Guest opinion: Salvage Idaho’s forest products

In the last 30 years, the amount of federal timber available for sale in most of America’s National Forests has been reduced between 70 and 99 percent. 

A University of Idaho study suggests that forest and wood product production jobs in this state have diminished from nearly 20,000 in 1991 to 12,479 in 2016. 

An unreliable and constricted supply of logs has been the largest factor forcing mill closures in Idaho towns like Kamiah, Orofino, Coeur d’Alene and Elk City.  Over that quarter of a century, some 7,500 Idaho forest-dependent families have lost the employment, homes and lifestyle they once lived and loved.

Catastrophic forest fire seasons such as Idaho experienced in 2016 bring much tree damage, environmental destruction and wildlife death.  They also spawn a narrow season of opportunity for focused human activity in a process called the “salvage sale.”  For a period of six months to one year only, before fallen or burned Ponderosa Pine is deteriorated by blue stain fungus, it is a valuable commodity for manufacture into decorative finish moldings, sashes, and building products.  For up to three years, Douglas Fir and Lodgepole Pine can be milled, if quickly removed, into wooden structural elements.

The U.S. Forest Service personnel of the Boise National Forest have accepted the challenge of proposing the swift salvage of a readily accessible 83 million board feet of merchantable hazard, dead or dying trees from within the 528 square miles blackened by last year’s Pioneer Fire.  The Nation’s largest forest fire of last year could thus become a model of what our country’s government could do immediately to stimulate jobs, reforestation, recreation and renewal this year.  The sale areas will avoid sensitive drainages, rough terrain and permanent road building.

The economic value of the contracts to be offered as early as July, could be as high as $25,000,000.  That salvage from the Pioneer Fire manufactured into finished goods, after logging, hauling and milling, might sell for three times that amount.

So too in the Payette, Nezperce-Clearwater, Kootenai and Panhandle National Forests should Idahoans press for the joint action and collaborative effort of government fire sales to private purchasers.  Some 35 million board feet of the deadfall salvaged from the acres burned during 2015 in the Coeur d’ Alene area is already in the mill yards helping stimulate both natural environments and small town economics.

Title 16 of the United States Code provides that “NOTHING” shall prohibit the Secretary of Agriculture, who manages the Forest Service, from the “salvage harvesting of timber stands which are substantially damaged by fire or which are in imminent danger from insect or disease attack.”  These conditions pertain throughout Idaho now.  Salvage sales make sense not only to realize economic value and provide wood for the nation, but they can also improve long-term forest health and more swiftly restore recreation for hunting, hiking, fishing, camping and boating.  When green and growing, Idaho’s timber lands also substantially support the 38,000 recreation-related jobs in this state.

Just as the lack of steady and sustainable wood supplies doomed forest industry employment over the last three decades, the vigorous implementation of salvage sales on a regular basis promises a glimmer of hope and revival to our forest-adjacent small towns and residents. 

In our burned out timber country, Idaho truly has the most elusive commodity in America -- shovel ready jobs!

David H. Leroy is a former Idaho Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor