TAHOE NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — Little has gone according to plan in the Red Star Restoration Project on the Sierra Nevada's wooded slopes near Lake Tahoe.
Private timber companies were to pay the federal government millions of dollars in fees to log several thousand acres of dead trees blackened in a 2001 wildfire. As is often the case after a forest fire, many of the dead trees retain commercial value.
The U.S. Forest Service would use some of the revenue to pay for replanting and to clear out small, worthless deadwood that could stoke future blazes.
It's an approach that the Bush administration is promoting across the West and one that underlies the forest legislation the president signed into law last week. Give commercial loggers more leeway to cut trees, the administration maintains, and they will help thin overgrown woodlands, reduce the wildfire hazard in the region's vast federal forests and save taxpayer money to boot.
But it's not working that way in the Tahoe National Forest's Red Star project, about 15 miles west of Lake Tahoe, and in a number of other so-called salvage timber operations in California. Commercial loggers are bidding low or not at all. The revenue envisioned by the Forest Service is not pouring into the government's coffers. The smallest trees, which pose the greatest wildfire threat, are not being cleared out, and the larger, more valuable and least flammable ones are hauled away. Limbs and treetops left from timber cutting remain strewn across the landscape like giant piles of kindling.
It is a scene, repeated up and down the Sierra, that raises questions about the degree to which the federal government can rely on commercial logging to help with its fire prevention work.
For one thing, the commercial strategy assumes a vibrant logging economy that does not exist in California. It also implies that when commercial logging makes a healthy profit, money will be immediately available for clearing out the smaller trees and flammable debris. In fact, much of that revenue, especially from salvage sales, is by law earmarked for other uses. Last year, salvage harvests made up nearly half the timber volume cut in California's 18 national forests.
California's timber industry has shrunk dramatically, forest economists say, hurt by cheap Canadian competition, a steep drop in timber output in national forests in the 1990s and the cost of doing business in the state.
"The basic problem is that the industry in California, especially production in the Sierra Nevada, has just gone away in the last decade," observed Rich Thompson, a resource economics and management professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. "The number of mill closures is phenomenal. They're gone. The few [companies left] know they practically have the wood basket to themselves and ... don't have to be competitive."
In 1992, there were 56 timber mills in California. Today there are 29. Many of the remaining operations are owned by a single company, Sierra Pacific Industries, which has for years been the biggest purchaser of federal timber in the state.
Fewer mills mean fewer bids. Records compiled by Timber Data Co. of Eugene, Ore., show that timber sale after sale in California national forests attracted little or no interest from loggers this year. That was true of offerings of live green trees and those killed by fires, insects or storms.
"It is something that is becoming more common. It is really an effect of the global market," Jim Pena, supervisor of Northern California's Plumas National Forest, said of the anemic bidding situation. Parts of a salvage project in the Plumas were offered three times this year without getting a single bid.
In the Klamath National Forest in northwestern California, seven separate timber sale offerings last summer failed to attract any bids, according to Timber Data. In the Modoc National Forest in the state's northeastern tip, silence greeted an October appeal for bids on portions of a 9,000-acre salvage project.
The weak appetite for federal timber is not confined to California. In a recent newsletter, Timber Data owner Doug McDonald tracked the average number of bids on federal sales in the far West. In many states, they had fallen from six per sale in 1980 to two in 2002.
As in any market, timber prices fluctuate, and they have enjoyed something of a rebound this fall. While admitting he was concerned "that we've got very few mills left," Jack Blackwell, the regional forester who oversees California's national forests, said he was optimistic. "I guess I'm of the opinion the market probably is picking up."
But when the bids came in on the first round of Red Star timber sales last summer, they were a fraction of what the Forest Service had predicted: two cents a board foot instead of 11 1/2 cents. And instead of cutting trees as small as 11 inches in diameter, which the Forest Service proposed, the timber companies wanted only bigger trees at least 16 inches in diameter.