Acton Institute Powerblog


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Today’s Wall Street Journal has yet another example of what happens when good intentions fail to connect with sound economics (or in this case, sound science).

Thanks to the nation’s housing boom, business has been good for the West’s sawmills for the past three years. But Jim faced an insurmountable problem: He couldn’t buy enough logs to keep his mill running. This despite the fact that 10 times as many trees as Jim’s mill needed die annually on the nearby Kootenai National Forest. From his office window, Jim could see the dead and dying standing on hillsides just west of the mill. They might as well have been standing on the moon, given the senseless environmental litigation that has engulfed the West’s federal forests.

Thanks to Jim’s resourcefulness, his mill survived its last five years on a steady diet of fire- and bug-killed trees salvaged from Alberta provincial forests. Such salvage work is unthinkable in our national forests, forests that, news reports to the contrary, remain under the thumb of radical environmental groups whose hatred for capitalism seems boundless. Americans are thus invited to believe that salvaging fire-killed timber is “like mugging a burn victim.” Never mind that there is no peer-reviewed science that supports this ridiculous claim–or that many of the West’s great forests, including Oregon’s famed Tillamook Forest, are products of past salvage and reforestation projects.

So the scorecard looks like this: One point to the environmental groups who have worked so hard to shut down sawmills; zero points to the sawmill workers who are now out of a job; zero points to the sawmill operator who can no longer make a return on his investment; and most ironically, zero points to the forests that will not be thinned and thus be at much greater risk of disastrous wildfires. Come to think of it, that might negate the point awarded earlier to the environmental groups, so let’s just say that nobody wins.

One more quote from that article:

Fifteen years ago, not long after the release of “Playing God in Yellowstone,” his seminal work on environmentalism’s philosophical underpinnings, I asked philosopher and environmentalist Alston Chase what he thought about this situation. I leave you to ponder his answer: “Environmentalism increasingly reflects urban perspectives. As people move to cities, they become infatuated with fantasies about land untouched by humans. This demographic shift is revealed through ongoing debates about endangered species, grazing, water rights, private property, mining and logging. And it is partly a healthy trend. But this urbanization of environmental values also signals the loss of a rural way of life and the disappearance of hands-on experience with nature. So the irony: As popular concern for preservation increases, public understanding about how to achieve it declines.”

Marc Vander Maas


  • Tom Jablonski


    It seems to be easier these days to just pit one side against the side, rather then putting some effort into trying to find some common ground or some mutual understanding when it comes to issues that too often are labeled as “jobs versus the environment”. One of the fundamental flaws of articles like the one quoted in your “Timber” post is that too often we forget that we live in a world that does indeed sustain and provide a means for us to live. We forget that all we have comes from the natural world, a world that we are a part of, not separate from. As we loose more and more of this natural world to our zeal for more “growth”, it seems like there is a need to find simpler ways to coexist with this non-human part of creation. Human beings are adaptable creatures and will find new ways to make a living. Forests however are not quite so adaptable and when human beings decide that certain types of jobs are more important then forests, we not only cut are own adaptability short, we cut our forests short. This reality is easy to see when you take a plane ride across this country. There are few areas left anymore where the quest for jobs has not resulted in the cutting our forests. So I am not sure that it is a bad thing if once in a while the forests are allowed to stand and exist in a natural way, and human beings are forced to use the gift of adaptability we have been given to really grow in the way the Creator intended. Looking for the common ground instead of looking to pit one side against another is the source of this real growth.

    Tom Jablonski

  • Amanda Kinslow


    How is it truly helpful for the forests to allow dead trees to lie on the ground and act as kindling for forest fires? I’ve never been to the Kootenal National Forest, but let’s assume it’s like Yellowstone. In Yellowstone, the dead trees lie scattered over the ground, sometimes up to 3 deep. Not only are these dead trees fire hazards, but they also prevent undergrowth which would be beneficial to the forest animals.

    If Jim the sawmill owner cleared out these dead trees, what harm would it be to anyone–or anything? If he had any affect, it would be to merely reduce the number of forest fires. Then, on your plane rides, you wouldn’t see the charred hills that were once covered by lush forests.


  • Tom Jablonski


    Next time you find a dead log in Yellowstone, I would encourage you to stop and take a closer look at the log. I think that what you find might help you to understand why leaving what may seem at first glance just a “dead” tree to remain in the forest.

    When I have done that in other forests, what I have found is not death, but sources of new life.

    If you find a tree that appears dead and was left to stand long enough that is still standing, look up and you will likely see woodpeckers and other birds hammering away at the tree. They aren’t simply hammering to sharpen their beaks, their looking for the grubs that burrow through the old wood, converting the wood flesh into grub flesh. The wood peckers in turn feed their own flesh.

    You might also notice as you bend down and look at the base of the tree the chips of wood that have fallen from the tree accumulating on the ground. If you come back in a year, these chips will apear to be gone, but the reality is they have become part of the soil that provides the nutrients for the trees that still stand, and nutrients for the seedlings that will likely spring up in the opening that appears where sunlight now reaches the forest floor.

    Anyway, I could go with what you would find when the old tree finally falls to the ground, but I hope you understand that there is more to a forest then simply live trees. Unlike the human world, there is not waste in the natural world, everything is reused.

    I write these details not to be sarcastic, but to point out that trees and other life in the forest are part of a cycle of life and death. When you start to remove the dead trees, pretty soon there will not be the nutrients needed to maintain other life.

    One other side point while you are in those woods is hopefully you will have the oppurtunity to do it while there are no sounds coming from nearby logging machinary. It makes the experience much more interesting, the quiet that is.

    One other side thought is that it has been my experience that good business people find ways to keep their business operating when all the easy fruit has been picked, and they do it with out having to destroy the orchard in the process. I wonder if Jim the sawmill owner is looking for an easy scapegoat when he blaims his failed business on the “environmentalists”, rather then looking at what he could have done to make his business more sustainable. Seems if the Wall Street Journal was really interested in helping businesses, they might have done a little more investigation on that point.

    And one more post thought, fires in forests are not necessarily a bad thing, people may not like them, but the forests find them useful in their own ways.

    Thanks for your thoughts Amanda and I hope you can spend some time in the forest soon.


  • Tom Jablonski


    Not sure my earlier response got posted. I will repost it if it does not show up. But the link below is an interesting report on the impacts of the forest fires in yellowstone. In answer to your question about what I might see flying over a burned over area, a year or two after the fire, I think it would be quite a beautiful site.

    My thoughts for what they are worth.


  • Hi everyone.

    I’m looking for support to help preserve our worlds forests.

    You can find out more about what I’m trying to do to help at .

    If you find what im doing to be a good idea and would like to help I would be more than grateful if you could post a link to the site in any other forum/newsgroups/blogs etc that you use.

    Kind Regards

    William – Digitrees

  • Vicki Dunne

    This is a sad story of the policy dissonance in the forest debate. We are seeing much the same in Australia. Gradually state forest is being turned over to National Parks. The parks are expensive to maintain and are consequently not properly managed.

    In Australia national parks often become havens for feral animals – foxes, pigs and escaped domestic dogs and cats – which play havoc with the wildlife and escape into farmland to maul sheep and cattle and dig up crops. There is little or no willingness to undertake pest management.

    On top of that there is no management of the trees and understorey in the parks. For millennia Australia was managed by fire but now it isn’t. Australia’s first inhabitants farmed with fire but the practices of the last 50 years in particular have seen a huge reforestation in areas.

    (This is not to say there has not been land cleared for farming and much of it inappropriately so.)
    One example of this would be the Pilliga Scrub, centred on Narrabri in western New South Wales (NSW). The NSW Government has decided that the 350,000 hectares of the Pilliga state forest will become national park.
    According to the experts in the Pilliga 150 years ago areas now thick with cypress were grassland or open box woodland. The cypress was suppressed by local aboriginals through the use of fire so what we are turning into national park is not pristine wilderness. The decision will have huge impacts on local timber communities and for anyone who might travel through the area they would be hard-pressed to see any real evedince of broadscale forestry activity.
    Gradually over the years state forest has been incorporated into parks. Logging has stopped. The bush has become inpenetrable and the result is devestating bushfires which are increasing in frequency and increasingly hard to manage because of the huge fuel loads behind them.
    We all have a lot to learn about managing forest for the economy and for the environment but I think the experience in both the US and Australia shows that the current approach is the wrong one.

    Vicki Dunne MLA
    Shadow Minister for the Environment
    Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory
    Canberra, Australia