Exploring Solutions: The Economics of Managing Healthier Forests

Forest-management techniques could reduce the severity of catastrophic wildfires before they start. But there's currently no reliable way to pay for those activities. Two Western nonprofits grapple with building economies that support preventative forest management practices.

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Foresters and researchers broadly agree that changing the way we manage the nation’s woodlands and open spaces could help restore equilibrium to the current catastrophic cycle of wildfire. But putting together the policies, programs, and people necessary to turn those theories into practice is a task as big as the great outdoors itself.

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Nevertheless, in some Western communities, conservation nonprofits are stepping up to the task. These community-focused institutions have deep scientific knowledge about forest ecology. They also have practical skills working with multiple layers of government, private contractors, corporations, and private citizens. These locally led but nationally connected nonprofits simultaneously demonstrate both the possibility and difficulty of improving the way we manage wildfire in the U.S.

In Trinity County, along with other rural areas of North-Central California, The Watershed Research and Training Center has attempted to do the hands-on work of clearing brush, thinning dense stands of trees, and removing potential fuels from the forest floor. They’ve done so at the same time that the larger timber economy has declined. That’s created both opportunity and challenge.

First of all, managing forests requires a skilled workforce that remains in the region for the long haul. “Timber harvest is itinerant, even in the best cases,” said the Watershed Center’s Nick Goulette. “Local institutions and our forest workforce need to have a broader set of skills to address wildfires, not just commercial timber harvest.”

While the number of jobs needed for such forest management practices would be well below those created for a timber-harvest boom, the jobs would remain in the region for the long haul, since the management work is ongoing, not cyclical. But stimulating the economic activity to sustain those jobs is tricky.

The Watershed Center has taken multiple steps to build permanent jobs based on forest management. The direct “product” of such management practices is small-diameter trees and other biomass. What to do with the harvested woody material, though, remains a puzzle for those involved in forest wildfire management.

Watershed Center’s entrepreneurial approach to converting non-commercial forest harvest into sellable products has been a long journey, Goulette said. “We’ve made posts and poles from roundwood. We ran a small-diameter sawmill to produce lumber. We’ve tried mulch and compost production.”

More recently, the group’s exploration of potential activities to support and fund wildfire practices while stabilizing jobs in the region focused on producing and selling bundled firewood. They launched and financed Tule Creek Forest Products to accomplish that dual mission.

“With our high-functioning Trinity County Fire Safe Council, a well-established forest collaborative group, an abundance of productive public and private forestlands surrounding us, and only needing about 200 truckloads of feedstock per year, we moved ahead with confidence,” Goulette wrote in a recent biographical piece on the firewood company for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.

Within three years, though, market conditions had changed to favor commercial harvest once again. The organization’s access to raw material decreased. Private landowners lost interest in selling small-diameter trees in favor of commercial harvest. Collecting material on public land was an option, but the group was not able to convince federal land managers to allow timber sales on the tracts. Additionally, increased demand on the commercial market meant it was harder to come by forest contractors and equipment to do the work.

Watershed Center made the difficult decision to close Tule Creek Forest Products in 2017. Goulette said the center will continue to focus on practices that embrace community resilience and fire as a critical component of rural community development. In coming years, those practices are likely to focus on prescribed fire and thinning local forests by hand.

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Five hundred miles north of Weaverville, Mt. Adams Resource Stewards (MARS) in South-Central Washington state has followed a similar path of entrepreneurial non-profit efforts designed to reduce community wildfire while building a more resilient rural economy.

“Sometimes we feel like an outlier,” said MARS Executive Director Jay McLaughlin. He described his organization’s participation in, and sometimes frustration with, a variety of wildfire planning and response efforts. “I like to tell people we actually work from the forest in,” McLaughlin said, unlike many participants and consultants who don’t focus on the actual nuts and bolts of forest management.

On both public and private forestland south of Mt. Adams, McLaughlin said, “we’re trying to address forest health. We’re trying to fight off hundreds of acres of flaws in past management, flaws that can be corrected and strategically located in ways that can slow down wildfires” in the future.

“That’s really half the dream,” McLaughlin said, making the case for developing markets and possible outlets for wood products removed for wildfire fuel reductions. “We do everything from thinking about wood products that could support more efficient use of that material that can hopefully get more acres treated. That would reduce the cost of getting that kind of work done if we have some sort of market for some wood product of field production.”

Like the Watershed Center in California, MARS has launched a series of entrepreneurial activities that have resulted in more robust forest management activities, practices that McLaughlin dubs “community wildfire resilience.” But the economic returns on those processing and marketing activities have been limited.

MARS decided to put together an “incubator model” for wood processing efforts designed to support wildfire land-management practices. The group leased 10 acres from the state, cleared a portion of the land and provided electric and water for the site. MARS also purchased some basic pieces of equipment and a processor to get up and running.

ALSO IN THIS SERIES: ‘Wildfire as a Fact of Life’
Wildfires are burning hotter and faster, taking more lives and destroying more property. Climate change and human development patterns are only making the problem worse. So what can forest communities do to reduce their risk? Or, as one conservationist asks, how much fire can we live with?

The results were mixed. “We worked with five different businesses over the course of maybe eight years,” McLaughlin said. After only limited success in supporting a variety of mostly part-time side businesses, MARS decided to limit that activity in favor of a heavier focus on actual forest management itself.

McLaughlin said that the most powerful and successful forest wildfire management MARS has been involved with is the group’s Mt. Adams Community Forest. The group owns and operates the two community forest tracts of just under 400 acres.

“Basically we’re administering vegetation treatments out there, hiring contractors that are going in and cutting and removing significant numbers of stems and overstock to enhance wildlife habitats,” McLaughlin said. “A significant component of that is also prepping those stands for reintroduction to prescribed fire.”

The community forest land is adjacent to federal property, the Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge. MARS has obtained land management contracts to perform similar activities on the federal land. They hope the lessons they have learned on the ground will help spread forest-management practices to other communities that face the threat of wildfire.

This article was produced with the support of the Solutions Journalism Network. 

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Topics: Environment

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