As beetle invasion rages, a debate over logs
Home builders want the dead trees, but activists and regulations stand in the way.
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He notes that leaving dead trees does provide a habitat for forest animals – a point emphasized by Sara Johnson, who runs an environmental group called the Native Ecosystem Council. Among the animals using the dead trees: pine martins, snowshoe hares, forest owls, woodpeckers, chickadees, and voles.Skip to next paragraph
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“Beetles are just a natural part of the forest, and loggers and the Forest Service [are looking for] any excuse to log,” says Ms. Johnson. Her group has several active lawsuits aimed at halting logging on National Forest lands. “You have this huge ecosystem out there that evolves with the beetle. With logging, you not only take that away, they take the whole forest away.”
Such lawsuits are slowing the process of making parts of the forest available to loggers, says Love. A few decades ago the Seeley Lake ranger station averaged sales of 25 million board feet a year. Today the figure is closer to 4 million.
As a result, every one of Missoula County’s dozen sawmills have closed save one: Roger Johnson’s Pyramid Lumber. The beetle-killed lodgepoles make perfect cabin logs, Mr. Johnson says. But they can’t sit too long before other critters disfigure the wood: “The longer the tree stays dead out in the forest, the more degrade [in value] we have,” Johnson says.
Part of the delay includes inefficiencies in the environmental review process that’s required before holding a timber sale, says Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. Sales now require lots of individual specialists to sign off on reviews, rather than relying on individual foresters who work more quickly.
Mr. Stahl recently sent a letter to President-elect Obama’s transition team making this point. In the letter, he asked, “How many [Forest Service] employees does it take to cut a small tree?”
An excerpt: “One to tell you no effect upon fish; one to tell you no effect upon historic artifacts; one to tell you no effect upon streams; one to tell you which small tree to cut; one to tell you how much the tree is worth.”
Spending so much time on reviews make it difficult for timber sales to be profitable for the Forest Service, says Stahl, especially when fire fighting already makes up a large portion of the Forest Service budget.
Love says the specialization was developed due to the “lack of trust” in Forest Service decisions. Outside groups felt “we weren’t giving consideration to research values that we should have.” Neither Love nor Stahl disputes the need for an environmental review. But, says Love, “an appeal could cost you another year. If there are litigation and stays then there’s not any [timber] values left.”
If the logs were local, says Mr. Peckinpaugh, “We would be spending far fewer resources – fuel – to get the timber to the site.”