An Awkward Era for the Commercial Timber Industry

Photograph Source: Tlellavision – CC BY 2.0

We live in an awkward era where many a politician puts the economy at risk while claiming to save it. The gist of the story is that the fossil fuel industry is at risk to the extent that fossil fuels stay sequestered, in the ground, and that everything else is at risk if they don’t.

The logging industry is probably a prime example of the losing side. For that industry, the awkward question is, if acreage taken out of production by law is objectionable, why could acreage taken out of production by a changing climate not be equally objectionable?

The basics of climate-driven risk to commercial forestry have been known for years, and the evidence has just kept getting better and better. For example, back in December 11, 2007, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a review of 75 studies of rising risk for this industry. The review of these studies revealed that Even without fires or insect damage, the change in frequency of extreme events, such as strong winds, winter storms, droughts, etc. can bring massive loss to commercial forestry.”

The reviewers do not make it explicit, but the source of this “massive loss” to the logging-based economy is the fossil fuel-based economy, which is pushing the observed “change in frequency of extreme events” by promoting the ignition and combustion of fossil fuels. The net effect is one kind of economy endangering another kind of economy.

The consequences are and will be widespread and varied across many regions. As the reviewers found, “These effects of climate extremes on commercial forestry are region-specific and include reduced access to forestland, increased costs for road and facility maintenance, direct damage to trees by wind, snow, frosts, or ice, effects of wetter winters and early thaws on logging, etc.”

Their review of the 75 published studies led the reviewers to warn pretty plainly that, “In a changing climate, higher direct and indirect risks caused by more frequent extreme events will affect timber supplies, market prices, and cost of insurance.”

Note that the reviewers gave their focus entirely to the forest industry’s risk of the economic kind, and specifically for the forest industry. 

They make that fact plain, saying, “Our review is focused on recent publications that discuss the changes in commercial forestry, excluding the ecosystem functions of forests and nontimber forest products.” 

The reviewers do say, “It is likely that changing temperature and precipitation patterns will produce a strong direct impact on both natural and modified forests,”  but, that said, “We concentrate on potential direct and indirect impacts of climate change on forest industry …”

All that was back in 2007. What have we learned since then?

In 2016 alone, about a half-dozen studies found evidence casting doubt on a longstanding assumption about forests, namely that a forest will return after a fire or, for that matter, after logging. Studies in the Rockies as well as the Sierra Nevadas found places where forests just weren’t coming back after fire.

In recent documents about their proposed Forest Plan Revisions, Montana’ Custer-Gallatin and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests each cite examples of something similar. The Custer-Gallatin mentioned that a little over 100,000 acres of the SE Montana Ashland district once categorized as forested is now officially classified as non-forest. The Helena-Lewis and Clark mentioned a similar trend in the Big Belt Mountains between Great Falls and Helena. University of Montana researchers have turned up similar and corroborating evidence.

Then, even more recently, in one of its weekly news announcements, the Washington Office of the Forest Service included mention of a peer-reviewed article documenting this same sort of thing across western North America, all the way from the Mexican line north to the boreal forests. The WO, as its often called, even made it pretty easy for anyone in staff or public could download the original journal article as pdf. The core topic of the article is forest that “may not return.”

Why not? Partly just because heat can dry things up. The hotter the day, the faster things dry up. It’s a simple fact of life whether for forest, garden, or lawn. It’s one of those everybody-knows-it kinds of truth. Its economic impact somehow goes unmentioned, but it’s squarely in the realm of economic risk associated with ignition and combustion of fossil fuels. 

The Forest Service WO recently honored FS scientist Jessica Halofsky with a award for her work integrating forest and climate sciences. That report specifically mentions that greenhouse gases are in fact a source of risk to forests. 

Logging has always been a risky business, but now the heat is on.

The economic risks from our emerging new climate of sprawl far wider than forests, and observers interested in all things economic have noticed. As it’s chief economics commentator, the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf’s column is fairly widely read in business, economic and financial circles. He’s stated his case on climate in various columns in the past few years. He ended a recent column with saying, “We are drinking fossil fuels in the earth’s last-chance saloon. The time has come for humanity to sober up.”  

All in all, what’s been shaping up since 2007 seems a fair-enough fit with that year’s outlook on rising economic risk for the forest industry’s future. The fossil fuel industry will sooner or later fade, meanwhile taking forests down with it. This has put the forest industry is in an awkward position. It can point fingers of blame for its woes at new targets, if it dares.

Meanwhile, politicians have yet to grasp that, in promoting the ignition and combustion of fossil fuels, they effectively counter their promises to deliver more acreage for the forest products industry.