From Ernie Niemi, President
Natural Resources Economics
Most of us know the saying, there’s no free lunch. When somebody offers us something valuable for free, we hold tight to our wallets and purses, because it’s usually a con job. We know that, if we accept the offer, we eventually will have to pay a price, perhaps a big one.
Hold extra tight these days, in response to promises of wonderful things for free if we let the timber industry salvage-log trees killed in Lane County and elsewhere in Oregon by this summer’s forest fires. Like all good cons, the sales pitch sorta makes sense on the surface. It goes like this:
The fires were a tragedy. Leaving the burned trees to rot will double the tragedy. But, if we quickly log the trees we can turn bad into good. Logging will be good for the forest, restoring good health to forests ruined by fire and reducing the risk that the areas will burn again. Logging also will be good for the economy, creating thousands of new jobs for loggers and mill workers in nearby communities, and generating truckloads of lumber and plywood to build new homes. And we can have all these good things for free, because the salvage logging will generate millions of dollars of timber-sale revenue for the Forest Service.
To see inside the con, look back to 2002, when the Biscuit Fire burned 500,000 acres in southern Oregon. OSU researchers visited the site several years later and found that unlogged areas had enough naturally occurring tree seedlings to satisfy the Forest Service’s management standards for the area. Elsewhere, though, salvage logging operations had killed many tree seedlings and these areas were replanted, at significant expense. Other OSU researchers looked at areas where the Biscuit Fire re-burned lands that had experienced fire 15 years earlier. They found that the re-burning was more severe on lands that had been logged and replanted after the earlier fire than in areas left unlogged.
This and other research reinforces the reality that fire can play a beneficial role in sustaining healthy forests. The seeds of some trees, for example, need exposure to fire before they will germinate to produce young trees that can replace old ones. Some forests need low-intensity fire every few years to clear away the brush that, if left to grow, could eventually become thick enough to support a catastrophic fire. Salvage logging disrupts these processes, with negative impacts on trees, the quality and quantity of water in forest streams, and fish and wildlife.
The heart of the con is the promise of an economic free lunch. It begins with a tasty appetizer: logging to remove burned trees near roads and homes. Here, the added safety for motorists, homeowners, and others can outweigh the costs, and salvage logging makes sense. But a full meal of salvage logging spread across larger areas likely will be bitter, with costs that far outweigh the benefits.
After the Biscuit Fire, I worked with colleagues familiar with the intricacies of Forest Service finances to calculate the benefits and costs of different levels of salvage logging. We particularly focused on the agency’s costs to administer post-fire timber sales and to clean up the mess logging would leave behind. We found that, with logging limited to areas next to existing roads and other facilities, the timber-sale revenues would cover the agency’s costs. Logging a larger area, though, would reverse this outcome, with the Forest Service spending more to cover the logging than it would receive in timber-sale revenues.
Other costs make a free-lunch offer even more of a con. Widespread salvage logging can damage the ecosystem by degrading soil productivity, introducing invasive species, damaging habitat for birds and fish, and more. It also intensifies climate change by accelerating the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There is no apparent reason to anticipate that widespread salvage logging of the lands burned this summer can somehow avoid these economic and ecological costs. If it extends much beyond the zones along roads, etc., you, I, and other taxpayers will pick up a high-priced tab.
But wouldn’t widespread salvage logging produce new jobs and other economic benefits tasty enough to be worth the price? Probably not. Timber markets are highly competitive, and any increase in the supply of burned logs from public lands likely would depress the market price of logs and trigger a reduction in logging on private lands. The displacement could be as high as one-for-one. This is what the Umatilla National Forest concluded would occur with salvage logging following the 2005 School Fire.
Sure, we all would like a free lunch, but don’t expect one from salvage logging.
Ernie Niemi is President of Natural Resource Economics in Eugene.
The foregoing opinions are strictly those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of NewsLincolnCounty.com or its advertisers. They are published herein to stimulate information and debate on substantial issues that affect our communities. Opposing views of the above are always welcome.