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Q&A with Dean Lueck on Wildfire Policy and Suppression

This week’s installment in our Q&A series hits close to home. As we write, a 10,000-acre wildfire burns less than twenty miles from our office in Bozeman, Montana, a humbling reminder of the reality of large and destructive wildfires in the west.

Dean Lueck knows wildfires better than most. Before becoming an economist he was a smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service in McCall, Idaho. Recently, Lueck combined his hands-on experience fighting fires with his impressive academic career studying property rights and natural resource economics. The result was Wildfire Policy: Law and Economics Perspectives, a volume he co-edited with Karen Bradshaw. This summer, Lueck is continuing his research on wildfire policy at PERC, along with Jonathan Yoder, as a 2012 PERC Lone Mountain Fellow.

Q: Can you highlight a few examples of major wildfires and what efforts were taken toward suppression?

A: First, there is the famous 1910 “Big Burn” in northern Idaho and western Montana. That fire, or actually a collection of fires, burned about 3 million acres, killed over 80 people, and devastated the town of Wallace, Idaho. It was fought in a disorganized manner by unskilled firefighters including convicts, vagrants, U.S. Army soldiers, timber land owners with only hand tools. Because the fire took place predominantly on national forest lands, it led to dramatic changes in federal fire policy. Also during the period between 1880-1920, there were many fires as large or larger than the Great 1910 Burn. Many of these took place in the northeast and the Great Lakes region where private timber land dominated.

In general organized wildfire suppression efforts were very limited prior to 1900 and efforts focused primarily on protecting homes, buildings, and towns, but not on putting out the fire itself. By the late 20th century fire suppression had become organized within a large centralized, coordinated and hierarchical system heavily dominated by the U.S. Forest Service. Crews had become specialized and highly mobile. The use of aircraft in transport and direct suppression with water and retardant had become routine.

More recently, the Biscuit Fire in Oregon burned nearly a half a million acres in 2002. It began on July 13, and at its zenith on July 31 there were over 2,000 firefighting personnel, 21 helicopters and 40 bulldozers assigned to the fire. The fire was not completely suppressed until December and cost more than $150 million. The fire destroyed four homes and ten other structures, forced the evacuation of 15,000 people, and destroyed or damaged thousands of acres of valuable timber. No one was killed during the suppression effort.

By contrast consider the Black Dragon Fire in 1987, which burned 18 million acres along the Amur River, which is the border between China and Russia. The fire started in China and burned 3 million acres there. The Chinese fielded over 60,000 unskilled fire fighters and hundreds died. The Russians did essentially nothing to suppress the fire, and it grew an additional 15 million acres. The disparate approaches resulted from a lack of cooperation between Russia and China and extreme differences in the relative value of timber in the two countries.

Since 1999 there have been 134 fires of more than 100,000 acres in the United States. For the last 10 years, average annual federal suppression expenditures have been over $1 billion.

Q: What does your project (with Jonathan Yoder) seek to add to the economics of wildfire policy?

A: The main goal of our project is to gain an economic understanding of the organization of wildfire suppression. Fire suppression organization today seems complex, administratively cumbersome, and often inefficient. We want to understand the causes and consequences of the current system both theoretically and empirically. We want to understand the economic foundations that have driven how fire suppression institutions developed into those that we see today, and understand how they vary across environmental, demographic, and political jurisdictions. We will then have a better foundation for understanding where inefficiencies lie, and how suppression institutions might be improved.

So, for example, we are examining the emergence of wildfire suppression among timber landowners in the northwestern and northeastern United States during the late 1800s. These private organizations pre-date the Forest Service fire crews, and this type of timberland owner association, to our knowledge, is pre-dated only by urban firefighting organizations. The federal government’s involvement in fire suppression emerged with the accumulation of federal forest lands and even stimulated expansion of the national forest system.

Q: What are some of the criticisms of modern wildfire institutions? Do the resource values justify the suppression costs?

A: Many critical observers feel there is an excessive amount of suppression and too little fuel management or prescribed burning, especially on federal lands. There is also the concern that suppression costs may often outweigh benefits (damage reduction). We certainly know of specific cases in which suppression costs exceeded the resource value at risk. There is also a concern that suppression effectiveness is often low so that suppression expenditures have little payoff. At the same time there is strong political pressure to put out all fires so there has been a recent reversion back to the so-called “10am rule” in which fire crews and land managers are directed to put all effort into suppression even where suppression costs would be high relative to potential damages. The long-term effects of continued fire suppression are also likely to lead to fuel buildups that can result in larger, more devastating fires in the future.  [Read more…]

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The Lacey Act, Certification, and Gibson Guitar: Why Trade in Forest Products Protects Forests

by Todd Myers

As a board member of Rainforest Alliance, Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz didn’t expect to find himself accused of supporting illegal logging. A supporter of Forest Stewardship Council certification, Juszkiewicz is committed to doing what he believes is best for the environment and the world’s forests.

“About 80 percent of our wood is FSC certified,” Juszkiewicz explained to me when we spoke.

Given that experience, he is not the kind of person you would expect to run afoul of the chain of custody challenges that are part of the Lacey Act, a law designed to prevent trade in illegally harvested wood.

Ultimately, his complaints about the Lacey Act’s difficult chain of custody provide some insight into the challenges faced by those looking to comply with certification systems. Indeed, FSC offers itself as a way to meet the requirements of the Lacey Act. After the passage of the recent amendments to the Lacey Act covering illegal harvesting, FSC-US noted, “Forest Stewardship Council certification of wood products promises to be a pivotal tool in providing credible verification of legality for companies importing wood.”

Juszkiewicz’s primary complaint about the current structure of the Lacey Act is simple: There is “no prescription for actually obeying the law.” Gibson Guitar believed they were following the law. They found out, however, that proving it was virtually impossible.

In order to show that wood was harvested and traded legally, the Lacey Act “requires consumers to have knowledge of every piece of wood transferred across country lines,” he says. “That’s not possible for consumers to know.” He laments that even if he has certification that the wood is legal, if those certifications turn out to be inaccurate, the certifiers are not on the hook – the company is.

Juszkiewicz believes the ambiguity of the rules isn’t an accident. He argues that rather than protecting forests, the primary goal of the act is “to protect domestic jobs,” noting, “If you make things risky enough, you are effectively outlawing importation by making it ambiguous and risky.”

The combination of unclear rules and a lack of protection from supply chain certifiers means that even someone committed to sound stewardship of forests can find himself afoul of the law.

It doesn’t have to be like that, however, and Juzkiewicz told me he is working to change the law so it truly helps protect forests. Critical to that effort is providing an economic incentive to grow new forests.

“Underlying most of the positions of the greens is a belief that prohibition will solve the problems,” he laments. “[They believe] punitive laws that prevent cutting any trees will save the rainforest. I think that is poppycock. You have to understand the economic basis of the way societies work. Trees are de facto a sustainable commodity and they can be managed to be sustainable, even in the short run.”

Rather than being an enemy of the forest, international trade in wood is a force to preserve those forests.

“There is no necessity to preclude business. In fact if you understand it, the vast majority of clear cutting forests is for alternative uses, not forestry and cutting trees for guitar guys. As long as the economic benefit of an acre of forested land is higher for alternative use — conversion for agriculture or real estate — people are going to cut that forest down. No amount of armies is going to prevent that from happening. So the best thing to preserve and protect the forests is to make it valuable from an economic standpoint. As a producer of a sustainable, valuable product, the forest can compete. That can make the world better.”

And Juszkiewicz is committed to making the world’s forests better.

When I pointed out that some of the concerns he had with the Lacey Act echoed complaints about FSC certification, he acknowledged it but argued that rather than throw them out, we need to get the Lacey Act and FSC certification “right.”

Speaking of FSC, he says, “I’ve seen the impact on indigenous peoples that has been very positive.” One reason he continues to support certification systems is his belief that non-government organizations have to be part of the effort.

After his experience with the Lacey Act and the Justice Department, it shouldn’t be surprising when he says “I frankly don’t think government does a great job.” He doubts the ability of business to “police itself,” and believes an independent assessment can be useful. That’s why he supported FSC in the first place.

But he wants any system, whether it is certification by an NGO or a law like the Lacey Act, to be clear and to promote good forestry practices rather than punish first. “I want to see a carrot.”

Over the next several months, Juszkiewicz says will be working with Congress to clarify the law and ensure it achieves its intended goal. Whatever the outcome, he believes any system that looks to protect forests must protect the value of forest products.

“If you can’t use the product from an acre of forest, owning that forest as forestland becomes zero value and any alternative use becomes better.” That, he believes, is the worst thing any system of forest rules can do for the forests that provide wood for the plant and his legendary guitars.

Originally posted at Forest Certification Audit.
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The ‘Fire Service’

The first national forests were set aside more than 100 years ago. Under Forest Service management they were intended to provide a continuous flow of water and timber for Americans. By the 1980s the agency provided about 25 percent of US softwood lumber consumption. The timber budget was the largest of all agency activities (see chart). Timber harvest on the national forests has declined by more than 80 percent since 1985. The current agency mission is ecosystem protection but spending has shifted to wildfire management which now makes up nearly half of the agency’s budget. More than half of that is for fire suppression. Nonetheless, wildfire burned nearly 70 million acres over the past decade.

Are Americans getting what they pay for on public lands? Even the General Accounting Office [PDF] questions that:

Historically, the Forest Service has not been able to provide Congress or the public with a clear understanding of what the Forest Service’s 30,000 employees accomplish with the approximately $5 billion the agency receives each year.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Who Owns the Truffula Forest?

The Lorax, a Dr. Seuss classic, is hitting the big screen this weekend. The Lorax is an odd, little character that intrepidly opposes a thneed manufacturing plant (whatever that is!) run by the Oncelor.

Similar to most environmental story plots, this one has a good environmentalist, the Lorax, that holds the moral high ground and a bad, greedy, profit mongering, capitalist, the Oncelor. In this story the Oncelor produces thneeds that appear to be in high demand. During production he clear cuts every last Trufulla tree, smogs the air, and clogs the water. As a result of the Oncelor’s insensitive activities the Brown Bar-ba-loots go hungry for there is no more Truffala fruit, the Swomee Swans can no longer croak a note, and the gills of the Humming Fish have become gummed. All in the name of profit. This, in the end, is also lost because the Oncelor puts himself out of business by extricating every last Truffala tree which are a needed input for thneed production.

In his strategy to garner attention for conservation, Dr. Suess misses the fundamental motivator: incentives. Industry and profit are not necessarily bad and harmful to the environment. Environmental problems are the result of conflicting demands on resources. Given well specified rights, negotiation will motivate the highest valued resource use. If the Truffala forest was open access for anyone to cut, it is possible that the Oncelor and others would race to harvest every last tree. Given ownership, however, the Oncelor is more likely to invest in future trees to ensure the possibility of future production. Weyerhaeuser, for example, is proud to announce that they plant millions of trees every year. They do so not to prove their conservation ethic, rather as an investment in timber for future production.

A bit of green PR doesn’t hurt, either. The list of movie sponsors is a bit surprising, to say the least. As you can imagine, the motivator of many of these sponsors is not just good green ethics as much as good for the bottom line. And that’s OK. If you want to change behavior, change the incentives. Profit is a good motivator. If you want to understand the fundamentals of environmental problems look at the property rights and follow the incentives. Well specified property rights encourage long-term stewardship and ensure accountability. That is the moral of my story.

I have not yet seen “The Lorax” movie but will think about how the storyline may differ given well specified property rights when I do. Indeed, the global trend over several decades has been better property rights, more economic freedoms, and increased prosperity. I do care about the environment, both near and far. And I see things getting better, they really are!

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Trade a Tortoise

Two years ago in PERC Reports Todd Gartner wrote about his efforts at “helping the American Forest Foundation develop a market-based habitat credit trading system in portions of Georgia and Alabama. The incentive-based framework will complement other efforts in the region to keep the eastern population of the gopher tortoise off the Endangered Species list.”

Today, Gartner, in collaboration with Josh Donlan and James Mulligan of Advanced Conservation Strategies, are ready to launch their first pilot transactions.

Here is how the gopher tortoise candidate conservation marketplace is being designed and piloted:

  • An interested and eligible private landowner (the “seller”) receives a negotiated payment to conserve, manage, or restore longleaf pine forests capable of supporting healthy populations of gopher tortoises on his or her property. In so doing, the landowner generates gopher tortoise habitat credits.
  • The entity paying the landowner (the “buyer”) receives the habitat credits in return. The buyer may use the credits to offset the impact on gopher tortoise habitat elsewhere, in order to meet a voluntary net zero biodiversity impact commitment.  Or, the buyer can save the credits for later use to meet offset requirements if the species is listed under the ESA. Other buyers may purchase credits simply to spur gopher tortoise conservation.
  • A gopher tortoise habitat credit is the currency that can be bought and sold. The number of credits on a parcel of land is determined via a science-based and peer-reviewed method to ensure a net conservation benefit for the tortoise when used as offsets for future impacts. The credit price includes funds to manage and monitor the habitat, along with a negotiated profit margin for the seller.
  • The USFWS approves the crediting methodology and maintains agreements with buyers and sellers. The agency may also provide federal-level assurances to both the buyer and seller. This regulatory certainty allows buyers to preemptively buy credits that can be used toward offsetting future impacts if the species were to be listed.

With 87 percent of southern forests in private ownership, protecting species like the gopher tortoise requires an innovative approach. The gopher tortoise conservation marketplace is testing a new strategy, which provides financial incentives to private landowners who manage their woodlands for habitat and candidate species.

If you would like to learn more about market-based approaches for conservation, such as the approach Gartner began formulating as a PERC Enviropreneur Fellow, then apply to PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute by March 5.

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Should the Forest Service Promote Biomass Heating?

by Steve Bick

James Kellogg calls on National Forests supply wood to replace fossil fuels for thermal energy and boost the use of biomass heating in Western states. In a recent article in the Glenwood Springs (CO) Post Independent, Kellog explains how National Forests hold the promise of green energy. We’ve seen how heating facilities with woody biomass has taken hold in Vermont and other cold locales. Biomass heating could provide markets to facilitate forest fire fuel reduction and salvage of beetle-killed wood in Colorado and other western states.

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What To Do With That Christmas Tree?

Once the holidays are over and the glitter and glam is stripped from the fir, chances are the Christmas tree ends up in the trash. Perhaps the trees could be useful even after they lose their glow. Why not turn them into woody biomass for energy? A few companies, such Biomass One, are doing just that.

Biomass One, which has been recycling Christmas trees for the past four years, estimates it will receive 4,500 trees this year. According to Biomass One Vice President Gordon Draper, this amount “equals out to approximately 56 dry tons of wood biomass, which can provide about an hour and a half worth of power to the company’s wood-fired cogeneration power plant.” This is only a tiny amount compared to the 325,000 dry tons of wood it grinds up annually to power the plant. And an even smaller amount compared to the woody biomass the state of Vermont is using to heat schools and other public buildings.

Burning wood for energy is, of course, an ancient technology, but as Steven Bick points out in a new PERC case study, wood can provide an economic and environmentally viable solution for high heating costs in many parts of the country.

Bick goes on to explain that beginning in 1985, the state of Vermont developed a program using mill waste to power boilers in public schools. At the time, most schools in the state were heated with expensive electricity. Replacing electric heaters with wood-powered boilers resulted in considerable savings in heating costs. Vermont is now home to nearly half of the facilities in the United States using woody biomass for heat. Other states are starting to replicate Vermont’s success and few  private companies, including Lockheed Martin, are beginning to convert to woody biomass heating.

“Thermal energy from woody biomass is not a panacea to all heating needs,” writes Bick, “but Vermont and other cold locations have proven it is a viable and renewable option.”

You can read the case study here.

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Christmas Trees: Real or Fake?

It is the time of year for the seasonal debate over the family Christmas tree: live or artificial? A live tree means removing a tree from the forest, or tree plantation, as it may be. A fake tree is usually an import from a foreign factory.

About 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the US every year. That is a lot of trees. But do not fear! Our Christmas tree harvesting activities result in growing more trees, not less. Two or three seedlings are planted for nearly every single Christmas tree cut. Christmas tree plantations cover 350,000 acres of land in the US and are growing about 350 million trees. As long as people continue to demand a fresh tree at Christmas, farmers will continue to provide them.

While it is still popular in some regions, such as here in Montana, to head to the local National Forest to cut a tree, the majority of Christmas trees are grown on tree farms. Regardless, Forest Service permits to harvest a tree are issued to help manage the forest under agency guidelines.

At seasons end, real trees can be recycled and used for making everything from mulch to medicines, or to enhance wildlife habitat and prevent erosion. They can be cut into firewood and burned for home heat or as the centerpiece for your next weenie roast. They are even used as biomass to create energy.

Alternatively, you can buy a fake tree that is probably made in China. Artificial trees are not biodegradable, nor are they a good fuel source.

If Christmas is your holiday and you desire a tree, buy your Christmas tree with pride knowing that by purchasing a tree you are helping to plant several more.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Recycle the Intermountain West

Since 1997, more than 40 million acres of forests across the West have been devastated by pine beetle. The beetle is a natural predator, but historic timber management and climatic conditions have given advantage to the species in current times. The end result is tinderbox forests across the Intermountain region.

Fire is another natural predator in the forest. The increasing kindling in the forest — such as the bug-killed trees — together with growing development in the wildland-urban interface are a dire mix.

Recycling dead and dying trees through harvest and re-use is one method to reduce the problem. Though the timber value of small-diameter wood is low, there are beneficial uses. The wood can be used for firewood, fence posts, and poles, even garden mulch, but these are small players. The real potential is in biomass but existing uncertainties are making investment tenuous.

The inability of the Forest Service to provide a continuous supply of material is troublesome. It is not a lack of biomass material available on National Forest land, nor a question of the benefits from removing the material, rather it is the process of contracting for timber removal that is costly and time consuming. The Forest Service expenditure on procedure to allow timber harvest, even for restoration, is excessive and slow.

Another barrier to investment in biomass is forthcoming regulation on emissions. In spring of last year, the EPA instigated, then suspended, the tailoring rule. The rule would tax emissions from biomass energy production at a rate equal to fossil fuel emissions. The tax would marginalize the profitability of biomass production.

There is a significant difference in the carbon cycle between wood and fossil fuel energies. Wood sequesters carbon from the atmosphere in its living, tree form, then emits it back into the atmosphere when burned for energy. Put simply, it has net zero atmospheric emissions. Fossil fuel moves carbon that is held in the earth and releases it into the atmosphere when burned, causing a net increase in atmospheric carbon.

Recycling small diameter forest products is one answer that could help reduce the risk, and therefore the costs, of catastrophic wildfire in wildland-urban interface, while providing renewable energy. The fight to get there, however, is a battle between enviropreneurs, who see good environmental results from profitable economic activity, and environmental advocacy groups that see profit as evil and exploitive.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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Central Planning and the Wallow Fire

by Paul Schwennesen

Prometheus, mankind’s great advocate and insubordinate pilferer of flame, must be perplexed by the goings-on in fire-riven Arizona. The towering columns of smoke have gone, but the forest conflagration has left behind half a million charred acres and more than a few smoldering resentments. Primary among these resentments is a question over management of public forest resources: who should decide how we avoid or at least mitigate such a calamity in the future? It is of course ironic; Marx claimed Prometheus as the figurehead of the communal mystique, and no asset is more communally owned than America’s western forests. Not surprisingly, these forests are a prime example of the tragic consequences of collective ownership and central management.

In addition to our famed cactus down south, Arizona harbors around seven billion cubic feet of live timber and the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lies on 2.63 million acres of this stand. Each year, solar energy and carbon are converted into nearly twenty-four million cubic feet of timber on national forest land. This resource is impressive and aesthetic, drawing sun-scorched tourists by the busload.

It also draws “managers” by the score. Aldo Leopold embarked on his first Forest Service assignment here in 1909, just a few miles from Bear Wallow. Ever since, the forest has been managed in the public domain by well-educated and better-intentioned technocrats charged with maximizing the public good. Under a complicated rubric of “multi-use,” the Forest Service attempts to harvest the sustainable yield of the resource (it is, after all, under the Department of Agriculture). Timber, livestock grazing, and hunting permits are just a few of the “extractive” uses they are charged with upholding. Habitat protection, endangered species management, and increasing recreational demands are a large and growing slice of the resource allocation pie.

The extraordinarily difficult job of balancing these competing demands is precisely the sort of thing that bureaucracies are bad at handling. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, these kinds of complex problems are not puzzles (which more information and better education can help solve), but mysteries (in which more information and better education tends to confuse). In the late-1980s, for instance, timber harvesting off national forest land came to a nearly complete halt as a result of court injunctions precipitated in the Pacific Northwest. Litigation by environmentally conscious lobbying groups, specifically over concerns of habitat destruction for endangered species, made large-scale timber harvest a thing of the past. Grazing permits likewise encountered a dramatic decline for similar reasons. Combined with an aggressive thirty-year campaign of actively putting out all fires (is there any more iconic mascot than Smoky the Bear?), these actions led predictably to a dramatic increase in forest-density and ground cover.

Forest density and ground cover is called “habitat” by the green contingent, “fuel-load” by their brown compatriots. And, of course, there is an element of truth in each view, often masking personal preferences and economic agendas. But the point is this: the kind of see-sawing policy shifts which encouraged dramatic, perhaps unsustainable, increases in extractive uses in the early 1980s was followed by dramatic, perhaps unconscionable, reductions in these uses a decade later. These market-insulated policy shifts were not based on good information (which markets are extraordinarily good at projecting), but on politics and the relative power of lobbying those in control. The short-term increases in forest habitat resulting from reduced extraction charged the pan for the tremendous blazes we have encountered in the past decade.

This past May, one of the sun-scorched tourists started a blaze that subsequently burned more acreage than any other single event in state history. Two and a half billion board feet of timber are estimated to have gone up in a whiff of carbon and particulate pollution this summer. Five hundred nineteen thousand, three hundred and nineteen acres of prime habitat, prime camping, prime hunting, and prime timber disappeared in an ecological blink of an eye. Before us lie the smoking remnants of command-and-control planning gone predictably awry.

“Well,” you say, “forests burn periodically, it’s a natural and proper consequence of growth.” If only it were that simple. Fire is indeed a natural ecological force, particularly in the brittle ecosystems of the semi-arid west. But size matters. Half-million acre infernos are almost certainly not typical of the “natural” order of things.   [Read more…]

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Forest Service Timber Harvests: Not What They Used To Be

After more than one thousand miles by jet, 40 minutes by float plane, one hour driving, a hike, and a row we arrive to our destination: a 12 x 14 foot cabin in remote Alaska on Prince of Wales Island. We had the lake nearly to ourselves. A few loons, beautiful cutthroat trout, and some spawning salmon did join us. But what is that I hear? A chain saw? The sound gave me pause. It was not desired nor expected but understood. I, like all Americans, use a lot of wood and paper products.

I appreciate a good timber harvest for restoration, forest management, and wood production. We were on the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest national forest in the nation. Over the last several decades timber sales on the Tongass have plummeted from over two billion board feet to around 100 million board feet. I don’t know which is better, likely something in between. What disturbs me is that the amount cut is determined more by politics than sustainable forestry, however you want to define it. (I think of sustainable forestry being defined as ensuring a continuous timber supply but even if it is wildlife that you want to ‘sustain,’ that is not the goal of current management.)

The national forests were set aside to provide a continuous supply of timber and water for productive use. National Forest timber harvest peaked in 1987 when harvest provided about 17 percent of U.S. timber production:

During the peak of timber harvest for the Forest Service, more than half the annual timber growth was harvested and used for timber products, the mortality rate was about 32 percent. In 2007, only 12 percent of national forest growing stock was removed from the forest and mortality increased to 57 percent.

More and more national forest timber is left in the forest where insects and disease are taking hold. The result is lower valued timber and increased wildfire.

Originally appeared at Environmental Trends.

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A Changing Paradigm for National Forest Management

The National Forests cover 8 percent of the nation, an area about the size of Texas. All public lands make up about one-third of the nation’s timberland. Timberland is differentiated from forestland by its ability to provide commercially valuable timber.

The last several decades have seen a management paradigm shift on national timberlands from commodity production, when they provided nearly 17 percent of the nation’s timber production, to preservation. Today national forests produce less than two percent of U.S. timber production.

A lot of public forest land is off limits to timber production. More than 75 million acres are set aside in federal and state wilderness and park areas. That does not include other management set asides such as 28 million acres of forested roadless area and another 24 million acres that are included in the Pacific Northwest Forest Plan, most of which is off limits to timber harvest.

It is beneficial to realize the alternative uses of the nation’s public forest lands. It is difficult, however, to know how the different uses are valued without a competitive market to signal the price. Are the forests more valued for timber or recreation, for example? Are the two mutually exclusive? In the end, public lands tend to be managed according to political criteria.

In recent years that has meant less harvest and more timber mortality, which, at least in part, has added to the high fire risk that exists in the forests. More fires mean more carbon in the atmosphere. That is an unintended consequence of current national forest policy.

Originally appeared on Environmental Trends.