It’s been a rough wildfire season for Utah.
One of the hottest and driest summers on record turned the state into a tinderbox. The Bald Mountain and Pole Creek fires burned nearly 160 square miles alone. Northern Utah spent much of the season socked in by smoke blowing in from other Western states.
That means there’s a lot of talk about finding a way to prevent the fallout of big fires, with some policymakers zeroing in on logging as the solution.
“I would begin with a place where I think a dollar has the biggest impact,” said Senate hopeful Mitt Romney at a late-August roundtable arranged by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop. “That’s reducing fuel load. That means thinning forests, being able to establish ... contracts with sawmills and so forth. We’ve lost sawmills because they don’t have a reliable supply of timber.”
Romney reiterated this platform on his campaign website, calling for “substantially more and consistent logging” as one of his main strategies to prevent wildfires in the state.
(Romney’s opponent, Jenny Wilson, wasn’t invited to Bishop’s roundtable. Wilson has instead called for more attention to climate change, which is exacerbating the region’s wildfire problems.)
However, the U.S. Forest Service has grown its Utah timber sales over time, particularly on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest.
“Every year, our timber targets keep going up,” said Tucker Sierzega, timber program manager for the forest.
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In fact, in 2016 the forest had an unprecedented number of sales.
“We offered so much timber the that local industry wasn’t able to absorb it,” Sierzega said. “We offered a bunch more sales (in 2017) but we didn’t get anybody to come the table to bid on them.”
That growth in tree harvesting was largely spurred by the amount of stands devastated by bark beetles and the danger those dead trees pose to both firefighters and those recreating in the forest.
The beetle kill timber, however, is getting old and cracked.
“The trees that have been dead and standing for a long time now have very little value to them and in some cases don’t have enough value to pay their way off the mountain,” Sierzega said. “We are having to supplement that dead material with the increased value of the green timber to make these sales economically viable.”
A typical sale of Utah timber ranges between $20 and $35 per 100 cubic feet, or CCF.
“To give you a rough estimate of how much a CCF is, there’s usually 8.5 to 10 CCF per log truck you see rolling down the mountain,” Sierzega said. “A tree might cost you eight or 10 bucks, depending on the size.”
The problem is, there isn’t much demand for the type of wood harvested in Utah forests. The state’s forests are mostly on federal public lands, which have cumbersome environmental review processes.
The 2014 Farm Bill allowed federal foresters and state governors to streamline some of those processes to help address the beetle kill problem, but there are other complicating factors.
Trees here don’t grow as fast as they do on warm, private lands in the South.
The U.S. Forest Service’s most recent economic analysis of the nation’s timber market found only 18 percent of the U.S. timber harvest came from U.S. Forest Service lands. That’s down from a peak of 82 percent in 1991.
The U.S. also imports a lot of wood from Canada and other nations. It’s hard for Utah mills to compete.
“Starting up a new sawmill is pretty expensive and the work is pretty difficult,” Sierzega said. “So there’s not many new loggers coming onto the market.”
Plus, the big spruces and pine that loggers like are only one part of Utah’s wildfire problem. Many wildfires are fueled by overgrown shrubs and small-diameter trees in the understory — biomass that has little value to loggers.
“We still have 22 timber-related industries in the state of Utah — mills and such,” said Dave Whittekiend, supervisor of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, during Bishop’s roundtable. “But we need more diverse wood fiber industries to take advantage of some of the material that’s out there.”
Instead, the U.S. Forest Service has to pay crews to remove those materials, which takes taxpayer money and whittles away at the agency’s budget.
“It’s got to be economically viable enough to take off the forest,” Whittekiend said in an interview. “I’m always interested in exploring what we can do to tip the scale.”
Pinyon and juniper trees are also problematic in Utah. They grow fast, gobble up important sagebrush habitat and burn like torches during dry summers.
They don’t carry a lot of value for traditional sawmills, but, Whittekiend said, entrepreneurs are cooking up new ideas for the trees like turning them into fence posts or extracting essential oils from them.
“Even a pellet mill — if they could grind it into pellets for home heating, that would be a wonderful use for some of this material,” he said.
Darren McAvoy, an assistant professor with Utah State University, is the state’s biomass coordinator. He has spent years trying to find solutions for the forest materials mills don’t want.
“My tagline, half kiddingly, is ‘trying to make value out of trash,’” McAvoy said. “That’s partly to let people know this is a long shot. This is stuff that has no market right now and it’s remote — scattered across a huge landscape. The cost of harvesting it, of transporting it, is considerable.”
Still, McAvoy remains hopeful that something will stick and public land managers will have another cost-effective tool to treat forests.
“This is the nature of things, you chip away at it,” he said. “That’s how change comes about.”