How Much for the Whole House?

by Greg Walcher on August 4, 2017

When we finished the basement in our house a few years ago, I was shocked to pay 86 cents apiece for 2×4 studs (I am old enough to remember when they were a quarter). That job required many studs so it added up quickly. Today in the big home improvement stores, they cost more than $3 each, and it’s hard to find enough straight ones to build anything.
The skyrocketing cost of lumber has dealt a serious blow to the affordability of housing for all Americans. Homes that sold for $100,000 just a few years ago today cost several times that, and high-priced lumber is one of the reasons. It is especially ironic in communities surrounded by giant forests of dead and dying trees, and threatened by the wildfires we see on the daily news.

Last week 7,000 firefighters were battling 13 major fires in California alone. Forest fires have burned 33,000 acres on Colorado’s Western Slope so far this year. One writer calculates that there are today 47 wildfires burning 661,000 acres across the country, and that is just on one particular day. That news is so common that it is routine now, but it shouldn’t be. It represents the continuing failure of the U.S. Forest Service to manage the lands with which it is entrusted, and the squandering, by our generation, of the greatest legacy of the conservation movement – our national forests.

In our home State of Colorado, there are now more than 3.4 million acres of dead trees, killed by the unnatural epidemic of beetles, about which the Forest Service has done almost nothing for 20 years. This year’s annual report of the Colorado State Forest Service estimates that there are 834 million dead trees in the State, an increase of 30 percent in the past seven years. One in every 14 standing trees in our State is dead. Giant swaths of dead trees are massive tinderboxes, stretching for hundreds of miles across the Rockies, from New Mexico to British Columbia. When ignited, these forests burn with an intensity that destroys everything in their wake, including endangered species and other wildlife, as well as homes, businesses, and other infrastructure.

The primary point so many people miss about these catastrophic fires is that they are not natural – far from it. They are the result of bad management, or no management at all. We know from tree ring analysis and other evidence that natural fires have always occurred at fairly frequent intervals, burning small trees, brush, and grasses, but leaving most of the large mature trees standing, often even healthier than before. That’s because when the forest is not overly dense, trees have sufficient water to produce their natural resin, which defends again the occasional pine beetle and other pests.

Starting in the 1990s, these forests began to be deprived of water because of the overgrowth of too many trees – often 1000 trees per acre where there should be 50. That left these natural defenses virtually non-existent, with two major results: the unchecked explosion of pine beetles that destroyed vast expanses of forests; and the resulting mass of weak and dead trees that left a landscape littered with fuel just waiting for a lightning strike or an errant cigarette. We see the result now, in catastrophic wildfires, and in the price of forest products and homes.

The reason for the forests’ overgrowth is not complicated. In short, logging became unpopular a generation or so ago, and the Forest Service all but stopped allowing it on the national forests. The agency still puts out most fires, but today sells only a tenth or so of the lumber it sold 30 years ago. Thus, the timber program no longer helps thin the forests. Environmentally conscious citizens often forget a central truth about forests – plants either grow or die. Stopping all activity in the forests will not preserve them for all time, like a snapshot. In fact, for a forest, neglect is a death sentence.

All the plants in the forests continue to grow while we look the other way, not just the large old trees we all love, but also the weeds, brush, and small trees that create fuel. That inevitably dooms the large old trees, too. Today our national forests produce at least twice as much new growth as managers remove every year, so the situation worsens every year.

Few analysts have talked much about the economic impact of catastrophic forest fires, especially on housing prices. The environmental impacts are easier to see, since fires have destroyed well over 115 million acres of our national forests over the last 20 years, an area larger than California. Conservation’s greatest legacy – the national forests – has been largely squandered in our generation, not by bad forest management, but by no management at all.

To be sure, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has plenty of managers, but healthy forests require boots-on-the-ground activity. Instead, USFS leaders spend their time arguing about what to do, and justifying it to interest groups and courts. Congressional committees argue, too, mostly about funding levels for various USFS programs. Officials in both parties, throughout the last four Administrations, have spoken publicly of the need to return active management to our forests, to partner with the timber industry to thin the forests back to a more natural level.

Mostly, officials have thrown money at the problem, very little of it reaching actual forests. Early in the Obama Administration, for instance, the government suddenly had a $1 Trillion for “shovel-ready” projects, and pumped $1 Billion into the Forest Service to create jobs by restoring healthy forests. But the agency absorbed most of it in-house, and handed the rest out in grants for pet projects that had little to do with forests. Some funds were used to clear dead trees from roads and power lines, but the vast expanses of Western forests were mostly ignored, and continued dying and burning.

Senators of both parties, such as Wayne Allard and Dianne Feinstein, secured additional funding for timber projects in their regions through their work on the Appropriations Committee. They got it done despite constant opposition of the environmental industry to any cutting of any trees, anywhere, anytime. Yet even the determination of influential Senators has not ultimately increased the active management of national forests, which continue to die and burn.

A fundamental shift launched by then-Congressman Scott McInnis led to the “Healthy Forest Restoration Act,” which allowed the Forest Service to shorten the environmental reviews needed to remove dead trees and overgrowth from at-risk forests. It gave the agency badly needed tools to bypass the “normal” analysis paralysis and actually get something done. That effort also took months of work, overcoming vehement opposition from some environmental groups. It should have completely changed the way national forests are managed. It didn’t, for one simple reason: the USFS didn’t actually want new tools, and has mostly declined to use them.

Today, the national forests are in even worse condition. A swath of dead trees stretches from New Mexico to British Columbia, and out-of-control wildfires rage across the West.

This year, Congress’s only trained forester, Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), is pushing a bill called the Resilient Federal Forests Act, another attempt to give land managers new tools to manage our dying forests. It would end the perennial borrowing from the USFS timber program to fight fires, and again empower managers to short-circuit the environmental review process for timber sales, where catastrophic wildfire or insect infestation threaten municipal watersheds. It would encourage removal of dead trees after wildfires, and fast-track forest projects developed through local collaboration, such as the inclusive approach pioneered in Delta and Montrose Counties. It would provide alternatives to the lawsuits that plague most timber sales. It is a good bill, and Congress should pass it. But will the USFS use these new tools?

Nick Smith, executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, estimates that USFS employees spend 40 percent of their time doing paperwork instead of managing forests, delaying projects for years. It’s not that employees lack systems to get the job done – Congress has provided them the required “tools” several times. The problem is not money – USFS’s $7 Billion budget and staff of 28,000 are larger than ever. The problem is cultural.

The USFS should be run by professional foresters. Management by, and promotion of, trained foresters was the tradition in the agency for decades, but today its employees are much more varied in their training and education: biologists, engineers, teachers, ecosystem managers, environmentalists, and others. Long-time professionals in the agency are almost universally concerned that new hires and promotions frequently go to people not trained in forestry, building an agency culture that distrusts traditional management, and opposes timber sales as a management tool.

It is not clear that Congress can change this culture, but short of that, offering new tools to managers who don’t want them is like leading a horse that isn’t thirty to the water tank.

Based on columns that originally appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel July 21 and July 28, 2017.

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