Friday Rant: When the Mountain Pine Beetle Comes, Lumber Prices Go Up, Up, Up

I come from a long line of forest owners and managers, stretching as far back as the 13th century in northern Europe, with my grandparents on both sides being the last fulltime foresters. Growing up, I remember working during childhood summers, planting new trees after the more-or-less annual culling of parts of the family lands. The emphasis was on maintaining and sustaining healthy forests and their growth for future production and generations to come.

That's a background so you understand my interest in forestry here in the USA, where my family has also owned and managed forests, albeit on a far smaller (120 acre) scale in northern California. Eventually, the forest management in California became so complicated with all the various permits required; including conducting Indian religious site searches, holding animal "sleepovers" (where you have to pay for animal rights activists to stay on your property to examine the wildlife), water source studies etc. that my mother sold the property and moved to Georgia.

When I was involved in the last logging project, I observed that the high cost structure associated with felling lumber commercially (at least in Cali), makes partial clearing more or less unjustifiable for small scale land owners, leading to clear cutting to recoup high setup costs. Additionally, the tax structure (in Cali) further perpetuates a vicious "buy-clear-cut-sell" cycle since property values aren't adjusted downward after a clearing, but standing lumber is assessed and valued as you buy and hold property – leading to shortsighted forest mismanagement.

Add federal policies around spotted owls and other species that must be protected at all costs, and eventually one of the oldest industries in the world – the lumber industry – had to give up and close shop. Instead, many of the forests across the country now stand unmanaged, and grow denser by the year, which leads to massive forest fires in some parts of the country (lighting still strikes, and there's nothing better to burn than a forest packed with underbrush, and lots of trees tightly packed together). This was known to the Indians in the area where my mother lived, and prior to the white man moving in, they set fires on a regular basis – alas, they aren't allowed to do this anymore.

The consequences of not only stopping the Indians from their controlled burns, but also prohibiting the lumber companies from managing forests is now evident on a large scale throughout the western USA and parts of Canada – and not just the annual conflagrations. No, less written about (doesn't make for the same spectacular footage as a big fire), the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) has now eaten its way through around 12% of the forested lands west of the Mississippi, or around 45 million acres of timber lands. Estimates suggest that as much as 58% of the region's pine will be gone over the next decade. It's staggering.

The beetle is especially fond of densely forested areas, the ones that have seen neither controlled burns or any form of forest management (aka logging) – part of the price we pay for presumably saving a few birds. This policy has also shut down much of the logging industry, with numerous saw mills going out of business; 24 mills have been shut down in British Columbia alone.

Closing with a procurement angle here – lumber prices are going up! They have increased by almost 30% over the past two years, obviously as a result of the loss of harvestable timber as there really hasn't been any construction boom. Analysts estimate that harvests in British Columbia can decline by 50% over the next 50 years (!) until forests grow back. In other words, expect rapidly rising lumber prices when housing comes back.

Translation for our politicians – this does not help "affordable" housing at all.

- Thomas Kase

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