By Marshall Matz and Bill Imbergamo

Last month this column made the point that that farmers and production agriculture had to do a more effective job of communicating with Democratic leaders and expanding the political base of production agriculture.  The column then offered some suggestions on how to link production agriculture with the larger Democratic agenda: global warming, the price of food, global food security.  See: Talking Agriculture to Democrats.

The same can be said of forestry and the management of our national forests. Those who rely on our national forests for jobs and tax revenue must figure out how to more effectively make the case for forest management and federal appropriations to a larger audience.

There are 153 national forests covering some 191 million acres in 44 states.  The Forest Service is the largest agency within the Department of Agriculture. Yet, most Americans and many urban Democratic leaders do not appreciate the difference between our national forest and national parks.

Communities in and near the national forests depend on them for their economic vitality.  But proper management of the national forests is also important to the larger cities located downstream. The national forests don’t just provide wood and paper products; national forest provide clean water, clean air, habitat for wildlife, and an opportunity to simply “get away.”

The basic laws governing the National Forest Service require forests to be managed for “multiple use”.  Proper management of working forests requires cutting timber and thinning the annual growth. At present, we are harvesting less than 10% of the annual growth and that has been going on for many years. The level of harvest plummeted by more than 80% in the early 1990s.


This decline in harvesting timber and proper management is one reason for the increased number of forest fires and the severity of the fires when they occur.  Wood is building up in the forests and on the ground.  In short, the forests are overgrown, there is too much fuel on the ground and it is dangerous. Proper management of the forests would put people back to work in high unemployment counties but it would also reduce the risk of forest fire.

Management of each national forest is governed by an individualized forest plan approved by USDA-Forest Service after a public comment period.  The existing forest plans would allow the harvesting of up to 6.1 billion board-feet.  Yet, last year only 2.6 billion board feet were harvested or only 42% of the amount authorized.


The national forest timber sale program has evolved since the controversies of the 1990s. Strong protections for wildlife, water quality, and limits on unsightly clear-cutting have changed the way the Forest Service manages the lands under its jurisdiction. Many local environmental groups understand that things have changed but some national groups and urban environmentalists (in and out of Congress) are behind the curve.  

National forests that are supposed to be producing commercial timber are not being managed which has left large swathes of many forest overgrown and facing unprecedented threats from insects, mortality, and large fires. The insects kill the trees which then in turn make them more susceptible to intense wild fires. 

It is not surprising that the national forests experiencing the biggest problems with fires and insects are those forests in States with the fewest number of sawmills and other wood consuming facilities. Increasing the timber harvest on these forests, up to the amount authorized in the USDA-Forest Service approved forest plans, would improve the health of the forests and reducing that amount of money that has to be spent protecting homes and putting our the fires.

Managing the forests, which includes cutting timber, actually helps the environment. However, this important dynamic is not understood outside the local community and that is the message that needs to be shared more broadly.

In addition to improving the environment, the USDA timber program is the single most efficient federal program for generating jobs in high unemployment, rural counties.  As shown in the chart below, sustainable forest management and restoration, when compared to other federal programs, is the most effective program at putting people back to work.


This year, the statute authorizing federal payments to counties to cushion the blow from the decrease in timber harvests will have to be reauthorized.  That will provide Congress with the opportunity to revisit the management of our national forests. Congress should examine the Forest Service’s management dilemma, which forces them to spend billions fighting forest fires instead of investing in proactive forest management and restoration that will improve the health of our forests, reduce the potential for catastrophic fires, put people back to work, and make American forest products. 

Basic reforms, which allow the Forest Service to manage the land and provide economic benefits to their neighbors while providing clean water and clean air to urban and suburbanites, are both good policy and good politics.  That won’t happen, however, until the advocates for forest management broaden their political base by explaining (and demonstrating) the benefits of such management.  

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture policy at OFW Law and was formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.  Bill Imbergamo is the Executive Director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition.  The charts were done by Tom Troxel, Executive Director of the Intermountain Forest Association