Smith: Want more lumber? Manage our forests better
If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you already know the cost of wood products has increased to historic levels during the pandemic. While there are many explanations and theories on the internet, the reason comes down to basic economics: there is too much demand and not enough supply. And demand is expected to remain strong.
The only way to decrease lumber prices is to increase supply. Like any commodity producer, sawmills need raw material to meet demand for new housing and home improvement projects. Yet the Pacific Northwest has lost most of its wood manufacturing capacity since federal timber harvests declined 30 years ago.
The cost of wood products has increased, and so has the trend of severe forest fires. Millions of acres of federally owned forests are at immediate risk of wildfire. These lands need thinning to reduce risks to our communities, watersheds and wildlife habitats.
Rather than allowing our forests to burn, why don't we actively manage these lands to reduce forest fuels while meeting demand with wood that's sourced here in the Northwest?
On federal lands, forest mortality exceeds net growth based on 2016 data from the U.S. Forest Service. Forest growth was 48 percent of mortality, while timber harvests were just 11% of what is dying annually. This means far more trees are dying from catastrophic wildfire, insects and disease than are being harvested and utilized as wood products.
To increase supply, some believe we should increase lumber imports from Canada, Europe and Asia. The United States already is a net importer of wood products. The gap between U.S. wood consumption and domestic wood production is 17 billion board feet, according to the Forest Economic Advisors. This gap is puzzling for a country with some of the most productive forestlands on the planet.
Environmentally conscious policymakers and consumers should consider the carbon footprint of importing more wood, especially from places that do not share our own commitment to sustainability.
Rather than increasing imports, policymakers should help bolster lumber production here at home. In the Pacific Northwest, we can provide more of the wood products that people want to buy if the federal government provided a stable and reliable supply of timber on lands it manages.
For much of the 20th century, federal forests helped provide affordable lumber to meet domestic needs. Of course, this changed in the aftermath of the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species that contributed to the loss of hundreds of sawmills throughout the West.
The Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan promised to maintain reliable, albeit reduced, timber supplies. But even those reduced timber volumes never materialized thanks to anti-forestry lawsuits, obstruction and a complex web of federal laws and regulations.
On national forests we are only harvesting half the timber that is directed under existing national forest plans. These plans identify lands that are suitable for sustainable timber harvests, while setting aside riparian areas and sensitive wildlife habitat.
It is possible to improve the health and resiliency of these forests while providing more timber to meet society's needs. Our elected officials just need to give our public lands agencies the resources, policies and direction to accomplish these goals.
Nick Smith of Sherwood executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, which advocates for active forest management in the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes states.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.