Julia Altemus Commentary: “Federal Timber Management vs. Recreation”

As far back as 1996, former U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture, Jim Lyons, testified before congress that because of the decrease in harvest on federal timberlands, recreation would supplant timber and other resource uses. Begging the question, is timber management and recreation on federal lands compatible or competing uses?

To further this recreation economy notion advanced under the Clinton administration, President Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative on April 16 of 2010, charging the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (EQC) to develop a 21st-century recreation agenda.

The goals of the Initiative promote community-based recreation and conservation, advance job and volunteer opportunities, build upon State, local, private and tribal priorities to conserve land, water, wildlife habitat and cultural resources by creating corridors and connectivity across outdoor spaces using science-based management practices that restore and protect landscapes.

The Initiative requires the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor, Transportation, Education and the Office of Management and Budget to align policies and programs to achieve its goals.

The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) response to the Initiative was to draft a “Treasured Landscapes” vision paper. Of the 264 million acres managed by the BLM, 140 million acres was identified as worthy of consideration as “treasured lands”. These areas, roughly the size of Colorado and Wyoming combined, will cost the taxpayer $1.8 billion over the next five years. In order to facilitate the transition from the current management system, the BLM proposed to “designate, rationalize, and manage-at-scale” its holdings through its land use planning processes, critical habitat designations and Wild Horse Preserves. The BLM further requested the Administration support the expansion of their land holdings by legislatively designating an additional 30 areas across the country (including two in Montana), or over 1.6 million new federal acres and 397,000 acres on state and private lands. To achieve their objectives, the BLM would rely on its land-exchange and land-acquisition programs, funded primarily by the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The 2011 America’s Great Outdoor report to congress suggested that meeting the 21st-century conservation and recreation needs of our nation require full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund or, $900 million annually. Congress has only appropriated full funding twice in the past 45 years.

Even more recently, a report published by the Center for American Progress and the Headwaters Institute suggested that recreation and restoration activities are far better for the economy than other more traditional uses. Therefore, I think it is important to put recreation in context. The Outdoor Industry Association reported that recreation and tourism on National Forest lands provides roughly 224,000 jobs with visitors spending just under $13 billion in 2010. One would not argue recreational activities ranging from skiing to backcountry hiking and riding, and camping have a significant impact on “gateway” communities. However, just over 2 percent of the total outdoor recreation economy is a result of visitors to National Forest lands. The forest products industry, on the other hand, provides 1 million direct jobs, which contribute over $100 billion in labor income and sales each year.

Even though the federal timber program has declined since Undersecretary Lyon’s 1996 testimony before congress, the recreation economy has not supplanted timber and other uses, as he predicted. Nor is it likely to in the future. Of the top 25 producing Forests, 22 are above average for both visitor and timber sales. Proving that, not only are timber management and recreation compatible, but utilizing timber harvest to improve forest heath are vital to providing a robust recreation economy.

Instead of spending millions of dollars to acquire more federal land holdings or restricting current management in hopes of luring more people to America’s great outdoors, recreational opportunities can be achieved through better management of our existing federal resources.

Julia Altemus writes on behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association.

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