Look To Our Forests To Boost Our Economy

Two years into a slow economic recovery, many Montana rural communities are still struggling to create jobs. The unemployment rate in rural counties is just under eight percent compared to six percent for Montana’s metropolitan counties.

In hard economic times, Montana has relied on its forests for jobs and income.

Today, logging cannot lift the state alone, but logging combined with forest and watershed restoration work can be the basis for job growth in Montana’s rural counties.

Restoration work utilizes the same skills, knowledge, and equipment already present in Montana’s timber industry and often includes commercial and small-diameter timber for regional mills.

Forest thinning, road removal, and watershed restoration all complement and diversify the timber industry and create jobs in a range of scientific, technical, and planning industries.

Studies show that restoration work creates more jobs when compared to logging alone. Montana’s communities have the know-how, but often lack the resources and policy tools.

To create forest jobs in Montana, Congress need only continue a host of proven, existing restoration and stewardship programs.

Watershed and forest restoration also will help maintain the qualities attracting tourists, families and businesses to Montana. Travel and tourism related industries are a bright spot during the recession, accounting for about 67,000 jobs in Montana (20 percent of total employment).

With the increased mobility of today’s workforce, entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, and accountants often relocate themselves and their businesses in areas with a high quality of life, including natural amenities.

The same qualities that attract tourists and businesses also draw retirees (non-labor income accounts for more than 41 percent of all income in Montana, over half of it from investment and retirement income).

Healthy lands and watersheds also provide value through what scientists call “ecosystem benefits” such as flood control, lower municipal water treatment costs, and wildlife habitat that supports recreation and hunting.

Headwaters Economics estimated that restoration activities on National Forests in 2009 generated nearly $2 billion in cost savings and environmental services across all National Forests.

Extending the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act now up for reauthorization can be the basis for a comprehensive approach to a forest jobs and restoration effort.

The SRS “county payments” program compensates local governments for non-taxable federal lands — supporting essential education and transportation infrastructure that helps rural communities attract and retain jobs and families. SRS also provides funding and incentives for collaborative restoration, stewardship, and infrastructure work on public lands.

The major challenge to extending SRS is securing federal funding under tight budget constraints. The House of Representatives soon will propose a “timber-only” approach to public lands management in which logging will pay for all management costs and for SRS payments to counties. This will be accomplished largely by rolling back environmental laws and abandoning collaborative efforts.

The House proposal may generate some revenue, but it’s not a jobs package. A timber-only approach creates fewer jobs and is more exposed to market volatility and price fluctuations than a balanced timber-plus approach to forest restoration.

A timber-only approach will also require major rewriting of national public lands policy and law, or perhaps ending federal ownership of land all together.

Successful programs such as the Collaborative Landscape Restoration Initiative, Forest Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Initiative, Priority Watershed Restoration funding, and stewardship contracting authorities are examples of existing and proven programs that should be extended along with SRS.

A timber-plus jobs bill will grow and diversify the timber industry while creating jobs in other sectors and strengthening Montana’s competitive advantage to attract tourists, retirees, and businesses.

A diversified, balanced, and proven approach to public lands can be the basis for renewed rural prosperity that takes advantage of the many values of public lands.

Mark Haggerty is a research economist at Headwaters Economics in Bozeman. For more information on county payments and forest jobs, see:www.headwaterseconomics.org.