Before going on a tour hosted by the Idaho Forest Products Commission last month, my general attitude about logging was that it is a “necessary evil.” We all live in houses, we all use wood and forest products for various things, so we need logging, whether we like it or not. So we need to figure out how to let these “greedy” companies log as efficiently as possible without letting them run roughshod over the land and destroy it.
By the end of our tour last month, I came away with a more nuanced understanding, particularly on two key points.
First, logging companies have come to the realization that forest regeneration is actually in their financial best interest long term and that the investments that they make in reforestation pays off by a multiplier effect, ensuring a healthy business not just next year but 50 years from now and longer. So forest protection has become a financial self-interest. Gone, it seems, are the days of simply clear-cutting entire forests and walking away.
Second, as we’ve suppressed forest fires over the past 70 years or so, some forests have become overgrown and present greater fire risk in the future. Logging, either by thinning or clear-cutting and replanting, can improve the health of some forests, by reducing fuels and even changing the species makeup of the forest and creating resistance to massive wildfires, disease and insects.
Finally, the other big takeaway for me was the model for management that the state of Idaho provides.
The state of Idaho, because it has a different mandate for the use of state land, treats state forested land differently from the way the federal government treats federal lands.
David Groeschl, Idaho state forester and deputy director of forestry and fire with the Idaho Department of Lands, said the state is able to maximize the use of state land because it’s in the state’s constitutional mandate to “secure the maximum long-term financial return,” according to the original agreement granting land to the state at statehood.
In all, 3.6 million acres were originally granted to Idaho in the land grant from the federal government when Idaho was created as a state. Of that, about 1.2 million acres were sold from 1890 to about 1950, mostly agricultural land, leaving about 2.5 million acres of state land today: 1 million forest and 1.5 million rangeland.
From that land, the state generates about $80 million to $85 million per year in revenue, with timber sales making up $70 million. Land leases make up about $10 million (grazing permits, geothermal leases, solar, wind, cottage sites and communication towers).
Because the mission of state land is to maximize revenue generation for the beneficiary, primarily public education, the state works to maximize revenue that can be generated from the land. And because of the part that mandates “long-term” return, the state is working to protect the land and replant for long-term future revenue.
This is very different from federal land, on which it’s more difficult to balance the varying interests that are involved on a single piece of land. Federal land has no such mandate to maximize long-term financial return. Federal land has varied goals, such as species protection, wildlife habitat restoration, recreation or maintaining wilderness. A single forest can have a dozen or more goals and dozens of wide-ranging objectives.
Then there’s the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process for any activity on federal land, and projects are subject to lawsuits, particularly from environmentalists challenging whatever activity you allow on federal land, particularly on roadless wilderness areas.
“The system needs reform to unshackle the federal lands,” Groeschl said. “We have a forest health crisis in this state, and we need to get the pace and the scale of reform up to speed and take the shackles off the Forest Service and let them tackle the problem and get at it.”
One such reform is the Good Neighbor Authority and the state’s “Shared Stewardship” program, which Idaho Gov. Brad Little talked about at a Western Governors’ Association roundtable in Boise this month.
In the next column, I’ll share more information about the forest health crisis and give more details about the Good Neighbor Authority.
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This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.