Are timber sales and logging of national forests to reduce wildfire threats desirable or necessary? The answers aren't clear in large part because the U.S. Forest Service needs better accountability for programs that have gradually transformed from one purpose into another.
A new study from the nonprofit John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute estimates the Forest Service has lost $835 million a year over the past seven years, a total of $6.6 billion, according to an article by Reno-based Associated Press reporter Scott Sonner.
While timber sales were once a moneymaker for the Forest Service when it allowed clear-cutting and before the spotted owl controversy, the emphasis in recent years has changed to clearing forests of dead or dying trees in order to reduce wildfire dangers.
"I'm not surprised they are losing money but they are not comparing apples to apples," Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council based in Portland, Ore., told Sonner. "Often the work has more value than just timber sale value. If you are doing fuels treatment as part of a timber sale, there is a net public benefit to doing that."
That makes sense. The problem is that it's difficult to see the forest for the trees, if you will, because the federal government stopped compiling a detailed annual report of profits and losses from timber sales after 1998.
It left the calculations - best estimates, rather than a strict accounting - to researchers like Rene Voss and the John Muir Project. The result is that Congress pours money into logging the nation's forests without really knowing what it's getting in return. Then it hands taxpayers the bill.
Presumably, there is public benefit to the tree-cutting. Presumably, also, timber companies make a profit from their work on public lands.
It it worth an annual investment of $835 million, nearly twice what the federal government is spending on Yucca Mountain? Until taxpayers get some details, it'll just be guesswork.