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Timber Industry Wants to Rape-and-Run on Our National Forests

Raw log landing, Astoria, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

When Idaho billionaire Ron Yanke purchased the timber mills in Townsend and Livingston, Montana years ago to form RY Timber, he also bought lots of former Anaconda Mining Company timberland.  But just like Champion International and Plum Creek Timber who, according to a University of Montana study, cut trees 3 times faster than they could grow back, RY has already overcut their private land.

Both Champion and Plum Creek are gone from Montana, but at least Champion was honest about why it left, stating in the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990s that trees simply grow too slowly in Montana.   Champion then clearcut its timberlands and reinvested the money in the Southeast, where tree farms can be harvested a decade after planting rather than the century or more it takes to reach harvestable size in Montana.

Plum Creek did the same thing thanks to a board decision to “liquidate” its forest assets in the late 80s and turn itself into a Real Estate Investment Trust to sell its marketable Montana lands for subdivision and development as Weyerhauser acquired its mills.

In spite of this sad but well-documented history of timber operations in Montana, RY is blaming environmentalists for what they claim is an insufficient supply of timber from National Forests.  But two recent articles reveal that the basic economic principles of over-supply and over-production in the timber industry are the real problems.

As Julia Altemus, logging lobbyist and director of the Montana Wood Products Association, told the Missoulian’s Rob Chaney: “There’s been a lot of over-production across the board.  We have too much wood in the system and people weren’t building. That will make it tougher for us. What would help is if we could find new markets.

When Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. cut back its mill production cycle from 80 to 50 hours weekly, manager Paul McKenzie told the Hungry Horse News: “It’s purely market driven… demand for lumber across the country is down…supply has actually been good.”

In fact, the “supply” from national forests is more than just good.  Last year the Forest Service received no bids on 17.5% of the timber if offered, up from 15.6% that received no bids in 2018. That’s 615 million board feet that weren’t cut in 2019 because the timber industry did not bid on it.  The truth is that Region One of the Forest Service, which includes Montana, has increased the amount of timber offered by 141% in the last 10 years and the cost to taxpayers continues to climb to staggering heights.

A report by the Center for a Sustainable Economy found “taxpayer losses of nearly $2 billion a year associated with the federal logging program carried out on National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.  Despite these losses, the Trump administration plans to significantly increase logging on these lands in the years ahead, a move that would plunge taxpayers into even greater debt.”

Adding to that debt are significant “externalized” costs to the public when new logging roads are bulldozed into unroaded areas.  Runoff fills streams with sediment that smothers fish eggs and aquatic insects.  More logging also reduces forested habitat for elk, which then seek safety on private lands, resulting in problems from “game damage.”

The Montana timber industry once again wants to rape and run.  Just as environmentalists were not to blame for its over-cut private lands — which are now filled with stumps, knapweed, and degraded streams — environmentalists should now be lauded, not blamed, for trying to stop such destruction on our public lands.

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Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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