Logs along a haul road within the Swain Mountain timber sale will be trucked to a mill. Photo by Susan Cort Johnson

Timber sales in Lassen National Forest beneficial, but must be well planned

This summer and fall trucks have been hauling logs from the Swain Mountain area off County Road A-21 to lumber mills. The timber sale is just one of many that take place in the Lassen National Forest each year.

“We offer 8 to 10 sales annually ranging in size and value and we have an annual target for the entire forest. We have an annual volume target of 35 to 40 million board feet of lumber,” said Jennifer Erickson, acting public affairs officer for the Lassen National Forest Service.

A crew in each of the three ranger districts, Almanor, Eagle Lake and Hat Creek, work on timber sales. The sale of timber is one of many ways land under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service is managed. Other resources include minerals, gas, grazing lands and recreation.

“One reason we do timber sales is to support the local economy, also to treat the forest,” said Laura Corral, a silviculturist for the Almanor Ranger District.

A healthier, more resilient forest is currently achieved by selecting areas with more tree mortality. Timber sales where there are signs of beetle infestation create an environment in which pines can survive the attack by providing more resources such as water, growing space and light. Drought and overstocking makes the trees more susceptible, said Corral.

A certain level of insects is normal in the forest and creates wildlife habitat such as snags or natural openings where brush can grow, but an epidemic level destroys too many trees.

Timber sales also reduce fuels which historically would have been removed by fire, said Erickson. Often fir trees are cut during sales because they have flourished without fire. Pines are more resilient to fire and once grew in the Lassen National Forest in higher numbers. Timber sales mimic what fire would have accomplished, explains Erickson.

Determining whether timber sales should be part of the proposed action for a planning unit is based on the analysis of an interdisciplinary team with expertise in hydrology, botany, archeology, fuels, silviculture and wildlife.

Once a proposal is completed it becomes available for public input and changes can be made based upon the information from public comment. A multitude of agencies, industries and organizations may comment such as the Audubon Society, timber companies, state of California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, Sierra Access Coalition and the Sierra Club.

Timber sales are broken up within each planning unit with multiple projects in various stages of analysis and implementation. When an area is ready to log a bid package is prepared. The project is appraised to determine a minimum bid and contract requirements developed, said Heidi Van Giesen, a prep forester with the Almanor Ranger District who develops timber sale contracts. It usually takes from four to six weeks to create a bid package.

An area is assessed for volume that includes saw timber products for lumber and biomass products, which would be chipped and hauled to a cogeneration plant.

Part of the appraisal system is to determine if there is too much biomass to be cost effective.

Sometimes the cost of processing and hauling biomass is more than what a timber company will be paid for it and therefore the area is logged via a service contract rather than a timber sale.

In this case, a company is paid to cut and haul the trees. Trees 10 inches in diameter and above at breast height (4.5 feet) are hauled to a mill and trees that are three to nine inches in diameter are biomass.

Any tree, 30 inches or larger in diameter, cannot be cut in order to retain seral habitat for wildlife.

About 40 percent of timber from the Lassen National Forest is biomass, said Erickson.

Because logging on national lands is currently based on tree mortality, Jerry Brown, governor of California, signed Senate Bill 859.

This bill requires electric companies to purchase 125 megawatts of power from biomass energy facilities and a certain percentage of green waste burned by cogeneration plants to come from timber sales where trees are susceptible to bug attack.

Other factors used to determine a minimum bid include price of lumber, fuel costs, the average skidding distance of trees to a landing where they are loaded on a truck, the type of equipment used such as a mechanical harvester versus a chainsaw, production rates and wages. Information is entered into a spreadsheet that is tied to a database that compares recently sold sales or projects to the property being appraised. This procedure is called a transaction evidence appraisal.

“You have to have a good system to do the appraisal,” said Matt Waterston, a timber sale prep supervisor with the Almanor Ranger District. “We have certain things we need to do based on our handbooks. We have an appraised value that sets our minimum bid and we cannot sell less than that.”

If the proposed unit of timber does not sell when put out to bid it may be combined with an adjacent sale that has a higher value or the project may be put on hold and advertised at a later date.

A timber sale is advertised for 30 days and during that time bid packages, with maps and contract specs are available so bidders can view the area to be logged, said Van Gieson.

Since the purchaser often wants to drive haul roads and walk the woods before placing a bid, sales must be advertised after snow has melted and the soil dried out.

Specifications for the timber sale are provided for the contractor. For example, boundaries and the trees to be cut or left, whichever is the highest volume, are marked with paint. Corral writes a prescription for marking trees selecting those with a small crown, which indicates the tree is not well nourished, and those that are diseased or bug infested. In addition to health, tree selection can be based on species. Pine, such as Ponderosa and Jeffrey, are left with white fir cut because there is so much more of this species. Also trees pertinent to wildlife are often left. These may have a cavity or a multiple top, which makes a good nesting platform. Areas with threatened or endangered plants are flagged as well as archeological sites that cannot be disturbed. Also, noxious weeds are marked in order to prevent their transfer to another area.

Once a contract is signed, the timber operator creates a plan of operations and a timber sale administrator oversees the provisions within the contract.

The site is checked daily by the administrator to make sure the contract is being followed with adherence to such things as landing locations, dust abatement and avoidance of buffer sites.

The preparation for a timber sale on U.S. forestlands can take from one to three years.

Planning for the timber coming out of Swain Mountain most likely had its beginnings several

seasons ago.