Will Congress’ push to cut more salvage timber in the national forests help erase the budget deficit? Will it help the economy by creating new jobs?
Probably not. In fact, it may end up costing taxpayers more than if the trees had never been cut.
Logging in the national forests is a big money-loser overall. Between 1992 and 1994, the Forest Service spent $1 billion more than it made on timber sales, according to the General Accounting Office.
The two biggest expenses are road building and environmental studies. The GAO estimates that environmental analysis costs the Forest Service $250 million a year, consuming about 18 percent of the forest management budget and 30 percent of workers’ time.
When Congress exempted new salvage sales from all environmental laws, it sharply reduced those costs.
But under existing laws, the proceeds from salvage logging can’t be used for anything except preparing new salvage sales. They cannot go to pay a 25 percent royalty on logging proceeds that benefits schools and roads in communities near the national forests.
If salvage sales make a big enough profit, a small surplus goes back into the Treasury, and that surplus might cover the royalty payments. But with timber prices falling, will the profits fall short, and will taxpayers end up shelling out money to make up the royalties?
“That’s a question we’ve wondered too,” said Bill Timko, the Forest Service’s budget coordinator for salvage logging. The question can’t be answered, Timko and other experts say, until all the congressionally mandated salvaging is finished and the books are balanced two or three years from now.
Most of the new jobs created have been in the Forest Service, which has rehired at least 200 workers who got early retirement buyouts. But few private jobs have been created, and many salvage sales have drawn no buyers.
That’s because a housing construction slowdown has caused lumber demand to drop, and in most parts of the country there’s plenty of wood available from private land.
Others blame the White House for a lack of new jobs. The Clinton administration ignored Congress’ full-speed-ahead orders, said Heidi Kelly, an aide to Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, who sponsored the salvage law.
“They set such strict conditions on these sales that it became entirely unaffordable to harvest the timber,” she said.