Expert: 'If you want more jobs in Idaho, cut more trees'
By SEAN ELLIS
COEUR d'ALENE, Idaho -- A group of Idaho leaders was told recently that the catalyst for the state's economic rebound could be in the forest.
During a forest products tour in north Idaho, lawmakers, business leaders and other key officials were reminded that the multi-billion dollar industry is responsible for 10,300 direct jobs and another 21,000 secondary jobs.
Forest product sales alone totaled $1.3 billion in Idaho during 2010.
"If you want more jobs in Idaho, cut more trees. It's that simple," said Jay O'Laughlin, director of the University of Idaho's Policy Analysis Group, which was created by the Idaho Legislature to provide objective analysis of natural resource proposals.
The "Miracle at Work Forest Tour," which was organized by the Idaho Forest Products Commission, included a whirlwind tour of active logging operations, lumber mills, a tree nursery and private, state and federal forests Sept. 15-16.
Industry representatives and forestry experts provided a detailed look at Idaho's forests and explained the ecological, political and economic issues affecting them.
Idaho's forest industry could immediately add another 5,000 to 7,000 jobs simply by ramping up mill production, said David New, president of Growing Excellence Inc., a Boise-based forestry consulting company.
But that cannot happen, he and others said, unless the industry gains more access to federal forest lands. The federal government owns 79 percent of Idaho's 21 million acres of forest land -- 15 percent is privately owned and 6 percent state owned -- but only a tiny amount of that is available for harvest.
While half of Idaho's timber harvest came from federal lands 20 years ago, less than 10 percent does today. As a result, the total timber harvest in Idaho is half of what it was two decades ago.
"Our biggest opportunity for expanding the entire industry is getting access to federal forests," New said.
New said litigation is the main reason most of the land is off limits to the industry and a proposal to allow the state and counties to manage federal forests is probably the most realistic way the industry could gain more access to timber on Forest Service land.
Bill Higgins, resource manager for Idaho Forest Group's Grangeville mill, said the industry could employ a lot more people if it had access to more trees.
"If you leaders of Idaho are looking for ways to make Idaho grow economically, land management of federal lands is one of the huge opportunities," he said. "Federal lands are (being utilized) way below their potential."
In response to the question of how big Idaho's forest products industry could be, IFPC Director Betty Munis said it "will be as big as the amount of the resource we have access to. If we have access to more resource, it is going to be bigger."