The Trump administration is allowing loggers to extend their tree-cutting contracts in national forests to support the timber industry during the coronavirus pandemic and to help national forests create jobs after the crisis ends.
“Having numerous economically viable timber purchasers is also essential as employment and the national economy recovers following the COVID-19 pandemic,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a Federal Register notice to be published Wednesday.
Environmental groups see the move as a back-door approach to prop up an industry hurt by a trade war with China started by President Donald Trump.
The agency is extending timber harvesting contracts by up to two years for contracts issued prior to April 1 in national forests in the Lower 48 states. Loggers in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, who have seen their market “exceptionally disrupted,” can have their contracts extended for three years.
The average contract length is two years, so the agency’s order may double the time loggers have to cut trees in some cases, according to the notice.
“A unique combination of world market conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic and a massive bark beetle epidemic in central Europe has created an unprecedented worldwide instability in timber industries and associated markets,” according to the notice.
“Mill closures and curtailment of timber harvests under Forest Service contracts appear to be a reflection of market declines over the last 24 months. Due to the complex factors involved, recovery is expected to be a protracted process,” the notice stated.
The timber sale contract extensions are in the public’s best interest and “support the long-term viability of the timber industry,” said Chad Douglas, acting deputy director of the U.S. Forest Service’s office of communications.
“This is not an increase in harvest levels. It’s a way to keep sales viable in an economic downturn, such as what we are currently experiencing,” he said.
When asked whether the Trump administration sees timber harvesting in national forests as part of a post-pandemic jobs program, Douglas said, “Not at this time.”
“Our focus is to keep a viable forest products industry because it is an economics driver for forest-dependent communities and an important tool for our active management efforts to increase the health and resiliency of national forests,” Douglas said.
‘A Difficult Time’
The timber sale contract extensions come as the Trump administration is seeking to drop all protections for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest under a rule that blocked road-building and timber harvesting in much of the forest.
The administration is cutting the number of projects in national forests that would require environmental impact reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“It’s a very difficult time,” said Nick Smith, spokesman for the American Forest Resource Council, a forest products industry trade group. “The market for lumber is incredibly challenging. That affects the entire supply chain of the forest products industry.”
The group’s members include companies such as Sierra Pacific Industries and Siskiyou Cascade Resources.
The Forest Service’s contract extensions will “provide some flexibility to allow timber purchasers, including some manufacturers, some flexibility to weather the storm,” Smith said.
The agency said in its notice that the way it determines timber harvest contract terms has not been able to fully account for both the Covid-19 pandemic and Chinese tariffs imposed on U.S. timber imports during the Trump administration.
“The effects include disruptions in international trade and interruptions in domestic production, distribution of forest products as well as demand for forest products as a result of national and local COVID-19 containment measures such as ‘stay-at-home’ or ‘shelter-in-place’ orders,” the Forest Service said in its notice.
But Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity, pointed to China.
“Trump provoked a tariff war with China, which resulted in China slapping tariffs on U.S. timber,” Spivak said. “Now, under the guise of Covid, Trump is trying to provide back-door relief for a tariff war he created.”
‘Concession’ to Industry
The contract extensions are “very unusual” but “innocuous,” said Jim Furnish, who served as Forest Service deputy chief in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Timber contracts have time limits when timber must be removed from national forests, or the contractor loses the right to cut trees, Furnish said. When circumstances occur beyond a timber company’s control, it’s the Forest Service’s responsibility to provide relief, he said.
“This is a concession to industry so as not to do further harm as related to their contractual obligations,” Furnish said.
But the administration is playing favorites, being generous to the timber industry while doing nothing yet to support other industries that rely on national forests, including recreation, said Josh Hicks, assistant director for policy and planning for the Wilderness Society.
“I would like to think that the administration would be trying to find ways to be supportive of all the different stakeholders and members of the public during the pandemic, not making sure that a single industry is being taken care of,” Hicks said.