Forest Service and Collaboratives Garden our Forests

If the public really understood the illogic behind Forest Service management, including those endorsed by forest collaboratives, I am certain there would be more opposition to current Forest Service policies.

First, most FS timber sales lose money. They are a net loss to taxpayers. After the costs of road construction, sale layout and environmental analyses, wildlife surveys, (reforestration and other mitigation if required) is completed, most timber sales are unprofitable.

Indeed, the FS frequently uses a kind of accounting chicanery, often ignoring basic overhead costs like the money spent on trucks, gasoline, office space, and the personnel expenses of other experts like wildlife biologists, soil specialists and hydrologists that may review a timber sale during preparation that ought to be counted as a cost of any timber program.

The FS will assert that ultimately there are benefits like logging roads provide access for recreation or that thinning will reduce wildfire severity. However, as will be pointed out later, most of these claims are not really benefits. We have thousands of miles of roads already, and adding more does not create a benefit. Reducing wildfires–even if thinning did do this which is questionable–it can be argued that we should not be reducing wildfire severity.

The agency will also argue that because it can’t log the biggest trees, profitability of timber sales is reduced. But again ecologically speaking those big trees are extremely important to long term forest ecosystem sustainability. Besides many of the larger trees in more accessible terrain have already been high graded and removed, further reducing the profitability of any timber sales..

Some private forest advocates say the FS could increase its profits by logging more old growth, increasing the size of timber sales, and/or by reducing the environmental analysis and remediation. Yet these costs should always be included in the profit and loss of a sale just as a business  must include the costs of rent, power, employee compensation, and compliance with all zoning, environmental and other laws in the profit and loss of their operations.

Second, most economic analyses of timber sales actually ignore or minimize the real costs associated with logging operations. These include collateral damage (thus costs) of logging like altered water flow intercepted by logging roads, sediment in streams from logging events, disturbance/displacement of sensitive wildlife, soil compaction, the spread of weeds, loss of scenery, habitat fragmentation, and so forth.

Many of these costs are on-going and never end. For instance, once weeds are introduced into an area, it is nearly impossible to eliminate them. And thus the cost of a logging sale that introduces weeds could be impossible to determine but we know that it is far more than the value of any wood derived from selling federal timber.

Third, most natural ecological processes like wildfire, beetles, etc. are critical to the long term ecological health of forests. Yet the Forest Service typically attempts to reduce these factors to the greatest degree possible—in essence short-circuiting forest ecosystem function. In reality, they are typically not successful in these efforts—wildfires still burn a lot of acreage and thankfully we haven’t figured out yet how to stop beetle outbreaks– but the fact that they waste billions attempting to purge natural processes is yet another indication of irrational forest policy.

Rather than a sign of unhealthy forests as portrayed by the pro-logging bias of the agency, these natural processes are important for recruitment of down wood into the ecosystem, create a diversity of wildlife habitat, and naturally thin forests.  Stand replacement fires, for instance, have the second highest biodiversity found in forest ecosystems. In reality a “healthy” forest is one where wildfire, beetles, and other natural processes operate. These agents are like predator to ungulate populations—they are important top down influences.

Fourth, when confronted with the losses associated with logging, the FS suggests that timber sales and logging supports the economic vitality of rural communities. However, even if one agreed that it is desirable for taxpayers to provide welfare to rural communities in the form of logging operations, this ignores the fact that corporate stockholders and company owners skim off a lot of that subsidy before it ever gets to mill workers and woods workers. Indeed, some economic analyses show it would be better to simply give checks to employees to not log than incur the costs of a timber sale. Better yet pay people to fix all the things that are ignored or given little attention like wildlife surveys, decommissioning of roads, maintenance of campgrounds and so forth.

Current policies like “forest restoration” are actually degrading forest ecosystem. Foresters cannot tell which trees, for instance, have a genetic propensity to withstand drought or tolerance for cold or ability to withstand fires and beetles.  Random removal of trees reduces the genetic resilience of the forest ecosystem. Logging removes biomass.  Reducing tree densities through logging short-circuits fires, beetles and other natural processes that create unique forest types like snag forests and are important for recruitment of dead trees.

Here’s where you find the policies are totally illogical. First, the FS attempts to eliminate natural thinning agents like wildfire and beetles. Then the Forest Service claims forests are too “dense” and require “thinning” trees (more appropriately termed kill trees) to reduce density.  A reduction in density, it is argued will reduce the natural ecological processes like beetles and fires. Meanwhile it spends tax dollars trying to eliminate the natural thinning agents.

To use an old cliché, it adds insult to injury by allowing timber companies to haul trees off site robbing the forest of critical nutrients and structural components.

This is analogous to the policies of fish and wildlife agencies that “control” wolves and mountain lions, then argue that elk and deer herds are too big, thus must be “thinned” by hunters.  Of course, research has more than adequately demonstrated that hunters kill different animals than native predators do, typically selecting the healthiest herd members including the biggest males and most productive age class of females, while native predators tend to take the young, old, and injured.  Thus just as hunting policies as currently employed are degrading our wildlife population, current forest policies are having a similar negative effect on our forest ecosystems.

Forest ecosystems are perfectly capable of responding to these natural ecological processes which are ultimately driven by climatic conditions. Large wildfires, for instance, bring forest types in balance with available water, nutrients, and temperatures much more effectively than any logging schemes.

What I see happening is the gardening of our forests. The Forest Service, like a gardener who has allotted space for various crops with rows of carrots, corn and potatoes, tries to garden our forests. They decide that a particular landscape should be dominated by ponderosa pine or Douglas fir, or that place will be aspen or meadows, or this place is for spotted owls and that place for elk winter range, and so on. The problem is that wild forest ecosystems are dynamic and do not neatly fit into boxes or categories.

The problem is that even if we wanted to “garden” our wild forests, we are thus far, thankfully, incapable of doing this. All we do is wreak havoc on forest ecosystems.  Every proposal to “fix” the forests creates new problems we never envisioned. In trying to garden our forests, we degrade them.


  1. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Yay! Another article to read from George.

  2. WM Avatar

    Been on a backpack trip in onp Will return to a full size keyboard on Saturday, and comment on substance of ruling then. Remember this is one trial court ruling, and likely not the end of story.

    1. timz Avatar

      Thank you Mr. Obvious

  3. snaildarter Avatar

    Well they are in the Department of Agriculture? What would you expect. I think they spend all of their time scheming trying to find a reason to cut more trees.

    1. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      snaildarter’s comment brought to mind “getting out the cut”. As a result I found an interesting site that has three short videos of national forests through time in the US and Canada and how important it is to protect them from further development. It ties in with a lot of what George Wuerthner says regarding the roll of fire in forest ecosystems and the futility of trying to thin to manage said fires.
      Thanks, George, for another interesting essay.

  4. Logan Avatar

    I agree that wildfire and beetles should be allowed to take their course. I also agree that the USFS should better control and document their costs associated with logging. I definetly agree that most agency actions to “improve” or “restore” often bring about new problems to “solve”. Wow that was a lot of “”.

    My question: Is it the purpose of the USFS managing the forests to do so for a profit? I would certainly like them to at least not operate at a loss but I’ve always thought that the purpose was to protect the resource for multiple use. If they are expected to turn a profit, how are those funds currently ear-marked?

    Also,George, for my clarification are you advocating for an end to all logging on federal lands or are you pushing for tighter controls and better practices?

  5. JZ Avatar

    George, I disagree with all of your writing, but this one really damages your “credibility”. Where’s the collaboration tie?

    I’d ask you to cite your sources on each assertion above.

    Here’s a little inconvenient truth for you: The most recent (July/14) timber sale I was responsible for generated almost three quarters of a million dollars in retained receipts which are kept by the Forest to be put back into watershed restoration (road decom, culvert replacements, road improvements, etc), trail maintenance, weed treatments an so-on. That was above the $130K worth of “mandatory” stewardship work (watershed restoration – mostly road improvements and culvert replacements) that was part of the contract. Oh – and the timber sale was 400 acres of beetle killed lodgepole. 400 acres…out of how many affected?

    We never purported that were going to eliminate beetles, stop fires or “garden” the forest. Uhhhhh……we’re a little smarter than you and your readership might give us credit for. We DID, however claim that we were going to cut/use some forest products responsibly, in a place/way that wouldn’t cause adverse impacts to wildlife, fish and plants. Reg Agencies concurred. We received no appeals from the “usual suspects” (your colleauges) either. Hmmmm….

    Can you explain for us your experience with Forest Service timber sale design, planning, appraisal and contract award? Howabout stewardship contracting? It may be instructive for your readership to hear your experience. What about your experiences with sale layout, marking, cruise, etc?

    And you are claiming that silviculturalists, foresters, fire ecologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, fisheries and wildlife bios, botantists (almost all advanced educations) cannot judge what is best for a relatively small percentage of actively managed forest??? I’m just trying to understand where you are coming from. You’re coming off pretty high and mighty….

    The rest of your stuff above is opinion. I hope your readership sees it that way as well. Of course it’s likely that your post was done merely to elicit a response…if so then I’d say well done.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Oh – and the timber sale was 400 acres of beetle killed lodgepole. 400 acres”

      Curious JZ, what sort of location did this take place that didn’t adversely affect wildlife, fish & plants?

  6. George Wuerthner Avatar


    As for your assertion that you never purported to stop fires, beetles, etc. I would say you are the exception. For the basic message given by the FS is that we must thin or log to control large fires or keep beetles from killing trees. I read a lot of EISs and that is often the stated “purpose and need” not to mention the implied message often quoted in media.

    Certainly I am sure that most agency folks know that you can’t stop these things, but if they said that openly people would question why they are doing things like the thinning that is going on throughout the forest system.–after all it is justified on the premise that it would make a significant difference in fire, beetles, etc.

    I go out on regular field trips and read a lot of proposed “vegetation management” proposals and they all act (say) that beetles and fires are “damaging” or some other negative characterization.

    Except for wilderness aress (and even here there is often fire control) most national forests have management prescriptions that alter natural processes. Fires are controlled. Trees are cut. Roads penetrate many drainages fragmenting the forest and so on.

    BTW in the past I have worked on timber stand exams, timber sale layout,land surveyor, and as a biologist/botanist for FS and BLM.

    As for biologists, hydrologists, etc. being smart enough– I have worked for three different federal agencies–BLM, NPS, and FS, and I have many friends who are recently retired or still working for the FS, BLM,etc. and as most would attest there are sidebars on what you can say that challenges the basic paradigm.

    For instance, as a biologist, you would not be permitted to say don’t log the forest or don’t graze this meadow. The best you could do is say if you are going to log or graze the forest, here’s the best way to do it. I.e. you can’t generally challenge the fundamental assumption that logging will occur.

    Again I can’t speak for your situation–but i know from a long history of personal and friend’s experiences that the basic premise of the FS is that you have to get the logs out.

    As for the profit and loss–what is the value of the biomass you removed with those trees that were taken? Did any weeds get introduced? Were roads created that altered the subsurface water flow? Were soils compacted? Were sensitive wildlife disturbed?

    Yes of coruse if 400 acres is all that is logged wherever you live and that was the only disturbance in a huge national forest–you could easily argue so what’s the big deal. The problem is that 400 acres is not the amount that has been affected in our national forests. We have over 400,000 miles of roads alone–that if nothing else has had a huge impact on the forest ecosystem.

  7. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    I cannot attest to how the FS manages timber sales throughout the country, however I know working for the BLM in western Oregon, I can tell you BLM and FS timber sales are quite profitable (even after you factor in overhead costs) and enviromentally sound.

    First, the BLM and FS conduct timber sales on approximatelly 1 to 2 percent of the total federal land base each year in Oregon and Washington and approximately 90% of those sales are thinning sales. Federal timber sales are held to the highest environmental standards on the planet as they required to adhere to numerous environmental laws such as the ESA, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and local federal management plans.

    As the saying “you have to crack eggs to make an omelot” there are effects caused by timber sales, but they are MINOR and SHORT-TERM in nature. Over ninety percent of timber sales are not protested and those that are, typically consist of stands of trees that are over 80 years old and incorporate regeneration harvest where ~20% of the trees are retained.

    The BLM and FS have decommissioned and closed a significant amount of roads during the past two decades by removing culverts, sub-soiling and placing debris on existing roadbeds and placing native seed on disturbed areas of soil that reduces the invasion of weeds. Most timber sales incorporate the creation of snags and down logs. No cut timber buffers typically range from 50 feet (interrmittent streams) to 420 feet (perrennial streams with fish) on each side of stream providing protection from sediment runoff and providing future wood recruitment.

    As long as there is a demand for wood products, trees will need to be harvested. The average tree on federal forest land is significantly larger than on private land and I argue it be more environmentally wise to harvest (commercial thinning) 40 acres of federal timber than clearcut harvest 80 acres of private forest land. There is no doubt there are significantly more impacts occuring on the landscape now due to the reduction of federal timber sales as private timber companies make up for the shortfall. Until the demand for forest products declines, those are the choices we have.

    My biggest issue with the federal agencies is their steadfast policy of fire suppression. They continue to suppress natural caused fires even when the threat to homes and property is minimal. They do it because its a political hot potato, but as we all know lightning caused fires are natural occurrences that should be allowed to play out. If someone chooses to live in an area that is predominately non-defensible, then they need to accept the consequences.

  8. Wolfy Avatar

    I believe that George’s comments are correct; or rather, were correct 20 years ago. The BLM and FS have made huge strides in conforming timber sales to be profitable and environmentally sustainable. We have some very smart people putting a lot of effort into designing timber sales to have minimal or no effects on wildlife and their habitat. There still is the mandate to meet timber targets, but we’re implementing ways to do it in a practical and long-term manner.

  9. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    A little bit of history on the philosophy of fire control following the Big Burn of 1910 in the Northwest primarily Idaho; take a look at the last paragraph:

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Wow Barb, how did you find this gem of history from 1910. Yes, the last paragraph is illustrative of how little we really knew (know) about nature and fire ecology.

    1. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      A little more background on the Swan Valley litigation.

      I am confused on how the agreement that allows cutting until 2018 between Plum Creek, The Nature Conservancy, and US Forest Service works.

  10. Nancy Avatar

    It is confusing Barb. I thought the Nature Conservancy was all about conserving land.

    Looking at the picture (in the article) got me going down another “road” entirely:

    1. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Thanks, Nancy!

      I shall enjoy this site after (if) my computer quits functioning erratically.

      My favorite class in the College of Forestry at the U of Idaho was macroscopic and microscopic identification of commercial woods of the USA. The library at one time (it may still have) had several volumes “books” containing thin sections: transverse, longitudinal, and radial of many US woods. I kept it checked out for a long time – fascinating. One of my favorite woods was Joe-wood, Jacquinia keyensis, found in southern Florida.
      Romeyn Hough’s The American Woods: exhibited by actual specimens and with copious explanatory text (1888-1928)


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George Wuerthner