Attacks on publicly subsidized logging roads by an unusual alliance of fiscal conservatives and environmentalists is expected to surface in the U.S. Senate on Monday.
The Senate is expected to debate an amendment trimming $10 million from the $47.4 million Uncle Sam proposes to spend on National Forest road construction. The proposed measure also eliminates the purchaser credits program, where the Forest Service trades between $40 million and $50 million in trees every year for additional logging road construction by timber companies.
“It does not end logging on our national forests,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who is carrying the torch for the spending amendment. “Rather it merely calls on companies that want to participate in logging in our national forests to pay their own way.”
Neither the Bureau of Land Management nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides such subsidies when selling public timber, added Karen Kirchgasser, Bryan’s press secretary. “And what we find most egregious is that the Forest Service estimates the cost of building a road, and if the company spends less, no adjustment is made. But if the cost increases, an upward adjustment is made.”
Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.
A similar measure in the House, also supported by deficit hawks such as the Concord Coalition and Citizens Against Government Waste, lost by two votes. The Senate measure will be fiercely fought by the timber industry and its political allies, who say the proposal is just another weapon in environmentalists’ no-logging agenda.
Rather than a taxpayer rip-off, the trees-for-roads program “is a commonly accepted and efficient way to build roads,” said Stefany Bales of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association in Coeur d’Alene.
It won’t change the federal government’s bottom line, added Doug Bartels of Boise Cascade Corp., which ranks third nationally among companies receiving timber for roads. Since timber companies would have to pay the full cost of building national forest logging roads, they would pay the Forest Service less for the timber. It’s not reasonable to expect timber companies to pay the entire cost of roads, which are used for recreation, fire protection and other uses, he said.
“If you build a new railroad line, you shouldn’t expect the first train to pay the entire cost of building the tracks.,” Bartels said. “Why would one assume the purchaser of a timber sale would be responsible for the cost of new roads?”
Forest Service road dollars also go to rebuild roads. Such maintenance is important considering all of the trouble from last winter’s mudslides, Bartels said.
Industry lobbyists such as the American Forest and Paper Association argue that small businesses couldn’t buy federal timber without the taxpayers’ help.
“It allows small business to participate when it’s necessary to build roads,” said Frank Stewart of AFPA.
But Forest Service data belie the notion that the trees-for-road trades are small business assistance. The top 10 recipients reaping the rewards of this system range everywhere from Weyerhauser to Boise Cascade, Louisiana Pacific to Crown Pacific.
At least three of the companies rank in the Fortune 500. Some of these same companies surface among the top recipients on national forests in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and western Montana.
The Forest Service couldn’t provide the dollar value of the trees for the top 10 national recipients, but in recent years the federal budget has capped the subsidy at $50 million a year. U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., wants to eliminate that cap.
Environmentalists say there’s plenty of roads to harvest trees, fight fires and entertain people with a penchant for motorized recreation.
“There’s 380,000 miles of road in the National Forest system excluding state and county roads,” said Tim Coleman of Kettle Range Conservation Group, based in Republic, Wash. “It seems ludicrous to say we need more roads.”
The Forest Service says there is at least $440 million in road maintenance that it does not have the money to address. Why should taxpayers build more roads the agency cannot afford to keep from sliding into streams? he asked.
Moreover, a recent Forest Service study estimates the agency could save $916 million by reducing roads on national forests in Western Washington, western Oregon and Northern California, Coleman said. Part of the money would come from increased recreation in roadless areas, something the agency has far more demand for than it can meet.
Coleman said the call for road construction contradicts the Forest Service’s promise of sustained yield.
“Are they now telling us they cannot meet demand for timber on existing roads?” he said. “Do we have to build an infinite number of roads?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Forest road credits
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