Updates and some slightly unsettling questions

4 Feb

What a busy few weeks! I’ve had a very strange and thought provoking experience, recently, which is mostly what I want to talk about in this post — especially if any of you can weigh in on the issue. But rather than append random updates to the end of the discussion, I’ll get them out of the way right off the top for those who are interested.

So, as far as school goes, I’ve recently begun doing watershed surveys, involving visual protocols and generating to-scale maps of a reach. It’s been fun, and more than a little wet. I want to post an update with scans once I get more done. Same goes for my silviculture class, in which a group of us are working on a restoration proposal for an area of greenspace on our campus. I’m becoming pretty comfortable with ArcGIS, too — and would heartily recommend Getting to Know ArcGIS to anyone wanting to learn this program. The book is fabulous and practical, and comes with a trial of the program suite, too — though Mac users will be out of luck.

We’re almost in the clear with our club as well. We’ve got the SAF approval, and the campus student activities people have us on this week’s agenda for (hopefully) approval. On a somewhat related note, I recently attended the Friends of Trees Green Space Initiatives crew leader training. So I’ll be helping to lead tree plantings in the Portland area starting very soon. With luck, I will be able to work out some kind of volunteer relationship between FoT and our club. (Connection!!) Sometimes, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But I am sure enough doing it, anyway!

Now to the odd stuff. We recently had a guest speaker in one of our classes, and things took a somewhat unpleasant turn after the Q & A. I don’t want to post identifying information about her or her organization, but I do want to talk about the presentation, because I found it a little unsettling, as did many of my classmates.

She works with forest policy and talked with us about the diminishing timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. There were many things that were shocking despite being completely expected; for example, it makes sense that she’d talk about mill closures, but it was something else entirely to see a map of how many there were in the 1950s compared to today. She also discussed the way that federal agencies produce relatively little timber compared to how much public land they hold, and how this is problematic both in terms of multi-use mandates and tax revenues for sparsely-populated rural counties in which these agencies are the primary landowner.

Nothing in her presentation struck me as incorrect, and much of it seemed like great food for thought (particularly the part about land-use and taxes). But her entire premise, which she stated almost verbatim as such, was this: The timber industry’s problem is a lack of supply, and the root cause is federal agencies refusing to cut enough timber.

I do agree with her that harvesting beyond modest thinning is both a good idea and vital to forest health, as long as it can happen within the limits of best practices. And it seems like the USFS could do more of it! However, I wasn’t so sure about the way she handled questions. For example, people were asking about whether fire management and other such policies might be part of the cause for this drop in federal timber harvesting compared to private harvests. She either didn’t seem to understand, or didn’t really have answers — both seemed dubious, considering that she was perfectly happy to tell us exactly how things are.

The most glaring thing for me, though, was that things seemed far too simple. It does seem clear that the Forest Service should harvest more timber on federal lands, especially if they’re not following mandates for multi-usage of public lands, and especially if it will help rural economies. But do I think this is the thing hampering global timber industries? No. It seems that a problem on this scale must have more than one contributing factor (or more than two factors, if you want to blame the spotted owl as well).

Our class was very short, so in no time, everyone dispersed and only a few people remained to continue the discussion. Things took a markedly different turn when I asked her if the mills themselves may own a share in the responsibility. During a previous term, many of us visited a nearby mill for a log scaling lab, and we saw literally millions and millions of board feet of timber just sitting on the mill yard. When we asked why there was so much of it, the scaler said he didn’t know, but confirmed that some of it has been there for five or even ten years. It doesn’t seem likely that it’s the only mill yard in the Northwest operating like this. And if that’s the case, how bad can the supposed supply problem be?

She asked me what motive a private company would possibly have not to make profits.

I told her I didn’t know and took a wild guess that maybe it drives up prices? I really have no idea, and I asked her because she was giving a presentation on the topic.

Really, I asked because it bothered me to have the image of all those stacks of logs in my head as she was talking about a simple problem of supply. But she dressed me down anyway for “badmouthing industry workers before I could get my facts straight.” I can overlook how absurd it is to act as if I’m launching an attack on mill workers to ask her a question because I don’t have the facts and I thought she might. But I really can’t overlook how strange it is that a professional making a presentation to students would go into attack mode over one straightforward question out of a dozen — especially after I explained what we had seen. She only repeated her opinion that I was doing the industry a slanderous injustice. Whatever this all might imply is for someone else to speculate about. But I’d like to get the mill’s side of the story, regardless. Now that all this has happened, I think about those piled up logs pretty often.Surely there must be some reasonable explanation?

Do any of you reading this post know why so many million board feet are just hanging out to rot at this mill? Is it a problem of demand instead of a supply issue? Is it something else? I can’t find much online, and any insight would be great. I’ll post again once I talk to someone at the mill in question.

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7 Responses to “Updates and some slightly unsettling questions”

  1. Elisa E. February 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    I had no idea that the conversation took that turn after the rest of us left. I did find the presentation to be poorly organized and a bit all over the place. Hoping our next speaker is more put together and well mannered 🙂

    • xylem_up February 5, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

      Yeah. I mean, she gave us plenty to think about, but… yeah. Me, too. I was sad the PNW Ressearch Station guy couldn’t make it!

  2. Jamie Peacock February 5, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    I also was apart of touring this mill and do to this very day remember the millions of logs stacked up in every direction. I do believe that the supply is there but is not being used. So much so that it makes no sense to go cutting down perfectly good forests to rot in a pile at a mill.

    • xylem_up February 5, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

      I know! That’s the part that freaks me out. I can think of plenty of good reasons to harvest timber, but this scenario isn’t even close to one of them.

  3. Victoria Klein February 6, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    I understand that there are probably many professional reasons why you don’t want to publicly name your speaker, but as an outsider, the first questions that immediately occur to me are “who does she work for, who trained her, and what exactly is she trying to promote/protect?” Why is it important to this person that the current generation of forestry students believe that private logging on public land is necessary, positive, and something that should be increased? Is she part of a regulatory agency that is in bed with the timber industry? Is she a lobbyist? Is she hoping to get such a job? I am suspicious of the assumptions that it sounds like she held, and of how protective she was of the industry. Industrialists always claim to be about protecting workers and their jobs and communities– they are not, they are about profits. If she worked for a labor group representing timber workers, I could understand that as well, but it sounds to me like she was a scientist who had accepted a certain set of priorities and felt that you should, too.

    Logging in the Northwest has declined– it has probably declined a lot since the first wave of cutting the shit out of all the old growth forests, and a lot more since the fifties. I have to ask, though, whether it makes sense to keep doing something simply because it was done in the past. Does it make sense to continue to have so many rural communities whose economies are so dependent on timber? I am not unsympathetic to loggers– we have a family friend in his sixties who is a logger, and of course I can understand that he needs his job– but no amount of rural economic decline has yet convinced me that private logging of public lands is a good idea, mandates or no mandates.

    I would be very interested to learn what you find out about the lumber yards and their apparent surpluses, Kitt. I’ve noticed these things, too, and would love to hear the explanation. Your questions about supply and demand sound very reasonable to me, and I agree that your speaker shouldn’t have just gone off on you over them. That kind of defensiveness isn’t very professional, nor is accusing you of disrespecting the workers– that’s just kind of absurd.

    • xylem_up February 7, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

      Thanks for the insightful comment, Tori! I didn’t want to give any identifying information on a public forum because I want to keep focus on the issues rather than my interaction with her. But it sure seems that you’ve hit the nail on the head. I know that she has some sort of connection to forestry, though it wasn’t clear to me whether she worked as a forester or was just trained to be one; at present, she works for a non-profit that is generally described as “a timber group” when mentioned in other media. Her primary occupation at present (I think) is as a lawyer.

      So it could just be that a lawyer is trained to be very defensive on certain issues, but what I’ve read about her — even in her own words via interviews — makes it seem more like she is a crusader on behalf of the timber industry, no matter how much her words are wrapped in science. But again, I want to be professional. And while you’re right that her background and character probably factor into this issue, I feel like what I’ve said is already getting as close to personal territory as I’d like to get.

      But I will definitely let you know what I find out from the mill. Another commenter here mentioned that someone tried to explain that the surpluses have something to do with timber exports to Japan, though that still doesn’t explain why they’d need to sit on the yard for five years or more, beginning to rot in the process. I’ll let you know!

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