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Why are We Still Logging Our Forests?

Anyone who accepts true science realizes that today’s big forest fires are driven far more by climate warming than by a lack of “active forest management” as claimed in previous editorial opinions.

Active forest management, more honestly called “logging,” has always been the timber industry’s cure-all for every perceived problem in our forests. Until science confirmed the amazing diversity and value of our old forests, they were deemed to be “decadent,” badly in need of logging and replacement with more efficient tree farms. When there were budworm or bark beetle breakouts, industry said our forests were being decimated and needed logging to “restore” them. Science disagreed, noting that insects and disease were important components of healthy forest ecosystems. When our forests burn, industry claims quick logging and replanting is necessary to salvage their value. Science again exposed their myths, showing the value of leaving burned forests as critical habitat and how forests reseed and recover naturally from fires like the Biscuit.

I kept a cabin within the huge weather-caused and weather-extinguished Biscuit Fire in Oregon. It was years of cutting and burning non-merchantable understories that saved my cabin, not logging. In the aftermath, I witnessed how little difference commercially thinned stands made to fire spread or intensity. I photographed sites where flames consumed thinned stands only to lie down when they hit the cooler, moister, unthinned forest.

To me, as a timber cruiser and broker who’s tracked timber data and sale prices for decades, it’s obvious why industry preaches logging for all that ails our forests. They make grossly unfair profits from logging public timber sales — far more than the environmental attorneys who litigate them. Scorched old sugar pines and Douglas firs from Biscuit salvage sales sold at literally a dime to the dollar of real value. These sales were sold at a net loss to us as the forest owners, as are many federal timber sales.

Why should we sell our timber at a loss?

Would private forest owners sell their timber at a net loss? Of course not! They aren’t politically forced to sell mature timber at far below market value just to subsidize a few mills. If private forests are managed sustainably as often claimed, why can’t what few mills remain feed off them? Partly because there’s little mature timber left in private forests, but mostly because regional private timber supplies are siphoned off by log exports.

Private log exports from Oregon, though down from recent peaks, still exceed current federal timber harvests. In 2013, log exports were nearly triple Oregon’s federal harvest levels! Domestic mills could successfully compete with log premiums paid by Asian mills if export logs were taxed with a tariff.

Speaking of taxes, suppose we taxed federal forestlands instead of logging them to help fund counties? Unfortunately, however, if federal forests were taxed as little as private forests, the returns would be dismal. Private forest owners pay no tax on the value of their standing timber, even though it’s real property. They pay taxes on a pittance of the real market value of their land. Since 1999, private forest owners of over 5,000 acres have paid no harvest “privilege” tax, a statewide loss of $60 million annually. Tax subsidies to private forest owners average more than double the revenue counties receive from federal forest timber sales. If fair property and harvest taxes were collected from Oregon’s private forests, our forests wouldn’t have to be logged to cover the revenue losses.

When the many politically empowered subsidies are stripped away, federal forests are worth more left standing. The Global Warming Commission Report illustrates just the value of Oregon’s federal forests in removing carbon from the atmosphere. The report says 79 percent of the net carbon is acquired by federal forests compared with only 4 percent by industrial tree farms. If federal forest carbon capture were fairly valued, it would be budgeted and prioritized above money-losing timber sales. Even so-called “thinning,” promoted by some environmentalists, is reported to reduce the ability of federal forests to acquire carbon. Consequently, continued federal logging contributes to warmer conditions which, in turn, drive larger, hotter fires.

After 45 years of observing and evaluating federal logging, contemplating today’s climate science and considering what’s fair for all of us, I wonder — why are we still logging our woods?

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Roy Keene works in Oregon’s forests as a forest consultant and private forest broker.

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