Call for better markets before fire season hits

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Jennifer Grimes Guest Opinion

Before another wildfire season heats up, I hope Senators Risch and Crapo, and Representatives Simpson and Labrador, don’t miss an opportunity in the Farm Bill to address some of the challenges forest owners face here in Idaho — namely around our limited timber markets.

While you may not see the connection between terrible wildfire seasons and poor timber markets, allow me to elaborate.

Forest owners must actively manage their land in order to make them wildfire-resilient — ridding their forests of unnecessary fuel loads. This often means removing small trees that are of low value, which, if left standing, can make a forest dense and prone to bigger and hotter wildfires when they inevitably occur.

Historically in Idaho, we had healthy markets for wood, which helped forest owners such as myself care for our forests. But over the past few decades, our mills have been closing and our markets shrinking — especially those for small trees. It’s no coincidence that the decline in markets has coincided with our growing and intensifying wildfire seasons.

Without markets, keeping a forest healthy is expensive. Removing low-value material can cost upward of $2,500 an acre. Not to mention the other important practices that go into caring for a healthy forest: maintaining roads, building fire lanes, clearing out invasive species — all activities that come with a hefty price tag. Markets for wood help provide landowners with the income needed to offset these costs.

Across our state, all of the forests are struggling. While the majority may be publicly owned, it’s important we consider the 28,000 families and individuals who manage more than 1.3 million acres of forestland, intermixed with these public lands. Personally, I own just under 10 acres and thinning of my stands of young crowded firs, susceptible to disease, would be less painful were that wood marketable.

Getting ahead of the wildfire issue will take a comprehensive approach, and require many strategies, but I can say without a doubt that expanding markets is a key component to any solution.

As summer approaches in Idaho, we are anticipating another possible horrendous wildfire season. But this timing also coincides with an opportunity to help get ahead of this challenge too.

Congress is working to pass a new Farm Bill. Our members of Congress should support expanding markets for wood, especially small trees of little value, in this bill by supporting two important pieces of legislation — the Timber Innovation Act (S.538) and the Community Wood Energy Innovation Act (S.2790).

The Timber Innovation Act will help stimulate research and development of new wood products and thereby expand markets for wood, while the Community Wood Energy Innovation Act can help bolster our timber market infrastructure. Both bills leverage state and private investments, making markets a collaborative effort, and would create rural jobs and stimulate our local economies.

By including these bills in the Farm Bill, we can help improve the health of Idaho’s forests, which ultimately will make our outlook on future wildfire seasons a lot less smoky.

• • •

Jennifer Grimes is director of the Idaho Forest Owners Association.

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