The Oct. 1 article in the IR about the Cabin Gulch logging project reports a claim by the manager of the RY Timber mill in Townsend that the Forest Service makes money on logging. However, a month earlier the Billings Gazette published the results of its investigation of the Forest Service’s cost and revenue that paints a much different picture and a more accurate portrayal of the continued taxpayer subsidization of Montana’s timber industry.
The Gazette found the Forest Service in Montana generated $5.4 million in revenue 2013, of which $4.1 million came from timber sales. But here’s the rub: that amounts to only about 2.2 percent of the $179 million the Forest Service spent in Montana in 2013 on discretionary projects, timber sale preparation, salaries, and transportation. Maintaining campgrounds and trails and cleaning outhouses represents a small portion of the Forest Service budget in Montana and that was mostly off-set by the $1.3 million in revenue the agency collected from recreation fees in 2013. In other words, the Forest Service in Montana spent $179 million, mostly on timber sales, in Montana but only received $4.1 million in revenue from these sales. They lost millions on logging.
While maintaining the public lands that Montanans cherish is primarily funded by the federal taxes we all pay, I don’t think most Montanans treasure seeing those tax dollars go to provide corporate welfare for the timber industry. Although millions of citizens benefit from the maintenance activities on federal lands, the timber budget in the Forest Service is significantly bigger than the recreation budget. Nationwide, Congress gave the Forest Service about $4 billion to log 4 million acres of fish and wildlife habitat -- which amounts to a subsidy of about $1000 per acre.
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In Montana, because our trees are smaller, the winters colder and the mountains steeper, the subsidy amounts to around $1,400 per acre. The Cabin Gulch timber sale will cost taxpayers more than $4 million to destroy prime elk habitat. The proof that the logging will degrade elk habitat is evident in the fact that the Forest Service amended its own elk hiding cover rules just so this timber sale could go forward. I am sure a lot of hunters won’t be thrilled to learn that their tax dollars are being used to destroy elk habitat in the Big Belt Mountains at the start of hunting season.
The IR article also reported that the money from the timber sale would go for weed control and watershed erosion control. Since logging and logging roads spread weeds and put sediment into streams it seems only fair that logging receipts go to trying to clean up the mess it creates. The problem is that the Helena National Forest reports that weeds are expanding at a rate of 10 percent per year. Creating more noxious weed invasions through logging only exacerbates the problem and increases the costs -- especially when the agency openly admits it has not figured out a way to stop the spread of noxious weeds on public lands.
One of the justifications RY Timber gave for this generous publicly-funded corporate welfare was the jobs that were created by logging elk habitat in Cabin Gulch. But consider this, the New York Times reported on Sept. 27 that logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska costs taxpayers $130,000 for every job that was created. Obviously, taxpayer-funded corporate welfare isn’t the best way to stimulate the economy or to create jobs.
As a fifth generation Montanan, I cherish our beautiful state -- and the Helena area supports some of the best fish and wildlife habitat anywhere. Do we really want to sacrifice this by continuing to subsidize the timber industry? I think not. Most Montanans would agree that the part of the federal taxes they pay spent by the Forest Service should be primarily be used to protect our public lands, not destroy them with more money-losing timber sales.
Mike Garrity is executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.