Julia Altemus Commentary: “Those Relying on Timberlands Must Educate the Public”

A recent newspaper article stated that nearly three-fourths of Montana’s 100-member House of Representatives have less than two years experience. Thirty-nine members are freshman, and 32 are entering their second term. On the Senate side, 29 of the 50 state Senators are in their first or second term.

In addition to freshman legislators having to learn the layout of the Capitol, and rules of the House and Senate, they also have to have a wide body of knowledge regarding many issues at their disposal. With only 90 days to pass legislation addressing the concerns of their constituencies, the learning curve seems a mile wide and at times, an inch deep. Those that rely on timberlands for jobs and tax revenue must do a more effective job of educating a larger public and in turn our elected officials.

Our forests provide jobs, wood fiber for products, and fuel for heat and power, as well as clean water, air and habitat for terrestrial, aquatic and avian populations. Communities in and near forests depend upon them for economic and ecological sustainability. Yet, unless one is desperate for a breath of smoke-free air in the summer between Eureka and Ekalaka, forestry and forest management is not usually the topic of conversation around the dinner table.

Thirty-nine counties out of Montana’s 56 are forested. State forestland is managed for the school trust, federal forestlands are managed for multiple uses and private timberlands are managed for landowner objectives. Proper management of any forest requires cutting timber and thinning annual growth and mortality. On the surface these principles seem simple and straight forward, yet when a myriad of environmental laws, court decisions, public opinion and management plans are overlaid on current and desired future conditions, forest management becomes very complex.

Gratefully, I have observed a real eagerness to absorb as much information as possible from as many sources as possible, to ask questions, and to seek answers. Though the knowledge base (in some cases) may be reflective of newly elected representation, there is nearly universal comfort in the management of state and private timberlands.

This level of comfort does not transcend to federal forest management however. More and more, our state elected officials are seeking ways to affect management on National Forest System lands within our borders. Of Montana’s 93 million acres, twenty-two percent is forested. Sixty-six percent is under federal management and a mere 4 percent is state trust lands.

It’s this sixty-six percent that is not being effectively managed that causes concern. Presently, we are harvesting less than 10 percent of the annual growth on National Forest Service lands, and even less harvest occur in forests that are dead and dying. This decline in harvest and active management is one reason for the increase in the number and severity of forest fires. There is just too much wood fiber both vertically and horizontally.
Nationally, existing forest plans allow the harvest of 6.1 billion board feet. Yet in 2012 only 2.6 billion board feet were harvested or 42 percent of the allowable sale quantity. No wonder our elected officials, in both the state capitol and the county courthouse, are frustrated.

Restoring health to our forests is not only critical for long-term ecological sustainability, it is the single most efficient state and federal program for generating jobs in high unemployment, rural counties. According to the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, every one million dollars invested in forest restoration creates 40 jobs, compared to 14 jobs in solar or 13 jobs in wind industries.

In Montana, roughly 7,000 people are employed in the forest products industry, generating $256 million in labor income and $314 million in direct sales. In addition, lumber production is the largest piece of Montana’s wood products manufacturing sector – in terms of number of employees, timber-processing, capacity, volume of timber used, volume of mill residue generated, and sales value of products. Montana sawmills produce roughly 3 percent of the softwood lumber production in the United States annually, which equates to 1.5 percent of the softwood lumber consumed in the U.S. every year.

Unfortunately, getting from forest to mill is a complex path. Our elected officials need to be familiar with state and federal laws, forest ecology, silvicultural practices, harvest methods, markets, well the list goes on. We sincerely appreciate the interest, questions and solutions to complex problems and vow to continue to seek ways to effectively make the case for forestry and forest management.

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

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