A U.S. Forest Service official recently vowed that the agency will expand the scope of timber projects on national forests.
The agency expects the scope of the largest projects to increase from roughly 30,000 acres to about 100,000 acres, said Tony Tooke, associate deputy chief of the national forest system.
“This idea of scale is proven to work,” Tooke said at the recent annual conference of the American Forest Resource Council.
Such projects would include fuels reduction, not just timber sales.
“Planning, implementing and monitoring on a broader scale just makes sense,” Tooke said.
The Forest Service is aiming for a “landscape” approach in the environmental studies required for forest treatments, Tooke said.
More than 70 million acres of the national forest system needs restoration work, which includes thinning and fire prevention, he said.
About 3.1 billion board feet of timber are expected to be harvested from national forests this year, up from 2.8 billion board feet in 2014, according to the agency.
The agency is studying the root causes of lawsuits against its projects and developing strategies to deal with them, he said.
“We know we have litigation issues,” said Tooke.
For example, Forest Service officials try to develop a consensus with environmental and timber interests during the project planning phase, he said.
“What this comes down to at the end of the day is getting more work done,” he said.
The agency also aims to increase the amount of stewardship contracts, under which timber companies agree to conduct restoration work in addition to logging, Tooke said.
While such stewardship contracts are touted by the agency, county governments are less enthusiastic.
“It is strangling us out,” said Doug Breidenthal, a county commissioner for Oregon’s Jackson County.
Unlike conventional timber sales, the money raised by the Forest Service from stewardship contracts is not shared with counties.
“They have this perverse incentive to sell stewardship contracts,” said Rob Freres of the Freres Lumber Co., which buys federal timber.
Timber companies have other reasons to dislike stewardship contracts, he said.
With timber sales, companies win projects by submitting the highest bid.
With stewardship contracts, they are chosen based on subjective criteria in their “request for proposal,” Freres said.
Writing such a request amounts to composing a “love story” to sway the agency, he said.
“The non-winning bidders have no opportunity to review the winning proposal,” Freres said. “You don’t know which criteria weigh the heaviest.”
Collaboration is a popular concept with the Forest Service and is integral to stewardship contracts, he said.
The reality for timber companies is often cumbersome, however, as collaboration involves long meetings with environmental groups that want to put them out of business, Freres said.
The process also doesn’t preclude litigation, as environmental groups that don’t participate can sue anyway, he said.