The Economic Impact of Preserving Washington’s Roadless National Forests

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The Economic Impact of Preserving

Washington’s Roadless National Forests


Thomas Michael Power, Ph.D.

Professor of Economics

University of Montana

Missoula, Montana 59812

June 13, 2000

This study analyzes the likely economic impacts of protecting all of Washington’s roadless areas from roaded commercial development. It does so by focusing on four areas of the state that contain or are adjacent to substantial National Forest land: five counties in the northeast, four counties in the southeast, five central Washington counties, and four counties in the southwest along the Columbia River. The study did not analyze the forested lands on the west slopes of the Cascade Range or on the Olympic Peninsula. Because of spotted owl management requirements, the harvest of timber from National Forest lands in these two areas has been so reduced that any additional protection for roadless areas would have very little impact on forest products employment. The focus of this analysis is on those counties that have significant National Forest timber harvests, have a relatively high reliance on forest products for employment, and have significant roadless acreage. These are the counties that will be affected the most if the roadless areas are put off limits to logging. By focusing on these counties, the study focuses on a “worst case” scenario.
The chief objection to protecting roadless areas from roading and logging is that such protection will cost Washington’s “timber” communities vitally important jobs and income. The assumed causal connection is from reduced harvest to reduced forest products activity to community impoverishment. Since the state of Washington has already gone through a dramatic reduction in National Forest timber harvests, a study of the economic fallout from those reductions should aid in the projection of economic impacts associated with roadless area protection. Chapter 2 carries out this analysis. It finds that reduced federal timber harvests during the 1990s did not lead to massive job loss, higher unemployment, loss of population, reduced local government revenues, or declining average pay and income. Quite to the contrary, as federal timber harvests fell, almost all measures of local economic vitality showed signs of improvement, not deterioration. Employment, real income, population, and average real incomes were all up; unemployment was down. This was not the first time that the assumed connection between federal harvests and local economic well being did not produce the predicted results. During the 1980s rapid increases in federal timber harvests to peak levels in 1988 were accompanied by forest products layoffs and declining real pay both within and outside the forest products sectors.
Chapter 3 explores the reasons for the unexpected economic resilience of Washington’s “timber dependent” counties in the face of drastically reduced federal timber harvests in the 1990s. It does this by exploring in some detail why the link between changes in federal harvests and local economic well-being is so weak and unreliable. The results of that analysis suggest that forest managers cannot manage local economic stability by manipulating the flow of logs from their forests.
Chapter 4 discusses the economic connections between a natural forest and local communities. As Figure 1 suggests, there are many ways that adjacent communities economically rely upon the forested landscape other than the harvest and processing of commercially valuable timber. As a result of changes in transportation and communications technologies and changes in what an economy produces, families and firms have become geographically more “footloose.” The economic costs of isolation and reduced access to valuable economic opportunities have been reduced. This has allowed people’s and firms’ location decisions to be based more on their preferences for what they perceive to be higher quality living environments. Given that high quality living environments can attract new residents and economic activity, the attractiveness of a community in terms of its social, cultural, and natural environments is an important part of its economic base and source of economic vitality. This helps explain how it was that Washington’s “timber dependent” communities productively weathered the economic changes triggered by the dramatic declines in National Forest timber harvests.
Chapter 5 looks specifically at the likely impact of protecting all of Washington’s remaining roadless areas from roading and logging. It uses the actual harvests that have come from roadless areas during the 1990s and the Forest Service’s planned harvests from these areas during the next five years to estimate the annual reduction in National Forest harvests if all these areas were put off limits to logging. The remaining roadless areas would be the source of very little timber if they are not protected, 3.9 to 5.6 million board feet of timber per year depending on whether past harvests or planned harvests in the roadless areas are used as the basis of the estimate. It is not surprising that very little commercial timber potential is associated with most of the remaining roadless areas. They were not harvested in the past because of a combination of economic and environmental constraints that remain in place. The remaining roadless areas tend to require costly extensions of the road system, require the deployment of costly harvesting techniques, and often have low timber productivity. They can typically be harvested only at an economic and environmental loss. The reduction in National Forest timber harvests that would result from setting the remaining roadless areas off limits to logging would be tiny compared to the harvest reductions with which Washington has already been able to cope.
Given how successfully most of Washington’s counties have adjusted to the dramatic declines in federal harvest in the 1990s, they will have little difficulty adjusting to these very small additional reductions in harvest to accommodate roadless area protection. The potential number of forest products jobs at stake can be measured in the dozens, not the hundreds, and certainly not thousands. Ongoing economic vitality tied to the attractiveness of Washington’s National Forest counties as places to live, work, and do business will more than offset any small potential job losses. In that sense, protecting these roadless areas will not lead to job losses, even small job losses, but rather substantial net gains in overall employment and economic opportunity.


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