Timber industry's role uncertain, even with Western bark beetle epidemics

Wednesday , October 08, 2014 - 2:49 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a three-part series.

John Blazzard moseyed over to a pile of stacked spruce logs. They still smelled woody and green, with a hint of sharp citrus. They’d all once grown for a hundred years or more near the Bear River in the Uinta Mountains. The logs still had their blue marks, hand-painted by U.S. Forest Service staff indicating they were suitable for harvest.

Blazzard pulled back the bark and pointed to several small black dots scurrying around. A close look showed opaque, writhing grubs — the brood of the season’s spruce beetles.

“We just brought these trees in last week,” Blazzard said. “You’ve probably got two or three generations of beetles living in that single tree.”

Blazzard runs a sawmill with his brother in Kamas, along the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest boundary and at the gateway to the Uinta Mountains. He looks like a logger. He’s tall and brawny, and his skin is dark from many days spent in the sun. He chews a wood sliver as he speaks. His family has been involved in the local timber industry since Kamas was settled. Given the surrounding woodlands, it seems like an ideal location to base a sawing operation.

Since the bark beetle epidemic flared up, Blazzard has instead watched mills in his surrounding community shut down their saws and sell their land. Timber harvesting in Utah and throughout the West is a more complicated industry than it might seem, even when surrounded by an expanse of dead wood.

“The public, after they’ve seen the trees die, they’re saying, ‘why doesn’t the Forest Service do something about it?’” Blazzard said. “For a lot of years it was, ’we don’t want to cut all these trees, we don’t want to devastate the forest’ … but we’re one of the tools the Forest Service should be using to keep the forests healthy.”

Supply and demand

The U.S. Forest Service awarded the Blazzards their most recent timber sale on the Heber-Kamas Ranger District, called the “Cold Springs Timber Sale,” an 875-acre site about 23 miles east of Heber City. It’s a salvage sale meant to remove spruce and pine heavily impacted by beetles, before the economic value for the timber is entirely lost.

Blazzard figures he’ll get about 5 million board feet out of the sale, or about enough wood to build 167 average, 2,000 square-foot homes.

The problem is, lumber mills like the Blazzards’ are having a hard time getting enough timber sales to make ends meet. That’s why they’ve seen so many of the other mills in their area close up shop.

“What we’d like to see is a little bit of stability and consistency in what they do, (at the U.S. Forest Service),” Blazzard said. “There are so many rules and regulations, it’s crazy.”

Federal law prohibits traditional timber harvests in designated wilderness areas and inventoried roadless areas. In the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, that leaves about one-third of the forest open to possible timber harvesting, as long as it’s not on too steep a slope.

An actual timber sale, however, must go through a lengthy process of both public comment review and environmental analysis. The Cold Springs sale, for example, took just over two years from the time the U.S. Forest Service put out public notice until the time they awarded the sale to the Blazzards.

The Cold Springs salvage means the Blazzards stay in business for at least a few more years processing national forest timber, but they never know when the next sell might come, or if they’ll get a winning bid. To even get the Cold Springs sale, they had to put up several thousands of dollars in bid and performance guarantees.

“We’ve got about $80,000 sitting in that timber sale, and we won’t even touch it this year,” he said.

Getting a loan or insurance for his business is nearly impossible, however, given the volatility of the timber market. Prices have bobbed up and down for decades. The timber market took the biggest dive in the late-2000s after the recession and housing market crash. Once people stopped building, the demand for wood plummeted.

“The dilemma is, well, we might need new equipment or to upgrade our sawmill, but we just don’t how much to invest,” Blazzard said.

As an example, he pointed to another pile of harvested trees sitting in his lumberyard. It’s a load of lodgepole pine, killed during the mountain pine beetle epidemic that peaked in the late 2000s. Cracks radiated from the timber’s edges and within, an indication they died several years ago.

“We don’t know what to make out of them. They’ve been sitting since last November,” he said.

Not a lot of value comes from lodgepole. It’s generally not thick enough to make structural lumber, and once it cracks, any structural integrity is lost.

The logs could be turned into chips, but Blazzard said given the complexities of the timber market, the most cost-effective chipping plant is located in Wisconsin.

“One thing we could do that we haven’t dared to do is, we could put in a wood pellet mill, or we could put in a grinder and make colored mulch, but you know you’re probably looking at least a half-million-dollar investment,” he said. “That goes back to, are we going to have the supply of wood to do this or not?”

Blazzard points to growing regulation on forest service lands and a growing preservationist mentality as the reasons his supply keeps dwindling.

“It’s not necessarily the local forest service guys that are the problem. It’s the policies that are handed down from Washington, and regional offices, telling them what they can and can’t do,” he said. “The process of trying to sell trees has become a monstrous nightmare.”

An evolving market

According to Dave Peterson, a fire and environmental researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, federal policy is not necessarily the source of the timber industry’s economic trouble in the West.

“Most of the timber supply in the U.S. now comes from private land,” he said, “and the majority of that comes from the Southern U.S.”

Using private land to harvest timber does mean loggers can bypass the lengthy reviews required on federal lands, lands which cover large portions of the West. That gives trees on private property plenty of appeal.

A U.S. Forest Service study that looked at economic activity in the timber market since 1965 found timber volumes supplied by national forests have taken a plunge over the decades. By 2011, timber for national forests make up only 1 percent of the total U.S. timber harvest, down by more than 83 percent since its peak in 1988.

Regardless of who manages or owns the land where trees grow, the South is able to out-compete the West in terms of supply. Tree species in the West take longer to grow. Southern climates are more conducive to faster-growing trees, like loblolly and long-leaf pine.

“Put them in the ground and jump back,” Peterson said. “They’ll grow 6-8 feet a year, and they’ve been doing this (in the South) so many years now they know how to maximize their yield.”

By 1990, the South had become the largest lumber-producing region in the country.

The global market has played a significant role, too. Canadian softwood imports soared during the housing boom of the 2000s, which drove down prices and forced mills throughout the West to close. Furniture imports from countries like China and Indonesia means there’s dropping demand for locally sourced wood supplies in the nation.

“You can get cheaper tree products from places like Uruguay and Malaysia, and they ship all over the world,” Peterson said. “It’s not always in the form of logs — it may be chips or paper, but it’s now international and totally driven by markets, which are very dynamic from month to month in terms of prices.”

The role of timber harvesting in forest management

Still, in a sea of trees killed by a wave of insect outbreaks, it’s hard to not to think loggers at least have a role in managing for healthier future forests.

It’s true that forests in the West had too large a stock of mature trees, and those mature trees helped feed the beetles, from outbreak to epidemic.

“One of the reason we have these huge areas killed is that it was a continuous patch of old trees,” Peterson said, “ whereas if we had patches of younger and old, a mosaic of different age structures, it will never hit the whole landscape again.”

It’s true, too, that the U.S. Forest Service has used loggers as a tool during the epidemic. They help remove dead trees in danger of falling in campgrounds and along roads. They help the agency recover value from dead and dying trees before they become cracked and rotted, and they save the burden of salvage treatments from being passed to taxpayers.

“It’s cheaper to let contractors on a timber sale harvest those standing dead trees than for the Forest Service to go in and have the public pay to treat them,” said Paul Cowley, a planning officer on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Timber harvesting has ecological consequences, however, like compacting soils and disturbing animal migration routes. Forest researchers also caution that the role of timber harvesting in preventing future outbreaks is limited.

“Beetles can migrate or disperse over many kilometers, and yet with a patchwork of land ownerships and land management types, it’s really hard to manage,” said Jeff Hicke, a forest disturbances and climate change researcher at the University of Idaho.

If the U.S. Forest Service wanted to use timber harvests as its primary tool in mitigating beetle outbreaks, they’d have to cut trees on a landscape level, including roadless and wilderness areas where those activities are currently not allowed. According to Hicke, there’s dubious evidence large-scale mechanical thinning will work during epidemics anyway.

“In Colorado, the population of beetles got so high they overwhelmed everything regardless of thinning, so at some level with beetle populations, thinning isn’t effective anymore,” he said. “It takes a real landscape, large-scale management, which is very general.”

The Blazzards remain tenacious, and they’ve proven they can adapt to a myriad of changing demands. John Blazzard’s great-grandfather, John Pack, got his start selling housing logs to Brigham Young. Blazzard’s grandfather made wooden crates for eggs and candy, then switched to making boxes for ammunition during World War II. His father built their current sawmill, and when John and his brother James took over, they had to shift from supplying timber to a waning coal mining industry to producing finished boards for trim and molding.

Their sons are set to take over the mill as the fifth generation, and like mills in the South, they might need to turn more and more to private land as their source of timber.

“Wood is a renewable resource, and it’s a valuable product that provides shelter for people,” Blazzard said. “People don’t think about that anymore, they’re just thinking about where they can play. But it’s a valuable product, it’s a valuable resource we have. I’d hate to see it wasted when we can make some good things out of it.”

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