Chapter 12-What went wrong with the timber industry? By Karen Warnick

We live in a deeply unhealthy, tinderbox forest.

What happened?

Who should we blame?

The roots of the current forest crisis run as deep and wide as an old-growth ponderosa.

Some blame the lawsuits of environmentalists.

Others point fingers at the Forest Service, the government, politicians and scientists

Some blame loggers and ranchers.

In truth: They’re all right.

Clear-cutting, fire suppression, the spotted owl, environmental laws, Forest Service practices, and timber industry economics have all helped produce the current sickly, overgrown, fire-prone forest — perched on the edge of catastrophe.

So here’s a brief history of key events in evolution of the timber industry in Arizona, which led to the tangled dilemmas facing modern forest managers.

The Organic Administration Act of 1897 — stated in part: “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.”

Other acts, laws and regulations followed over the decades and have increased the amount of paperwork, time, and data gathering that have tangled many projects — even forest thinning projects designed to reduce soaring fire danger.

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Clear Cutting

Harvesting timber is the most expensive operation in the national forests. During the early 1900s, logging emphasized clear cutting as the most desirable and practical method of timber harvesting.

Further research leading up to the 1970s showed that clear cutting took away tree species diversity, robbed the soil of nutrients from decaying and dying trees, disrupted animal habitats and destroyed the scenery.

Public opposition and protests of the 1960s and early 1970s led to the passage of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, and amendment to the Resources Planning Act of 1974.

The new law did not ban clear cutting, but it required additional studies on all harvesting methods prior to a timber sale. Partial cutting, group selection, and selective harvesting worked better in many locations, especially where forests were hot and dry.

The Forest Service didn’t totally stop clear cutting until the early 1990s, although it remains a method of choice for silvicultural harvesting. The practice maximizes the profit from a timber cut, but has been largely abandoned due to its environmental effects.


Environmentalists and the lawsuits and administrative actions they filed against the Forest Service have also proved controversial. The lawsuits and legislation that started in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to more opposition and stricter guidelines.

Cases went to court, the groups appealed and filed more lawsuits, and the new environmental laws were born or extended by the courts.

The Forest Service had to revise its procedures for forest management, all of which leads to a lot more time and money being spent before any timber harvesting is started.

This reduced the profit in timber sales and sometimes also slowed thinning projects designed to reduce the risk of forest-destroying crown fires.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce produced a report in May of 2013 that blasted the “sue and settle” action taken by various groups.

“An environmental advocacy group sues a federal agency charging that the government hasn’t performed a duty it is legally required to perform. The agency then settles the lawsuit with the environmental group. They then enter into a consent decree or settlement agreement, which is often enforceable by a court. By the time the public and regulated industries have any say in the matter; the details have already been determined,” states the report.

The group estimates that regulatory requirements have imposed billions in additional costs on industry and that many of those rules arose from “sue and settle agreements.”

However, many experts say that while environmental lawsuits and appeals played a role in slowing many timber cuts, they didn’t cause the enormous increase in tree densities already in place before the passage of the environmental laws the groups used in their appeals.

Blaming the lawsuits represents “false logic” said NAU professor and forest researcher Wally Covington. “There’s no doubt that the elimination of the logging industry — which is focused on large trees — did retard thinning, not pre-commercial thinning, but thinning. That thinning would have put off the big fires in some of the areas — but would not have eliminated it. I don’t think that’s a fair assessment — in some situations, the loss of the old logging industry did contribute to allowing some forested areas to remain dense enough to support a crown fire, but that’s not the majority of the landscape.”

Some analysis suggest one problem lay in the lack of big trees left for the mills built to process big trees and a reluctance by industry to invest in mills that could make money on smaller trees, given the long delays in approving timber sales and the threat of lawsuits.

“What we’re lacking now is the ability to get in small wood utilization and biomass industry — which are night and day different from a sawmill timber industry,” said Covington.

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The Spotted Owl

The 1990 listing of the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest as an endangered species and the 1993 listing of the Mexican spotted owl in the Southwest led to a “timber war” that pitted environmentalists, the timber industry, scientists and politicians against each other.

“In the past 30 to 40 years, the growth of trees has skyrocketed because of the lack of harvesting and thinning, and the fire suppression policy,” stated Bruce Greco of the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University.

Greco is also with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) and spent 39 years with the Forest Service.

“There was a viable timber industry in the White Mountains up until the late 1990s when they started to feel the impacts of legislation and lawsuits,” said Greco.

There are still some old-timers in the logging industry left in the White Mountains, though they are struggling to stay afloat. Many, such as Forest Energy and Novo Power and Novo Star, have diversified in order to use the smaller-diameter trees that are thinned, though they have little value compared to the larger trees.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative holds out hope of an agreement involving both environmentalists and industry focusing on the need to remove most of the trees smaller than 18 inches in diameter across millions of acres of forest. However, that promising consensus has itself become bogged down in the difficult economics of re-creating a small-tree timber industry.

Covington cited the 4FRI effort to conduct environmental studies on a million acres at a time as a hopeful sign a small-tree timber industry can develop. Once the Forest Service completes the massive environmental assessment, individual thinning projects can proceed much more quickly, he said.

“I’m really impressed with what they’ve been able to do in the White Mountains,” said Covington, “by jerry-rigging things to do the best they could with what they’ve got — they’ve gotten some good treatments in — they are really doing some nice work over there now.”

Spark by Pia Wyer

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