Environmental Group Bids on Salvage Sale


Photo courtesy of Dan Stark

In an effort to preserve critical habitat for lynx and chinook salmon, a Washington state conservation group has outbid logging companies for a stand of trees in the heart of the Okanogan National Forest in north-central Washington. This is believed to be the first time in the history of the Forest Service that the high bidder on a timber sale has no intention of cutting the trees.

It is also the first time the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance has tried to preserve forest lands with a business transaction, rather than by lobbying or court battles. Outbidding two logging companies, the group agreed to pay $28,875 for the 275-acre Thunder Mountain salvage timber sale. This is less than one-tenth of what good lodgepole pine normally sells for.

“It was like a post-Christmas sale at Wal-Mart, with public forests at bargain prices,” says an enthusiastic Mitch Friedman, executive director of NWEA, located in Bellingham, Washington. “You can’t blame us for shopping a bargain. We at least will pay our money, but leave the trees and wildlife habitat intact.”

To finance the purchase, NWEA has established the “Adopt-an-Acre” program with an 800 number; contributors can save an acre of forest for $100.

The Thunder Mountain site is part of a larger 10,500-acre tract of the Okanogan National Forest that burned during the summer of 1944. The “salvage timber” law, passed by Congress in 1995, barred administrative appeals and court challenges to stop sales of fire-burned and insect-infested trees.

With legal challenges prohibited, NWEA began to look for other approaches. “It leave us no option but to be innovative,” Friedman says.

Historically, timber companies and ranchers have been exclusive bidders on timber sales and grazing permits. Now, however, environmental groups have begun to seek the rights through purchases – so far unsuccessfully. For example, efforts by the Nature Conservancy to retire grazing rights in Arizona have been rebuffed. An administrative law judge ruled that the permits could be canceled if they were no used for domestic livestock. The arrangement subverted federal grazing policy, he said.

Wyoming rancher Stephen Gordon attempted to stop logging in a region of the Shoshone National Forest near his land. He sent the Forest Service a check for $100,000 and promised additional payments of $300,000. The Forest Service returned the check with the explanation that the area must be logged.

Even though NWEA was the high bidder for the Thunder Mountain salvage timber sale, the sale may not go through. The Forest Service says that the only way to fulfill the logging contract is to cut the timber.

The stability of the local economy depends on the timber harvest, says Don Rose, project manager for the Okanogan National Forest. The management plan for the Okanogan was developed over many years to meet a “myriad of goals, ideals and lifestyles,” Rose explains. Auctioning public land to the highest bidder, without consideration of this management plan, would serve neither the public nor the forest, he says.

Also at issue is the potential for damage to wildlife habitat and downstream salmon run. The Forest Service has conducted an environmental review of the fire area, Rose says. Protection measures in the timber contract would insure minimal impact to the environment, while providing an “excellent example of ecosystem management.”

Despite these reassurances, the NWEA still opposes the timber harvesting. “No person could honestly claim that the incursion of heavy industrial equipment, clear-cutting 275 acres of trees (live or dead), and disturbance of sensitive fire-burned soils will not have a lasting impact to wildlife, water and wild-land characteristics of the area,” Friedman says.

The Thunder Mountain timber sale has raised concerns among timber industry representatives, who are leery of nontraditional bids. “It gets a little scary because environmental groups have entered a new arena where they could stop the logging entirely,” said Bill Pickell, the general manager for the Washington Contract Loggers Association.

Logging interests do not see the Thunder Mountain sale or other salvage sales as a threat. “It’s junk; give it to the environmentalists,” Pickell said. But a successful sale to NWEA could open the floodgates for environmental groups to bid on high quality timber and hurt local economies, he claims.

The NWEA’s effort to preserve wild land through the purchase of a timber sale has won wide support from the public and the press, Friedman says. Endorsements have come from Rep. Sidney Yates (D., Ill.), Rep. Kasich (R., Ohio) and the Libertarian Party in Washington State.

The Seattle Times welcomed the bid. In an editorial headlined “Market-Savvy Greens Mugged in the Forest,” the Times praised the environmentalists and chided the Forest Service for resisting the bid.

While awaiting the Forest Service’s decision on Thunder Mountain, the NWEA has been looking for other ways to protect wildlife habitat through the marketplace. Friedman is working on a plan to set aside land in a roadless area of the Loomis State Forest, also in north-central Washington.

These state trust lands are managed by the Department of Natural Resources to benefit Washington public schools. Friedman wants to pay the state to grant conservation status to a parcel of undeveloped land. In his view, this transaction would benefit both sides. The state would maximize its income and the alliance would preserve wild land.

When it comes to protecting public lands, business transactions may be the wave of the future.

How PERC Views the Thunder Mountain Sale

PERC supports the idea of allowing all potential users to participate in the market for publicly-owned resources. However, bidding for the right to cut timber is quite different from bidding on the right to maintain trees in perpetuity.

The auction of public timber, as currently practices, is a right to cut the current stand of timber. But future stands of timber that will be available after harvesting and reforesting are not conveyed to those who want to cut the current stand of timber. Therefore, the right to maintain the trees in perpetuity should not be conveyed to the environmentalists simply because they outbid those bidding for the current “crop” of trees. For their bid, environmentalists should get just a temporary right to “hold” the trees. There are also the problems of reduced timber growth and increased danger of fire and blight.

The best way to permanently retire a timber-cutting right is through the sale of a conservation easement, a binding promise to preserve an area. This is precisely what the state of Montana offered in 1989 to resolve a dispute over a state timber sale near Bozeman, Montana. The state offered a conservation easement for the price of $430,000. This price reflected the present and future income from the site if it were harvested and reforested.

The message from the Okanogan timber sale, we believe, is that the Forest Service should re-think its timber sale policies to bring in environmentalist bidders. It could do this by developing conservation easements in addition to traditional timber sales.

–          Donald R. Leal

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