot's largest timber project, Trapper Bunkhouse (2,700 acres) continues on the Darby Ranger District and is our largest stewardship project in 10 years. There were eight timber projects under contract on our forest this year.
The Bitterroot currently ranks number three among the nine national forests in Montana in total saw log volume. This despite the fact that we have less acreage available for timber as half of our forest is dedicated to the largest expanse of continuous wilderness in the lower 48 states. Perhaps most importantly, all of our current timber projects accomplish needed reductions in hazardous fuels, address wildlife habitat needs and forest health issues. While the timber industry is a valued partner in land stewardship, our timber sales are not offered simply because a buyer desires a certain product like house logs. All timber projects must meet multiple land management objectives outlined in the forest plan.
Some of you may be wondering why timber is not being sold as it was in previous decades when the Bitterroot routinely produced 20 million board feet or more. One of the main reasons is that no one is buying the wood. For example, the Bitterroot National Forest recently offered two different timber sales on land that is easy to access near paved roads, and neither sale received any offers. These were not isolated incidents. In 2011, the forest brought four timber sales to the public that did not receive one bid from an interested buyer. Why is this happening? Much like the housing crisis, the answers can be found in the market.
Many of the problems occurring in the timber market today are not due to a lack of supply, but rather a lack of demand. Logs that were selling for $80 a ton during the housing boom, are worth less than $45 a ton today. This loss of demand has had a significant local impact on acres harvested. Poor market conditions have also forced us to use scarce taxpayer dollars to pay to remove timber to meet our forest fuel reduction goals in areas adjacent to private property.
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Here in the Bitterroot, the problem is compounded even more with the recent closure of many sawmills. Logs must now be hauled to the closest operational mills in Seeley Lake or St. Regis, more than doubling hauling distances and costs. Rising fuel prices have added yet another obstacle when you consider that some timber projects on our forest are now located more than 150 miles from the nearest mill. It all adds up to the "perfect storm" and it is going to take all of us working together to find answers and solutions moving forward.
We live in very challenging times, and if we spend energy opposing and not communicating on these issues it will only contribute to our demise. I am open to hearing your ideas or any other issues concerning the national forest. Please contact me at (406) 363-7100.
Julie King is Forest Supervisor for the Bitterroot National Forest.