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TBT: Rooting Public Timber Sales in Conservation

Throwback Thursday: From the Vault

Trees are valuable environmental assets. They mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, clean the air, prevent soil erosion, provide wildlife habitat, and supply us with food and wood products. Tomorrow, on Arbor Day, we recognize the value of trees and work to preserve them.

Many trees are harvested each year, and the right to cut public timber stands is auctioned off by public land agencies to private timber companies. Some environmentalists object to these cuttings, preferring that trees remain rooted in the ground instead of being turned into lumber or paper. Historically, these groups have protested or taken legal action in attempt to halt timber sales. In 1996, however, they tried a new approach. Linda Platt wrote about it in the March 1996 edition of PERC Reports:

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.

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,” [Mitch] Friedman [executive director of the NWEA] says.

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.

In the end, the Forest Service rejected the NWEA bid because the group did not intend to log. Sam Gehr, the forest supervisor, said that only harvesting the timber would fulfill the contractual obligation of the sale.

To this day, the right to cut a federally owned timber stand cannot be held by environmental groups for non-consumptive uses. Here at PERC, we support the idea of allowing all potential users, including environmentalists who want to leave the resource in the ground, to participate in the market for publicly-owned resources, from mineral leases to timber stands.

However, bidding to purchase the right to harvest a current stand of trees is different from bidding for the right to maintain a forest in perpetuity. As Don Leal explained in his view on the Thunder Mountain sale, “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.” Though federal land agencies have yet to adopt this approach, some states have experimented with allowing environmental groups to bid for a conservation easement on state-owned forests instead of cutting the current timber stand. For example, to resolve a dispute over a state timber sale in 1989, Montana offered a conservation easement for a price that reflected the present and future income from the state-owned site if it were harvested and reforested.

To ensure the true market value of our public timber stands is realized in an auction, federal agencies should allow all parties who value the land to participate in the bidding process. Auctions on timber lands should include conservation easements and environmental groups should have the opportunity to bid on those easements for the right to maintain forests into the distant future. To allow conservationists a role in managing public forests, federal land agencies need to put market forces to work and provide opportunities for conservation bidding on timber stands.

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