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Problems & 
Politics of Forestry

Politics of Forestry

Federal Lands

The American conservation movement began over 100 years ago largely in response to abuses by the timber industry out west.  Most of the controversy centered around the use of public lands.  At that time there was still a significant amount of land that had not been given to railroad companies, timber companies and ranchers.  The United States Forest Service (USFS) was founded to prevent clearcutting of these public forests by timber companies.  Another purpose was to control wildfires on public lands. 

For several decades the USFS did its job fairly well.  Timber harvesting and forest fires were controlled.  For most of its history, the USFS was somewhat efficient--at least relative to other government bureaucracies.  They managed to return some money to the treasury.

Then during the 1960s and 1970s the agency gradually fell under the influence of the industry they were mandated to regulate, and became an important resource provider for that industry.  Their role of protecting the interests of the citizen-owners of the national forests was seriously compromised.  All government bureaucracies were "redefining their roles" at that time due to heavy corporate and political pressure.  See Jane Anne Morris' "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing."

During the 1980s the pace of clearcutting accelerated rapidly, and along with it the level of subsidies to private timber companies in the forms of below-cost timber sales and road construction.  The level of subsidy to the USFS bureaucracy itself also increased in the form of expanding budgets.  This brought a huge public backlash, and with it increased control over USFS planning. 

On the one hand, Congress was throwing money at the USFS and demanding that they "get out the cut" to benefit their large corporate contributors.  On the other hand, Congress was telling them to plan for endangered species protection, wildlife habitat enhancement, water quality protection, archeological site protection and so on.  The results were compromises that satisfied no one, and just added layers of bureaucracy to the point where costs are routinely 150% of returns.

Now we're seeing a renaissance of a new conservation movement in the form of the advocates for "zero cut" on public lands.  Environmentalists are so fed up with the timber industry and the USFS that they don't believe any kind of conservative management is possible on public lands.  The USFS image has been severely tarnished to the point where there is little differentiation between the agency and the timber industry.

State Lands

The history of state forest lands is quite varied.  Many states, including Massachusetts, have relatively small state forest ownerships.  At just under 300,000 acres, the Department of Environmental Management's Bureau of Forestry owns about 10% of the forest land in the state.  Other states like Oregon and Washington have very considerable acreages and higher percentages of the totals. 

There is very little cutting on Massachusetts state forests--only about 1% of the annual growth, and costs are in the 300% range.  Other states cut close to the sustainable annual growth and management costs are in the 30% range.  Most of these more efficient states' land is managed by trusts rather than state agencies.  See Randal O'Toole's proposal for federal land trusts.  By law, trusts have a fiduciary responsibility to the states' schools or taxpayers, or both.

Management of state forest lands is much less controversial than management of federal forest lands.  The state forestry bureaucracies tend to be more decentralized, and particularly in the case of the state trusts, much better motivated in terms of protecting the public interest. 

Private Lands

Even though the timber industry has heavily influenced the levels and types of cutting (mostly clearcutting) on federal lands, there is still some attempt by the USFS at the application of silivicultural principles and practices to that cutting.  Some may question whether clearcutting can be included in the definition of silviculture, but at least there is some planning and supervision of cutting operations.  Most state lands are also managed according to silvicultural guidelines.

Private land management, however, is generally outside of any silvicultural guidelines.  At this time, California is the only state in the country requiring that all Timber Harvest Plans be prepared by registered foresters, and that silvicultural guidelines be followed.  All other states in the country pretty much leave it up to the harvester to decide which trees to cut and which trees to leave.

The same applies for stream crossings and other harvesting effects on wetlands, although many states have voluntary guidelines for wetlands conservation.  Massachusetts is one of only three states in the country that regulates management practices around wetlands.  See Cutting Practices Law.  Massachusetts does not regulate silviculture.

About fifteen states require that foresters be licensed or registered to practice their profession.  California is the only state that requires a registered forester's stamp for all Timber Harvest Plans.  Forester licensing has been approved by the legislature in Massachusetts, and will go into effect this year.  See Forester Licensing Law.  In Massachusetts, as in other states, the purpose of licensing is to provide "minimum standards of care" for the state's forests, and to protect consumers from unscrupulous operators.

All states provide forestry assistance to private landowners through state "service foresters" who give out information concerning state use value assessment laws and regulations, state cutting practices laws and regulations, and silviculture.  They also provide subsidies for certain management practices.  In some states like Missouri, the "service foresters" actually do management on private lands.  Most states, like Massachusetts, prohibit this practice.

Most states also have forestry extension service staff at the state universities.  These foresters provide landowners and foresters with technical information; they plan workshops, publish newsletters, and organize meetings for this purpose.  The technical information comes from university forestry departments and the USFS, which runs regional research and experiment stations throughout the country.

Unfortunately, all these laws, regulations and educational resources have done little to reduce the amount of "high-grading" on private lands.  See fellow Massachusetts consulting forester Joe Zorzin's thoughts .  In the absense either real controls or much better information about the profitability of forest management, loggers and lumber companies will continue to call the shots.  Although there are some notable exceptions, their interests in the management of private forest lands is generally minimal at best. 

Since most landowners don't know about the benefits of silviculture and long-term management, this sad situation of rampant high-grading is the rule rather than the exception throughout the country as well.  The motivations that drive this situation are complex and quite entrenched.  See my Financial Psychosis page. 

Unbelievably, a "new" solution to the problem of high-grading is currently being proposed: clearcutting.  Advocates for satellite chip mills say, among other things, that clearcutting can counter the effects of decades of high-grading in the Southeast and other parts of the country.  Even more unbelievably, this industry propaganda is being spread by state forestry agencies in the affected states.

Corporate Lands

The term "non-industrial private forest landowners" is used to distinguish small private landowners from large industrial landowners, usually timber and pulp companies.  Many sawmills and pulp mills manage their own lands to supply their mills--in addition to buying stumpage from federal, state and small private ownerships. 

Some corporate lands are extremely well-managed for sustained yield, biodiversity and conservation.  Some are very poorly-managed.  Most corporate lands lie somewhere in between.  Companies with strong ties to local communities tend to be better managers.  Companies with strong ties to the stockmarket tend to be poor managers.  When the "market" is demanding 20-30% rates of return, and trees are only growing at 10-15% with optimal management, the incentive to "cut and run" is strong.

For this reason, plus increasing environmental regulation, many large forest product companies are moving their operations abroad where timber is still cheap and regulations are lax.  This process has been greatly facilitated by the implementation of various "free trade" (read "free pillage") agreements around the world.  These trade agreements are designed to protect the interests of corporate investors in general--at the expense of environmental, labor and community interests.

Forest Health

The adverse effects of air pollution and climate change on all forests--federal, state, private--are becoming increasingly apparent as the impacts accumulate and aggregate over time.  Large areas of high elevation forest on the East Coast have succumbed to insects and diseases which attack trees weakened by environmental stresses.  Low elevation forests are just beginning to show signs of  stress. 

Starting in the early 1980s, it became very difficult to obtain funding for research into the effects of acid precipitation, ozone and heavy metals on forests.  This is still the case despite a change in national political leadership.  The industries that are responsible for the pollutants that hurt our forests are extremely wealthy and influential in government and academia, and their interests lie in profits and stock share values, not ecosystem health and integrity.  See my Charles Little page.

Given the trends toward increasing burning of fossil fuels globally, the problem of forest decline and death can only become much worse, particulary since the effects of pollution have been shown to be cumulative over time.  Fossil fuel advocates claim that increased atmospheric CO2 will benefit trees and other plants.  While this may be true, all the pollutants and climate extremes that come with the CO2 will not benefit trees and other plants.

Given the enormous resources that they have at stake, one would expect the forest products industries to join with environmental groups in their campaigns for clean air, and with the insurance industry in its campaign for reduced greenhouse gas emissions.  But this is not the case.  Forest products industries generally see environmentalists as the enemy, and align themselves with fossil fuel industries on most political issues.

Perhaps industry leaders feel a strong kinship with other extractive industries.  Perhaps they just don't want to alienate their pals at the country clubs and yacht clubs.  Whatever the reasons, they become increasingly hard to accept as time goes by and forest health problems worsen.


While the politics of forestry are enormously complicated, the solution to many forestry problems may be quite simple.  Inasmuch as many of the problems stem from an undervaluation of all the ecosystem services that forests provide, a full valuation of those services could force forest landowners and society in general to have more respect for them.

Dr Robert Costanza and others published a landmark paper on the valuation of ecosystem services in May, 1997.  As these valuations are refined and expanded, they could become the basis for a whole new perspective on the value of our forests, and all our other natural ecosystems.  My Ecosystem Services page explores one potential application of these valuations.

Conventional economic valuation of forests for timber production also needs to be reconsidered.  Full appreciation of the potential economic returns from good forest management would go a long way in improving the motivations of private landowners to do good management.  See my Economics section.