Forest Service Timber Harvests: Not What They Used To Be

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After more than one thousand miles by jet, 40 minutes by float plane, one hour driving, a hike, and a row we arrive to our destination: a 12 x 14 foot cabin in remote Alaska on Prince of Wales Island. We had the lake nearly to ourselves. A few loons, beautiful cutthroat trout, and some spawning salmon did join us. But what is that I hear? A chain saw? The sound gave me pause. It was not desired nor expected but understood. I, like all Americans, use a lot of wood and paper products.

I appreciate a good timber harvest for restoration, forest management, and wood production. We were on the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest national forest in the nation. Over the last several decades timber sales on the Tongass have plummeted from over two billion board feet to around 100 million board feet. I don’t know which is better, likely something in between. What disturbs me is that the amount cut is determined more by politics than sustainable forestry, however you want to define it. (I think of sustainable forestry being defined as ensuring a continuous timber supply but even if it is wildlife that you want to ‘sustain,’ that is not the goal of current management.)

The national forests were set aside to provide a continuous supply of timber and water for productive use. National Forest timber harvest peaked in 1987 when harvest provided about 17 percent of U.S. timber production:

During the peak of timber harvest for the Forest Service, more than half the annual timber growth was harvested and used for timber products, the mortality rate was about 32 percent. In 2007, only 12 percent of national forest growing stock was removed from the forest and mortality increased to 57 percent.

More and more national forest timber is left in the forest where insects and disease are taking hold. The result is lower valued timber and increased wildfire.

Originally appeared at Environmental Trends.

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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