COEUR d'ALENE - About two dozen lawmakers, opinion leaders and media representatives from across the state turned out to attend the 2013 "Miracle at Work Forest Tour" in North Idaho last week.
The tour, organized by the Idaho Forest Products Commission, was designed to educate participants about the forest product industry in Idaho.
So what did they learn? Well, things could be better, according to Jay O'Laughlin, director of the University of Idaho's policy analysis group.
He spoke Friday morning on how the industry is working to restore forest health, produce renewable energy and revitalize the western economy.
Counting trees that are least five inches in diameter, O'Laughlin said there was more than a million cubic feet of lumber in Idaho's forests in 2007.
That's the equivalent of four football fields stacked four miles high with cut lumber.
"That's a lot of wood and that's the point," he said, adding that combined with the dead wood in the forest, which is estimated to be five billion cubic feet, "We are adding more and more wood to the forests."
O'Laughlin said that is three times what the inventory has been historically.
"Insect induced mortality is three times what it used to be," he said.
With that much fuel in the woods, it's not hard to understand why 2012 was a record fire year nationally, and why Idaho was the hardest hit state.
"We need to reduce stand replacing wildfires," he said. "We aren't harvesting as much as we used to."
That has prompted the Forest Products Commission to promote its "Thin the Threat" campaign, which they say would restore forest health, produce renewable energy and restore the western economy.
"Managing the forest could do a lot of good things," he said.
For instance, he said, Idaho's forests consume about 10 percent of the carbon dioxide in the air, but wildfire releases about one-third of that during fire season each year.
During an average fire year, O'Laughlin said the amount of carbon dioxide released is equivalent to 3.6 million automobiles. In 2006 alone, fires released the same amount of carbon as 6.4 million cars.
For each million board feet of lumber cut, it infuses 18 jobs, $629,000 in payroll and $2.9 million in goods and services directly into the economy. Indirectly, that same 1 million board feet of lumber create 10,000 lumber related jobs, 9,000 support workers for a combined total of $686 million in labor income.
Harvesting more trees could also produce biomass energy. O'Laughlin said most lumber mills are already using the biomass energy to fuel their facilities. In Plummer there is a mill with a five megawatt biomass generator, and in Lewiston they have a mill with a 65 megawatt system. One megawatt is enough electricity to service 600 average homes.
Burning wood in the power plant is preferable to wildfires for other reasons as well, he said. The emissions are scrubbed on wood burned in a power plant, instead of naturally released in wildfires.
O'Laughlin said the University of Idaho has been heating its campus in Moscow with biomass since the 1980s, and saving the campus a couple of million dollars per year.
"What is the counter argument?" he asked the group. "To be honest, none of it makes any sense to me."
Today's foresters are not opposed to sustainable forest practices, or environmental analysis. While at times an environmental impact statement can slow the process of a timber sale down, it rarely stops them.
With mills running at one to one-and-a-half shifts per day, they could use more wood.
Betty Munis from the IFPC organized and ran the tour. She said that mills are "fiber constrained" and definitely have the capacity to produce more products if they could get more wood.
The problem lies in the difference between federal forest management practices and state management practices. At the federal level, she said, the National Environmental Policy Act could add up to a million dollars to a timber sale, and delay the amount of time it takes to get a sale out.
Kevin Esser, CFO for the Idaho Forest Group, said the annual production capacity for their mils is 1.2 billion board feet. That is enough lumber to build 86,000 homes in an economy that is producing 1.4 million sustainable housing starts per year.
"Our Moyie Springs mill is surrounded by trees," Esser told the group. "But it is the hardest mill to get resources to because it is all federal trees."
David Groeschl, state forester for the Idaho Department of Lands, explained the difference between the state and federal regulatory systems to the group later in the day.
His agency manages 2.5 million acres of state endowment lands. One million acres of that land is forested.
IDL manages the land to provide revenue to Idaho's schools and other small taxing districts.
"They are managed in to perpetuity for the beneficiaries," he said, adding last year alone, the IDL made $60 million in timber revenues at a cost of $18 million.
"For every dollar we spent, we generated $3 to $4 in return," he said. "We consistently beat the states around us and we are usually at or above the private sector."
He said the IDL is able to move much quicker than the federal government when it comes to salvage sales, especially in the case of fire-ravaged forests.
Groeschl recently was able to get a sale out of 39 million board feet of fire salvage timber in about a month's time. That timber would likely have rotted if it were on federal lands.
But the federal harvest could be getting better soon as well. Panhandle National Forest Supervisor Mary Farnsworth told the group that more collaborative projects are helping to curb lawsuits and get more sales out the door.
She said most environmental impact statements take a minimum of two years to complete and that is just the beginning of the federal process for selling timber.
"But 90 percent of all veg(etative) projects are going to court," she said. "That's because we are polarized over this issue. There are some who would fight to the death to preserve everything, and there are those who would fight to the death to protect the full use of the forests."
She said that usually adds another two years to the timber sale process, but when groups get together and collaborate on these projects there is strength behind them - even if it goes to court.
Mike Peterson, executive director of The Lands Council, and Liz Johnson-Gebhardt, from the Priest Community Forest Connection, met with the group to discuss their recent successes on a couple of timber sales.
They said working collaboratively can be difficult but if people can agree to remain open minded and work toward their common goals, often the end result can be a "win-win."
"The Lands Council recently took a turn toward collaboration with timber companies," Peterson said. "As a result, there have been no lawsuits on the Colville National Forest in the past 10 years."