Thin the Forests, Swell the Rural Economy
How can the economic stimulus package improve economic conditions for rural America? A network of conservation and community development organizations in the Western United States has one idea: invest in the restoration of the nation's public forests.
Members of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition have recommended a $5 billion investment in work that would improve the health and productivity of public forests, provide employment for forest workers who have been displaced by the decline of timbering, and reduce the cost of fighting forest fires in the future. (The current House economic stimulus legislation contains a fraction of the amount proposed by the coalition.)
These are green jobs, says Wendy Gerlitz of Sustainable Northwest, a member of Rural Voices, a coalition of 70 Western groups that works on conservation policy.
"We see a real opportunity for rural communities to rebuild a strong sector of their economy around natural resources," Gerlitz said. "And we think it's the perfect place to invest economic stimulus money."
The forest restoration initiative is a distinctly rural take on economic recovery. Large scale forests are, by definition, rural, and the rural communities that are part of these forested lands have traditionally built their wealth on trees.
Mike Stoddard re-seeds in an area of pinyon-juniper, part of revitalizing this Arizona ecosystem
Photo: Ecological Restoration Institute
The initiative would include:
"¢ Job training to teach workers forest restoration techniques.
"¢ Funding to help jump start private businesses in the forest restoration industry.
"¢ Money for federal land management agencies, primarily the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, to hire workers and businesses to restore public forests.
Beyond putting people to work right away, there are long-term economic and social benefits from investing in forest restoration, its proponents say.
First is a savings of public money that's now spent fighting forest fires. Over the past 20 years, the portion of the Forest Service's discretionary budget spent on firefighting has nearly tripled, increasing from 15 percent to 42 percent. In the 2008 budget, that cost came to $2.2 billion.
Drought and longer growing seasons have resulted in dramatic increases in the number and size of catastrophic forest fires. These aren't the healthy kinds of wildfires that renew our forests. These are the fires that destroy timber and incinerate the soil. Increasingly, these fires also threaten not just forests but buildings and homes.
The key to fighting catastrophic fires before they break out is to reduce the amount of hazardous fuels in the forest.
Smokejumper John McColgan of Fairbanks Alaska, captured this picture in Montana's Bitterroot Valley, August 6, 2000
Photo: via Imagery and Our World /thanks to John Donovan, Eugene, Oregon
"Hazardous fuels are stands of timber growing in unhealthy conditions," Gerlitz said. "They are small trees close together with lots of flammable material."
The solution is to thin these stands so they won't supercharge fires, but thinning takes a skilled workforce "“ just the kind of workers who are losing jobs in hard-strapped timber communities across the West.
Instead of fueling forest fires, the material removed through this process can heat up a new forest economy, as a resource for manufacturing wood products or as fuel to generate electricity.
"The question we need to be asking is: What do we need to do to keep the forest healthy and resilient? And then, whatever comes off the forest as a result of that work is what you use to build businesses," Gerlitz said.
There's plenty of work to be done removing hazardous fuels. The Forest Service estimates that from 50 to 90 million acres need thinning. In 2007 the service had only enough money to treat 3 million acres.
Other jobs that are part of building healthier, more productive public forests are restoring watersheds and streams, removing noxious weeds and other invasive species, maintaining roads and trails, taking inventories of timber, and upgrading public forest facilities to be more energy efficient.
Gerlitz and others are concerned that current Congressional discussions have overemphasized road repair and other infrastructure improvements rather than removal of hazardous fuels. "Working on those roads is great," Gerlitz said. "But in the long run the natural resource economy has to be broader than road construction or repair. You have to look at the whole picture, which is creating healthier forests."