With due respect, Howard Hedstrom of Hedstrom Lumber in Grand Maraisis at an age where he really ought to be thinking about retirement rather than embarking on new endeavors. But we are living in times when anyone concerned about natural resource conservation—be they duck hunter or a lumberman—has to step up to the plate to make sure federal conservation programs are not savaged or eliminated by a deficit-reducing Congress.
Hedstrom’s primary concern is the timber management on national forests, which provides raw material for businesses such as his. He says 20 years ago, the national forests had annual timber sales totaling 12 billion board feet. Currently, the annual sales are 2.7 billion board feet.
Reasons for the decline in timber sales are range from a national recession to a new environmental ethic, but the effects of less logging on forest health and the timber industry are evident. Nationally, during the past 20 years we’ve seen more massive wildfires and devastating outbreaks of insects and disease. In some regions, the logging infrastructure has diminished to the point where it is no longer viable. Colorado, for instance, has only one sawmill and it is in receivership.
“The southwestern U.S. has lost a lot of production capacity,” says Hedstrom. “There’s also been a loss of production in Alaska and across the West.”
While the timber industry’s woes can’t be blamed on the U.S. Forest Service, most of the nation’s remaining mills rely at least in part on federal timber for raw material. It is important to note this federal timber is not old growth. Nearly all of the mills in the country are set up to saw smaller diameter wood, which may come from thinning operations, fire management projects or habitat improvement. In fact, the timber industry, which is reliant upon sustainable forests, has made great strides in improving its harvest operations and management activities during the past 20 years.
“In no way are we advocating logging without laws,” he says. “We understand we need to live by the rules.”
What the industry lacks, according to Hedstrom, is a seat at the table in Washington, D.C. And that’s why, instead of thinking about retirement, he’s worked with his counterparts across the country to form the Federal Forest Resource Coalition. Made up of small and large mills and trade associations, the coalition recently hired an executive director and opened an office in D.C.
“We need to have a presence in Washington,” he says. “Not state or region can do it alone.”
The coalition has a strong case to make for providing employment in rural communities and improving forest health, but politicians need to hear it. Gone are the days when Congress could be counted on to support natural resource programs and management. Many of the politicians who were stalwarts of conservation are no longer in office. For lumbermen, indeed all conservationists, visiting with today’s Washington power brokers is a matter of starting at Square 1.
“One of our goals is to just hold our own in this political climate,” he says.
Recently, Hedstrom and other members of the coalition made their first visit to Washington as members of the new organization to meet with influential politicians and bureaucrats. While they are able to make a strong case that timber cut on national forests has economic returns as jobs, forest products and tax revenues, Congress must appropriate money for forest management programs in order for the harvest to occur. The coalition made a favorable impression on decision-makers, but they don’t know if or how that will benefit forestry programs.
“The problem is that everyone who comes in to see a politician can make a good case for their interests,” he says. “There’s just no money out there. The best case scenario is that our appropriations just receive small cuts.”
When it comes to cutting trees, rather than budgets, the coalition hopes to raise the annual timber harvest from 2.7 to 3 billion board feet. Hedstrom says this is one-half of the allowable sales called for in the existing forest plans for national forests. The forest plans for individual forests are developed through an open, public process.
“When you are cutting less than half of the timber the plans call for, it’s no surprise our forests are less healthy and have more problems with bugs and disease,” he says.
Moving forward, Hedstrom hopes to build a broader coalition with other organizations concerned with the management of our national forests and the ongoing viability of the timber industry. Such groups may include other industry associations, managers of private industrial forest lands, recreation groups and conservation organizations such as the Ruffed Grouse Society, The Nature Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Many of these organizations are already working with industry partners on habitat management and land acquisition projects. Hedstrom believes everyone who uses forests—from loggers to hikers to hunters—shares a common bottom line.
“Healthy, green forests are important to everyone,” he says.