Commentary: Timber crisis has implications for environment, economy and climate

The Western timber industry is in crisis. The region has lost over a half-dozen wood processing facilities so far in 2024, and more will likely close. This is not just another economic blow to our rural communities; it signals a broader failure of the federal government to align the management of public lands with the health of our forests and wood products sector.
Nick Smith (copy)

Nick Smith
Lynn Howlett

Despite billions of dollars in new government spending, and strong bipartisan support in Congress for forest management, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are paralyzed by anti-forestry litigation, obstruction and bureaucratic red tape. Under our broken system of federal land management, it takes years for these projects to be developed and implemented, even when these projects survive court challenges.

A good example can be found right now in Southwest Oregon, where protesters are sitting in trees to stop an effort to thin unhealthy trees on a fire-prone forest. Too often these reckless actions prevent our public lands managers from doing their jobs.

Most would agree that active forest management on federal lands is essential to restoring forest health, mitigating wildfire risks, supporting biodiversity and maximizing our forests’ ability to sequester and store carbon. But all of this work requires a strong public-private partnership. Federal land agencies like the U.S. Forest Service can’t reduce fuels in fire-prone forests at a large scale without loggers, truckers, wood processing facilities and viable domestic markets to help pay for the work.

There is no infrastructure, and there are no markets, without a viable timber industry. Industry needs a reliable and predictable supply of wood that, in many places in the West, can only be found on federally owned lands.

Anti-forestry litigation, obstruction and bureaucracy not only prevent efforts to reduce wildfire risks, they are depressing regional timber supplies that industry depends on to meet the nation’s demand for wood products. This trend has national implications for our broader economy and is directly tied to many other issues including lack of affordable housing, inflation and efforts to mitigate climate change.

Some expect global demand for wood products to quadruple over the next 30 years, especially as the Biden administration and other governments pursue net zero climate policies. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and, more recently, findings presented at COP28 underscore the role of sustainably managed forests and wood products in offering low-carbon alternatives for building materials.

Yet the U.S. has become increasingly dependent on imported lumber to meet domestic demand. If we do not produce our own wood products, that wood will be imported from other places including countries where forest practices are archaic and illegal logging is rampant. According to the U.S. International Trade Commission, China and Brazil rank among top importers.

In addition to the loss of sawmills, we are also losing facilities that process wood residual materials that make a wide variety of products, from tissue paper to renewable biofuels. The deterioration of these supply chains not only make lumber production more expensive; the loss of markets incentivize private forest landowners to sell or convert their lands to non-forests for development, further hamstringing our ability to sustain our natural resources and fight climate change.

The Biden administration is also pursuing policies to make active forest management more costly and prohibitive. These administration’s new “Old Growth” policy, its pledge to preserve 30% of all U.S. lands by 2030 and plans to add more national monuments all serve to shut off even more federal lands from responsible management.

Because federal timber is required to be processed in the U.S., increasing timber supplies on federal lands allow us to meet domestic demand, provide more affordable housing and construction materials, while generating needed jobs in economically distressed rural counties.

To ensure the viability of domestic wood products manufacturers, the administration and Congress should ensure that the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management work in partnership with industry to help meet these pressing economic and environmental challenges.