The Obama administration announced Thursday that $40 million is going to new forest restoration projects intended to boost timber production and create jobs while making forests healthier and less vulnerable to wildfire.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that over the next three years, the 10 projects from Oregon to North Carolina will expand the number of acres thinned and restored on national forests by 20 percent and increase timber production by 25 percent. They will maintain or generate 1,550 jobs.
The projects were submitted by local organizations made up of timber, conservation and community groups that have been working for years to produce a reliable stream of timber from national forests while reducing fire danger, insect infestations and erosion. The 10 projects funded last year amounted to $24 million.
"This is about jobs. It's about restoration. And making sure forests are in a position to preserve precious water resources," Vilsack said in a teleconference call with reporters. "We continue to work on collaborative efforts to make sure we have left these forests in better shape."
Mike Anderson of The Wilderness Society, a conservation group, said it represented the first time full funding has gone to a program enacted by Congress in 2009, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects.
"Hopefully, this program will spread to more and more parts of the country," he said. "This is going to allow us to really tackle the problem and get ahead of the problem for the first time."
Ann Forest Burns of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said forest restoration has struggled for years to gain traction and that these projects focus the work on large areas in specific locations. She said regional offices of the U.S. Forest Service will match spending with in-kind work, such as monitoring ecological conditions and timber production.
"This is a recognition that timber is what helps restore landscapes," she said.
The 10 projects include two each in Oregon, California and Idaho, one in North Carolina, one in Missouri and one in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The Forest Service also came up with $3.6 million to fund three projects in Washington, Arkansas and Mississippi.
The biggest grant was $3.5 million for the Lakeview Stewardship Project in Oregon, where the Collins Companies, a forest products supplier, will be seeing increased log supply for its sawmill located in Lakeview, Ore. A new plant that was supposed to burn small trees and branches from forest thinning has been shelved by lack of demand for green electricity.
The funding was good news in a town of 2,500 that lost 35 jobs in December when a molding plant closed, said Jim Walls, executive director of Lake County Resource Initiative.
"We are all in agreement that in order to maintain these healthy forests, we've got to maintain infrastructure," said Walls. "We've got one mill left. We work hard to make sure they've can get material and stay in business. We can't do anything about the national (lumber) markets," which remain down from the housing crash.