It could be a positive decision in states if it provides fire risk reduction, improves forest health and provides jobs. —Zoe Hoyle
SALT LAKE CITY — A recent U.S. Forest Service study looked at which states would benefit economically from a timber salvage as a way to reduce millions of beetle-killed trees in national forests.
Utah, with its weak timber industry, is not one of them.
"The central Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — which have the largest volume of standing dead timber — would not generate positive net revenues by salvaging beetle-killed timber," the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.
Undertaken by scientists and researchers with the Forest Service's Southern Research Station, the multiyear assessment details the economics of allowing accelerated salvage on damaged timber, including the impacts on the markets.
The agency estimates there are nearly 20 billion cubic feet of standing dead timber potentially available for salvage distributed across more than 20 million acres in 12 Western states.
Five states — Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah — have 75 percent of the dead timber in the West — with most of it on national forest land.
The study notes that in states where the timber market is strong, the salvage would be profitable. Where markets are weak, those states would need "sizable public expenditures" to achieve significant reductions in the amount of beetle-kill trees.
In states where salvaging doesn't make sense because the timber markets are tepid, Utah Farm Bureau's Randy Parker said it is the Forest Service's own policies that have unraveled the economic appeal.
"We once had saw mills dotted across Utah, but most of them couldn't survive the minuscule amounts of timber that the Forest Service allowed to be harvested," he said. "It was a management decision by the federal bureaucrats to put these businesses out of business. And guess what? We are reaping what they sow."
Parker said Forest Service numbers show that 9 million acres across the country were burned in 2012, while a little more than 200,000 acres of timber were harvested.
"When you look at a healthy forest, there should be 80 to 100 trees on per acre," he said. "In some instances, there are 800 to 1,000 trees per acre. That causes the stands to be weakened and allow the bark beetle diseases to have larger footprint."
Some of the findings of the study include:
The central and northern Rocky Mountain states have the most salvageable timberland and the largest total salvageable volumes, with the highest in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho.
The majority of timber and lands affected in the 12 Western states are in national forests — 88 percent of the total salvageable volume and 84 percent of the total area.
Four states — Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — have actual volume losses greater than 2 billion cubic feet. Two additional states — Oregon and Utah — have more than 1 billion cubic feet of salvageable volume.
Of the above six states, Idaho, Oregon and Montana currently have the timber processing capacity to absorb large quantities of salvage.
Scenarios show that salvage would generate positive net revenues in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California and South Dakota.
The study notes that the federal agency, private landowners, forestry professionals and the public have become increasingly concerned for at least the past decade over the "extraordinary scale" of the mountain pine beetle epidemic and its vast ramification both on the aesthetics of the forests and the cost to fix the problem.
In Utah, top elected officials have railed against the federal government, asserting decades of mismanagement have left forests impacted by bark beetle infestations, vulnerable to disease and an easy fuel source for catastrophic wildfires.
Lawmakers passed a joint resolution in the 2013 legislative session emphasizing the right of local government to respond to situations on federal land that pose a risk to public health and safety, citing two specific wildfires from the 2012 season that they said lacked appropriate federal management.
Researchers note in the study that it only examined a course of action in the context of timber markets and how states and markets would fare economically, but other considerations could be evaluated.
"There are other factors that come into play aside from having the infrastructure in place," such as timber mills, said Zoe Hoyle, with the Forest Service's Southern Research Station.
"It could be a positive decision in states if it provides fire risk reduction, improves forest health and provides jobs," she said.