Take care when underestimating the value of forests

A bobcat creeps through Montana forest land. Photo by Perry Conway Corbis.

A troubling recent report from the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) claims that private forestland contributes more to state economies than public land. NAFO draws this conclusion by ignoring most of the diverse economic values derived from public forestland.

For Montana, the NAFO report claims that each acre of private forestland adds $570 to annual gross domestic product compared to $190 for a public acre. The NAFO claim should be troubling to Montanans because of the high profile Montana Legacy Project.

The Project preserves a wild, working landscape in western Montana through the transfer of more than 310,000 acres of forestland from Plum Creek Timber Company to mostly public owners, including the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Montana. Since NAFO claims each acre of private forestland contributes $380 more than a public acre, does this mean that the Project will make Montana over $100 million poorer each year?

The answer is “no” and the reason lies in how NAFO measures economic contributions. Their report tracked only dollars flowing from forestland as sawlogs, pulpwood, and other wood products. But the benefits from public forest land are much more diverse than just wood products and the NAFO report failed to measure any of them.

Consider recreation, including fishing, hunting, and wildlife viewing. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys find that residents and visitors spent more than 8 million days and nearly $1 billion fishing, hunting, and watching wildlife in Montana. A large share of this is spent by those using public land, including the 8.5 million visitor days spent in Montana’s nine national forests. Each day, each visitor spends an average of $89, making a $756 million annual contribution to Montana’s economy.

NAFO acknowledges that it did not measure recreation, but, worse, it totally ignored all the other benefits flowing from public forests. These benefits include the obvious, like clean water and habitat for Montana’s diverse wildlife and fish populations. They also include clean air, intact native plant communities that resist weeds, functioning ecological processes that sustain life, carbon stored in forests to moderate climate change, and solitude and beauty for backcountry visitors.

Collectively, these benefits are known as ecosystem services and they are increasingly recognized by economists, ecologists, policy makers, and even industrial forestland owners as vital contributors to human economic and physical well-being.

Ecosystem services are provided by both private and public forests, but to different degrees. For example, research shows that efforts to protect endangered species are more successful on public than private land. This is probably because public land is managed for a more diverse set of ecosystem services, while private management tends to focus on marketable commodities, such as wood products.

Storing carbon in trees, forest soils, and understory is another example of differences. A typical acre of U.S. Forest Service land in Montana stores 44% more carbon (50.9 tons) than an acre of private forest. Private forests store less carbon because they are more often managed for younger stands to produce frequent timber harvests. Public forestland stores more carbon because it is managed for more mature stands that add disproportionately to biodiversity protection, deeper soils, and high water quality.

The economic contribution of ecosystem services is notoriously difficult to measure. Clean, cold water during a hot Montana summer is often provided by public forest land. But the water does not get bought and sold like sawlogs, so NAFO doesn’t count it. Nevertheless, each year the quality trout streams that depend on this water attract thousands of anglers who spend millions of dollars with Montana businesses.

The NAFO report ignores many of the economic values that flow from both public and private forests. Long story short, it confuses, rather than contributes, to the important, ongoing dialog on how to manage Montana’s forests for the economic well-being of all.

photo: A bobcat creeps through Montana forest land. Photo by Perry Conway Corbis.