Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fun With Numbers II

Wood is the only natural resource on earth that is at the same time renewable, recyclable, bio-degradable, and re-usable

In the first installment of this series, we explored the environmentalist idea that somehow, since the first settlement of America in 1607, our native forests have been almost totally decimated. We (or at least I) determined that that is far from the truth. The real truth is that despite a total population that has reached over 300 million souls in the intervening 402 years since the Jamestown Plantation, we still have a forested landscape that occupies 2/3 of what it was when Europeans first stepped foot on the continent.

Think of that: despite the incredible increase in wealth and prosperity this country has enjoyed over 400 years, it only required 1 acre per capita (in today’s population) of the original forest to achieve.

What of the 749 million acres of forestland? What is it, who owns it and what is its condition? Public Law 93-378, 88 Stat. 4765 as amended (the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974) requires the U.S. Forest Service to update statistical information on the Nation’s forest at periodic intervals. The last of these updates was published in 2004[1]. We’ll look at some of what’s contained in this useful document. (You can get your own copy of this publication from the North Central Research Station, USDA-FS). Note: I have not been able to find the tables on the Forest Inventory site that are in board feet, the volume measurement form I am most familiar with. To get that, I made the simple conversion of 1 ft3=12 board feet. Cubic foot is a measure of all the wood fiber inside the bark of a log. Board foot is a measure of the volume of the boards that can be recovered from a log and varies by the amount of taper and diameter in the log. More taper and less diameter results in more waste.

The 749 million acres of forestland is divided about 57% private (including industrial private) and 43% public. The total public land, both forest and non-forest comprises about 650 million acres (29% of the total U.S. land base of 2.3 billion acres). Of this, Federal land is broken down as follows:

Bureau of Land Management – 266 million acres
National Park Service – 78 million acres
National Fish and Wildlife Service – 87 million acres
U.S. Forest Service – 192 million acres

Of the Federal forestland ownership:

Bureau of Land Management – 44 million acres
U.S. Forest Service – 148 million acres
All other – 54 million acres

Federal timberland (2002) is comprised of:

Bureau of Land Management – 18 million acres
U.S. Forest Service – 95 million acres

So, 49% of the Forest Service land base is potentially capable of producing commercial crops of wood products and that represents less than 30% of the total forested public land base.

That, however, doesn’t tell the full story. Just because forest land meets the potential growth and stocking criteria to be considered timberland doesn’t mean that it will be used for that purpose.

For instance under the forest plans completed in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Region I of the Forest Service[2] listed only 42% of its timberland (35% of the total land base) as “suitable” for timber management. To be suitable for timber management, forest land must meet the following criteria: 1) technology must be available that will insure timber production without irreversible resource damage to soils, productivity or watershed conditions, 2) there is reasonable assurance that such lands can be adequately restocked, and 3) for which there is management direction that indicates that timber production is an appropriate use of that area. On one of the Forests in Region I that the environmentalists loved to hate in the battles over the forest plans, the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, 55% of the timberlands were considered suitable for timber management. In this determination, it was not just the poorer lands that were excluded. Fully 90% of the un-suitable lands were capable of over 50 ft3/acre/yr of growth. A last point in these designations is that project-level plans (i.e. analyses for individual timber sales) can, and typically do, eliminate yet more land from consideration.

There appear to be no national tables to determine these “suitable” lands separate from the more general timberland but it seems likely that a heavily timbered Forest like the Clearwater being only 55% dedicated to timber management would provide a good indication as to what the “timber bias” in the Forest Service looks like. I would estimate that no more than 65 million acres of Forest Service lands are dedicated to timber management under the various forest plans. It is, therefore, likely that less than 1/3 of Forest Service representing 10% of the total federal land estate will ever be designated for harvest.

I have heard the argument that the Forest Service ended up with land no one else wanted and that its productivity is so low that it’s not worth bothering with. That’s a charge worth looking at. As I’ve mentioned before, timberland is any land that that is at least 10% covered in trees and that will produce 20 ft3/acre/year at maturity[3]. That is really not very high production potential and is generally not economical to manage. I believe the lower limit for productivity is probably about 50 ft3/acre/yr.

To put some perspective on this growth figure, you should know that there are 5 “productivity classes” in forest management:

Productivity Class I - 120+ ft3/ac/yr
Productivity Class II - 85-119 ft3/a/yr
Productivity Class III - 50-84 ft3/a/yr
Productivity Class IV - 20-49 ft3/a/yr
Productivity Class V - 0-19 ft3/a/yr

The weighted average growth potential for the entire Forest Service ownership is 71.9 ft3/a/yr. That average is 69.7 ft3/a/yr for non-industrial private timberland and 82.5 ft3/a/yr for industrial timberland. Therefore, the statement is correct on it’s face but not significant in its import. All three of the major ownerships average productivity fall within Productivity Class III. If, as I would propose, the Forest Service concentrates on Class III and above lands for its timber management, it would still have 62 million acres for that purpose (and those lands would average Prod. Class II). That’s close enough to my estimate of where the forest plans came out to suggest that those plans hit the right mark in terms of an efficient timber management base.

Growing stock is defined as “…live trees of commercial species meeting specified standards of quality and vigor. Cull[4] trees are excluded. When associated with volume, includes only tree 5” (in diameter[5]) or larger.” Growing stock is most of the trees you see in the woods. Net growing stock on Forest Service lands (2001) is 3.1 trillion board feet. Forest industry net growing stock is 1.1 trillion board feet and non-industrial private net growing stock is 4.9 trillion board feet.

We in the United States, however, consume 157 billion board feet of softwood products of all types (lumber, plywood and veneer, fuel wood, pulp, etc.) per year[6], 815 bf for each man, woman and child in the country. At that rate, we could exhaust our timber supply in 60 years. Well goodness, how’s that going to work out? Fortunately, we are adding volume to that growing stock at a rate of 284 billion bf per year (2001). Of this net annual growth (again on the three major ownerships) we are harvesting about 115 billion board feet (these are 2001 figures). Along with this we import 33 billion bf of these products per year, mostly from Canada[7], and the remainder of our needs come from other domestic public lands such as states and Indian ownerships. The problem is that, of this total, 29% of this harvest is coming from industrial lands even though they represent only 13% of the timberland base, and another 63% comes from non-industrial lands which represent 57% of the land base. The 19% of timberlands represented by the Forest Service only totaled 2% of the national harvest in 2001, down 84% since 1986.

Think of that: Forest Service timberland, which is growing (net) 48 billion bf of industrial wood annually on its 95 million acres (and losing 23 billion bf in mortality (2001)) can only provide a harvest of 4 billion bf. Per year. Even cutting half of the trees that die could more than double that harvest. Even better, the best Forest Service timberlands can grow nearly the same amount of commercial timber as it does now on all of its timberland, and it can produce upwards of 10 billion bf per year on extended (150+) year rotations. At an average stumpage[8] rate of $240/mbf[9], that would bring nearly $2.5 billion into the national coffers every year forever. All for using 10% of our public lands for timber management and with little or no serious consequences to the “ecosystem”.

So, we’ve got a lot of forestland in the United States and tens of billions of trees on that land and a lot of it is owned by you and me. Along with being a place to play, a wonder to see and a comfort to just know its there, the public forest lands are valuable economic assets. Now I’m not saying that collecting that money is the end-all and be-all of public forest management but I am saying that any time we can have our cake and eat it, too, we owe it to ourselves to take a serious look at it.

Before I close the post today I find it interesting to note that, according to my local paper, the push is on again for more wilderness designations – led, of course, by a New York politician. To put our current Wilderness “legacy” into perspective:

  1. About 16% of the federal estate is designated wilderness and 35 million acres of that is Forest Service land comprised of 400 separate wilderness areas (Another 54 million acres of Forest Service land is inventoried roadless, a designation not identified for the other agencies).
  2. The total designated wilderness acreage in the United States is 105 million acres or 47 million acres excluding Alaska.
  3. This total is:
    1) about the size of California or Japan,
    2) bigger than all of New England including all of New York State,
    3) Three-quarters the size of France,
    4) twenty-five percent larger than Germany.

Further, six percent of Forest Service land (12 million acres) is contained in National Monuments, National Historic Trails, Wild and Scenic Rivers and other like designations.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem like 62,000,000 acres is really that much to dedicate to timber management

[1] Smith, W. Brad, Patrick D. Miles, John S. Vissage, and Scott A Pugh, Forest Resources of the United States, 2002, North Central Research Station, FS-USDA, 2004.
[2] N. Idaho, Montana, part of W. North Dakota
[3] That’s 12 board feet (bf), the traditional timber measurement in the U.S. A board foot is 1” thick and 12”x12” square and there are 12 board feet in a cubic foot. For reference, a typical 8’ 2x4 contains 5.28 board feet. Large quantities of timber are typically reported in 1000’s of board feet or MBF
[4] Cull – a tree or a log that is not at least 1/3 sound
[5] Diameter is measured at breast height which is assumed to 4.5’ above the ground on the high side of the tree.
[6] Ca. 2001 as per Howard, James L., U.S. Timber Production, Trade, Consumption, and Price Statistics 1965 to 2005, USDA-FS, Forest Products Laboratory, Research Paper FPL-RP-637
[7] U.S. Census Data; Howard, James. 2007; and calculations by Gus Raeker
[8] Stumpage – the amount of money paid by harvest contractors for uncut timber: i.e. timber “on the stump”
[9] U.S. Census Data; Howard, James. 2007; and calculations by Gus Raeker

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