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Sawmills Struggle To Break Even With “Thinning” On Public Lands

Rowan Moore Gerety/NWPR

The logging in National Forests these days is often called “thinning” or “restoration.” The forest service allows harvest of small trees and leaves bigger ones intact, in hopes of making the forest more resilient to fire. But companies that rely on that timber say it’s a business model that makes it hard to break even.

The Finnish hew saw at Duane Vaagen’s mill can make two two-by-fours from a tree no thicker than a loaf of bread. “The magic,” he says, as logs rattle by and emerge seconds later as finished lumber, “is being able to turn such small diameters into a high-quality, finished product."

Vaagen’s Usk facility is what’s known as a "small log” mill, making lumber from trees anywhere from four to 16 inches in diameter. For decades, lumber companies logged the biggest trees on the landscape. But most of those are gone, and much of what remains is on protected public lands. So companies like Vaagen Brothers have tried to adapt to a new business model, logging under the rubric of “forest health” or “restoration.” By “thinning” small trees and leaving big ones intact, the Forest Service hopes to make forest more resilient to fire.

“We’ve kind of taken a page out of the environmental movement’s playbook,” Vaagen says. “They say they don’t want to log but they’re ok to thin, so we’re not really a logging company. We’re a thinning company.”

Whether thinning makes sense for the environment is still hotly debated: some scientists say it harms wildlife and can even encourage wildfire. But lumber companies in much of the inland West would be hard-pressed without it. Mills in Wyoming and Colorado depend heavily on contracts to remove beetle-infested timber for public land.

Duane Vaagen gets a third of his timber on national forest, and he says there’s still enough infrastructure nearby to make small trees economical. Leaves and branches produce electricity at a biomass plant; damaged logs go to a pulp mill for paper. Vaagen says the problem is that even with millions of acres of forest nearby, it’s hard to maintain a continuous supply of timber. “This mill should not be starved for logs… the trucks should be lining up, all the way to the grocery store.”

As it is, Vaagen says the Usk mill is losing money, running at half capacity. This isn’t uncommon: mills across the US are struggling with a weak housing market and competition from around the world. More than a third have closed in the past 20 years. But Vaagen says there’s another factor at play for mills in the West: the long planning process required to log on public land. “Federal forests, their problem is NEPA”--the National Environmental Protection Act. “It takes them five to seven years to put some projects up for sale.”

Colville National Forest spokesman Franklin Pemberton says some of that delay is unavoidable. “You can only go as fast as you can go when you have things like winter, or heavy snow pack, when the botanist can’t get in there, or a wildlife biologist can’t survey for a particular species because it’s not the right time of year,” he says.

But Pemberton says the growing time and expense of fighting wildfires has also derailed day-to-day work at the Forest Service. Nearly half the agency’s employees already work on fire full-time. As for the others, Pemberton says, “If we break a fire, that botanist, then, their priority is that fire. So they’ll shift over and then they’ll support that fire activity until it’s done and they’ll move back to their normal job.”

One bill moving through Congress could help fix that: the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would fund wildfire response just like other natural disasters, freeing up more money for land management. For now, wildfire interrupts the same Forest Service projects that are intended to prevent large fires in the future.

On a drive through dense woods near Colville, Pemberton says decades of excessive logging and firefighting left thick stands of small trees especially vulnerable to big fires and disease. Then, he points out a stand recently thinned by Vaagen Brothers and set with a controlled, man-made burn: “You can look back in there and see that there’s not as much dead stuff on the ground. It’s a little bit more open, you have a variety of ages of trees.”

It’s not clear how much difference this thinning could make in a mega-fire: wind and weather may be even more important than fuel. Still, some say more than 50 million acres of federal land would benefit from similar treatment.

Colville and other national forests are trying to scale up thinning work by signing long-term “stewardship” contracts: companies get timber free in exchange for wildlife-friendly work like replacing culverts and taking out old logging roads. “Without these mills we simply can’t restore ecosystems,” Pemberton says. “We don’t have the machinery, the equipment, the people.” Duane Vaagen agrees: the mills used to need the forests, he says. Now the forests need the mills.

Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio