By Russ Lawrence, President, Bitterrooters for Planning
Participating in fantasy football or fantasy baseball leagues has never appealed to me, but I’m curious about a new prospect, recently unveiled by the Ravalli County Commissioners.
Fantasy Forest Management is a pastime that blends voodoo economic speculation with the fictional genre of alternative history. Since it’s played with taxpayer money, we’re all in the game, so nobody sits on the sidelines; and, best of all, the winner is picked in advance!
At least, that’s my take-away from the contract signed in March by our commissioners with UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research to the tune of $16,783. They contracted for a “study” that will time-travel back to the 1980’s, and alter the course of history by increasing the timber supply from Bitterroot National Forest lands, to the presumed benefit of the Ravalli County wood products industry of 30 years ago. They will then run the clock forward to the present day, and show us how much more wonderful life would be, if only . . .
This expensive work of fantasy will then somehow be used to inform the commissioners’ re-write of their Natural Resource Policy, and to influence their future interaction with federal land managers.
Of course, according to BBER’s written proposal, the study presupposes that the issue causing the demise of the local wood products industry was a decline in federal timber supply due to “restrictive” land management.
Garbage in, garbage out.
In the 1980’s and 90’s, every private timber-owning outfit in western Montana was busy liquidating its holdings. Darby Lumber, Champion Timberlands, Plum Creek, and Louisiana Pacific were slicking off every merchantable stem on their considerable holdings, so that they could literally “cut and run,” selling off the scalped landscapes and moving on to regions where trees grow faster.
Bids on some USFS timber sales were not sufficient to pay for the costs of preparing and administering them, and in some areas the Forest Service refrained from proposing timber sales at all because the surrounding private timberlands had been so severely impacted.
Because of this – plus a flood of cheap lumber from Canada and other worldwide issues – lumber prices were depressed for a decade. Mills folded because they could no longer operate profitably. Darby Lumber closed with logs still in the yard – do you still think federal timber supply was the issue?
Conditions now are radically different, and I’m baffled as to how the commissioners will use this backward-looking work of fiction to deal with our 21st-century economic realities.
One commissioner recently assured me that they were a forward-looking group, with a disciplined focus on County issues. Yet, here they are paying for a carnival ride (complete with chainsaw sound effects!) that looks through warped mirrors at historical events over which the County had no control at the time, for the presumed purpose of influencing future decisions which are properly the province of federal land managers and the American people – all of them.
These are the same commissioners who would doubtlessly characterize themselves as free market advocates, yet they are trying to pick winners in the local economy by directing taxpayer dollars to their industry darling.
Meanwhile, Ravalli County has no countywide Growth Policy. We have no policy or mechanism for dealing with commercial and industrial development. We have no regulations to control development on hundred-year-old orchard tracts and family transfers. Developers are bulldozing roads where they wish, unchallenged by our fantasy role-playing commissioners.
Let me be clear: I am not opposed to timber harvesting on public lands. I am in favor of a small-scale wood products industry in Ravalli County based on a predictable and sustainable supply of timber from a combination of federal, state, and private timberlands, as part of a healthy, diversified economy.
Reality check: that timber harvest level will be lower than the historical levels of the 1960’s, or even the 80’s.
When I was a forestry student, one professor included a “trick” question on every test, positing a situation and asking for the best management proposal. The correct answer was always, in every case, “it depends on the owner’s objective.”
In the case of federal timberlands, the owner is the American people, and their management objective, defined in legislation and policy, is broader than “getting the cut out.” It is broader than the interests of one industry, one county, or one state. The objective is healthy landscapes that provide for multiple uses – timber production among them, but not superior to any. That is REAL, forward-looking forest management, not “fantasy” forest management from a bygone era.
Our commissioners should be focusing on the pressing county issues over which they, in reality, have direct authority.
Can I have my $16,783 back? I want out of this game.