Montana Viewpoint

July 25, 2005

I have recently been musing over the irony that in rural Western Montana the home construction industry seems to have replaced the timber industry as the region’s economic driver. In short, we have gone from being a net producer of wood products to a net consumer of wood products, and to top that, much of the lumber that is used in the construction is not even from Montana. This seems a little out of kilter.

You may blame environmentalists for rapid fire appeals of timber sales, American trade agreements for flooding America with Canadian lumber, or a federal forest policy that has virtually paralyzed the Forest Service. You can ascribe the lack of balance to whatever you want, but at least there are some folks who are trying to find a remedy to the situation.

To their great credit, organizations like the Sierra Club and Montana Wilderness Association now understand the economic needs of rural communities and forest health, and work quietly with local citizens to create timber projects that both timber beasts and environmentalists can agree with.

Unhappily, when such agreements are solidified, there is yet another stumbling block to expediting the projects…the United States Forest Service. While federal guidelines the Forest Service has to follow may be a part of the problem, I suspicion that the severe under-funding of the Forest Service budget has an even bigger effect on the issue.

Picture, if you will, an organization that is handed edict after edict to carry out, but no money to hire people to do the new work. Neither the Healthy Forests Initiative nor the recent and dramatic change in the way Forest Plans are to be implemented carried any cash with them. More work, yes; more time, money, or personnel, no.

That’s a good way to set an organization up for failure. Doing more with less is one thing, being able to do it well is quite another, and I look for the day when the Congress, in its myopic grandeur claims that the Forest Service is a failure, and the job needs to be handed over to private industry. Spare me! That’s like putting guns in the hands of a greenhorn; there’ll be plenty of action, but maybe not the kind of action you want.

Oddly enough, in the few meetings on the revised Forest Plans that I’ve been to, the most emphatic objections to the way things are going has not been so much about timber production as about motorized access to the woods using ATVs or snowmobiles. And therein lies the same paradox as lies in home building: we build American homes with Canadian timber, and access American forests on Japanese machines.

So what’s my major whine here; urge people to “Buy American”? It’s not easy even if you work at it. I would be happy if folks just thought about the effect their individual decisions have on our collective health.

But here’s one gem of a Japanese import from former Sony chief Akio Morita that is really worth thinking about: “That world power that loses its manufacturing capacity will cease to be a world power.”

If we love America, let’s put our money where our mouth is—while we still have some money to put there.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620