Bark beetles have ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of Colorado’s forests, yet that state has only one large sawmill left to bid on federal timber sales.
That’s a problem for the Forest Service, which is depending on the timber industry to thin stands of unhealthy, crowded trees across the Rocky Mountain West, a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Thursday.
“The Forest Service is going to have to pay someone to do it, if they can’t sell that timber,” said Robert Bonnie, a senior advisor to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Last year, the Forest Service pledged $54 million to fight bark beetle outbreaks, which have affected more than 3.3 million acres of forest in Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota. In Idaho, the beetles have denuded trees from Lolo Pass to Lookout Pass along the Idaho-Montana border. The money is slated for thinning trees, restoring watershed health and reducing wildfire danger near rural communities.
Bonnie said costs for those kinds of projects escalate if there’s not a viable timber industry to bid on the work.
Bonnie spoke to a receptive audience Thursday at a small-diameter log conference at the Coeur d’Alene Resort. Many rural communities have lost sawmills. And with no quick turnaround in sight for the U.S. housing market, the economics of producing lumber remain challenging.
John Konzen said all the mills have closed in Lincoln County, Mont., where he’s a county commissioner. Trees cut on the Kootenai National Forest are trucked out of the state for processing.
“The closest mill is at Moyie Springs in Idaho,” Konzen said.
Bonnie said that conservation groups – traditional adversaries of the timber industry – are starting to understand the role the industry can play in keeping forests healthy.
That’s happening at the Colville National Forest in Northeast Washington, which has become a national model for collaboration among industry groups, environmentalists and outdoor recreation interests. The groups look for common ground on forest management issues.
Collaboration benefits the timber industry, Bonnie said, because fewer timber sales are delayed through appeals or lawsuits. Mills can rely on a steadier stream of timber from federal lands. That allows the industry to invest in upgrades and strengthens local communities.
“We need forest management for the health of the landscape and the economic stability of rural communities,” Bonnie said.