Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Infrastructure is key to healthy, growing forests

Today is Arbor Day. It is a chance for Idahoans to reflect on the importance of trees, forests and wood products in our everyday lives. We all love trees and we all love everything that trees do for us. From providing wildlife habitat, to clean air and water, recreational opportunities and the renewable raw materials for wood and paper products, trees are truly miraculous. It is important for us to appreciate these many gifts, but it is equally important for us to focus on how to keep all of our forests healthy and growing for the future. This will require active forest management and a healthy forest infrastructure.

Last year, forest-products businesses employed 22,000 people and contributed $3.7 billion to Idaho’s economy. This doesn’t just happen. It depends on a solid industry infrastructure including everything needed to grow, harvest, process, transport and sell products made from trees. It involves highly skilled loggers, foresters, planters and haulers, productive mills and plants, high-tech equipment and well-trained employees, and a network of safe forest roads and highways, railways and barges. It involves investment in a highly volatile commodity business with worldwide competition. It involves committed, hard-working people, some of whom head to the woods and start their day before dawn. Others begin their shifts well after dark.

Idaho is fortunate to have such an infrastructure. It not only provides jobs and products. It also is the key to keeping our forests healthy and growing.

National forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service make up the lion’s share of Idaho’s 21.4 million acres of forests. At a whopping 76 percent of the total, it’s a larger percentage than any other state. Sadly, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell reports that over 70 percent, or 15 million acres of national forests in Idaho, need some degree of restoration. Around 85 percent of annual forest mortality in Idaho is on national forest system lands. Forest density has increased 30 percent since 1953, creating overstocked conditions loading our national forests with crowded dead and dying trees. According to the Government Accountability Office, “The most extensive and serious problem related to the health of National Forests in the Interior West is the over accumulation of vegetation, which has caused an increasing number of large, intensive, uncontrollable and catastrophically destructive wildfires.”

Most Idahoans agree the restoration of overcrowded stands of trees is a good idea, but it’s important to understand what restoration truly means. In some cases, it may mean prescribed burning, while in others, it could be thinning by hand, mechanical harvesting or logging all the trees in an area and restarting the forest by planting the appropriate tree species.

Treatments are site-specific, dependent on factors such as stand condition, soil type, relative moisture, species mix, etc., but the overall goal of treatment — vibrant, growing forests — is consistent. This goal has united environmentalists and industry in ways that would have been unheard of not so long ago. Why? Both groups know restoration of national forests simply cannot occur without a forest infrastructure: professional foresters, loggers and haulers with the skills and equipment to get the work done and mills and plants to make wood and paper products that will offset taxpayers’ costs for restoration.

Many of our neighbor states have lost their forest infrastructure and are now left with few options to deal with increasingly unhealthy national forests.

Today on Arbor Day, remember all the good things that come from trees and support the forest-products businesses that will keep it that way for future generations.

Betty J. Munis is director of the Idaho Forest Products Commission in Boise.