A Summary of the Ceder Flats Stewardship Contracting Project
By Bob Love
4790 Blankenship Rd.
Columbia Falls, MT 59912
The Cedar Flats Vegetation Treatment was a collaborative effort between the Forest Service and the Flathead Forestry Project (FFP). The Forestry Project, an ad hoc group formed in Kalispell MT. in the mid-1990s, is composed of loggers, conservationists, foresters, sawmill managers and other citizens who are interested in resolving the gridlock which has afflicted national forest management. The group wanted to restore the public's sense of trust towards the Forest Service by initiating and promoting small timber sales and forest improvement projects in non-controversial areas. Because of the shortfall in available federal timber, the loggers in the group had been working for both industrial and small private forest owners, often using alternative contracting methods that they thought could be applied to public lands.
Public timber is sold to the highest bidder, and the logging is administered by contracts that stipulate performance and utilization standards. Sawmills usually buy the larger sales and hire loggers to do the work. One deficiency of this system is that the federal government, unlike a private forest owner, cannot discriminate between loggers on the basis of reputation or qualifications. The logger typically contracts directly with the sawmill rather than the landowner, which in this case is the public. Another is that the traditional contract is usually too generic to address the site-specific needs of the land, and doesn't lend itself to administering work such as pre-commercial thinning, road maintenance or habitat improvement. This type of work falls under the category of what the Forest Service refers to as ecosystem management, and is best administered by stewardship contracts, which encourage the stewardship of forest resources rather than basic timber removal. Loggers and foresters associated with FFP were using these types of contracts on private lands, and the group offered to help the Forest Service use them more widely on national forests.
FFP's initial project took place on a 20-acre parcel of private land near Columbia Falls MT. In this case FFP members working with Forest Service employees laid out the sale and advertised it, explaining FFPs' and the landowner's objectives. The group solicited proposals from loggers, asking them to submit a logging plan, discuss the rationale behind it and quote a price for their work. The proposals were evaluated by a committee of volunteers who had the interest and expertise to evaluate them and the freedom to consider the contractors' qualifications. This project was successful, but FFP's goal was to apply this process to public land.
Subsequent discussions with the Forest Service led to the selection of the Cedar Flats area as a suitable place to experiment with stewardship contracts. Cedar Flats is located a few miles north of Columbia Falls, MT. As the name implies, it is a comparatively low-lying area at the southern tip of the Whitefish Range. Because of its proximity to Columbia Falls, the area is used extensively by recreationists in all seasons, and is categorized by the Forest Service as an urban interface zone, where the agency is beginning to focus fuel reduction activities to facilitate fire suppression near human developments.
Cedar Flats provides year-around habitat for most bird and mammal species of the northern Rockies. Although the area is not a primary winter range, it offers forage and shelter for deer, moose and elk in mild winters. Both black and grizzly bears frequent the forest in the spring, grazing on succulent new vegetation and stripping bark from the conifers to lick their flowing sap. Coyotes and cougars are drawn into the area by the ungulate populations, especially in the spring when calves and fawns are being born. Ravens, gray jays, ruffed grouse, downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and creepers are the most conspicuous of the numerous bird species.
The landscape reflects a century of human interaction and disturbance. The existing forest is primarily composed of seral species such as western larch, douglas fir, lodgepole pine and paper birch, originating after the human-caused Half Moon fire of 1929. After the fire, most of the larch and cedar snags were taken for firewood, removing a component of forest structure that would be valuable if it were present today. In addition, large bands of sheep were shipped by rail into the area to take advantage of the forage created by the burn. This grazing probably had some effect on vegetative succession and composition. Another event that shaped the forest was the construction of the Anaconda aluminum plant in the mid-1950s, just to the southeast of Cedar Flats. In the area immediately adjacent to the plant, documented impacts to soils, vegetation and animals were attributed to fluoride emissions. Although this problem was corrected for the most part in the 1970s, tree growth in the area isn't as vigorous as it is on similar sites unaffected by fluoride.
The most visible human influence on the forest is the roller-thinning that was done in the early 1960's by the Forest Service. Roller-thinning was an experimental alternative to more costly and labor-intensive thinning methods. A weighted drum with sharp blades welded around its circumference was towed through the forest with a bulldozer, leaving a swath about twelve feet wide. These swaths were made at sixteen to twenty foot intervals over approximately one thousand acres, so that from an aerial view, the forest resembles a mown hay field, with alternating windrows and stubble. The Forest Service theorized that opening the canopy in this way would stimulate tree growth between the cleared strips. Although this did occur to some extent, the machinery mangled the tree roots on the edges of the leave strips, and the operators pushed trees down into the leave strips, damaging the residual stand. Perhaps the most pronounced, and inadvertent, consequence of roller-thinning was the sprouting of birch from the roots and stems of flattened trees which were irreparably damaged, but not killed, by the roller. Although these sprouts are anemic because of their density and poor root development, they are so numerous that they have prevented any significant regeneration of other plants and trees. At the time of the roller-thinning, birch was probably fading from the forest as it was being shaded out by conifers; now it is probably the most abundant species. Although it was well-intended, the roller-thinning interrupted and reversed the forest's natural evolution.
After agreeing to promote a demonstration project in the Cedar Flats area, the Forestry Project notified local landowners and the community at large, soliciting public input and participation. The project, consisting of eight units covering 123 acres, made its way through bureaucratic channels and was approved in 1998. Stewardship contracts would be used to administer the work in seven of the units; loggers would be paid on a per/acre basis, purchasers would bid on the logs when they were decked beside the road and the revenues would be used to offset the costs of labor. A conventional timber sale was planned for an eighth unit of 16 acres to serve as a useful comparison to the treatments and results in the other units.
Funding the project proved to be a challenge. With a conventional timber sale, the goal is timber removal, and the government is paid prior to or during the course of the logging. The goal of a stewardship contract is to enhance the health of the land; logs are a byproduct of the work rather than the reason for doing it. Revenue from log sales can offset labor costs, but the cash flow for a stewardship contract is the opposite of that for a timber sale. Money was needed to kick-start the project, but the Forest Service didn't have it. FFP member and de facto leader Carol Daly applied for and received money from various foundations to fund the work. This was done through the Flathead Economic Policy Center, which has served as the fiscal agent for FFP. So the cost of the stewardship contracts was privately funded, while the revenues all were returned to the Forest Service.
The shape and layout of the units reflected the variety of terrain and forest types in the area. The solicitations that were distributed to prospective contractors included silvicultural histories of the units, as well as the Forest Service's treatment objectives for them. In the interest of experimentation, the methods used to achieve these objectives and the standards used to evaluate them varied. In six of the units, tree selection was left to the loggers, while Forest Service crews marked the trees to be retained in the seventh. In the units where loggers made the tree selection, the goal was to reduce forest density to a level that met Forest Service objectives, and could be measured by both the logger and the sale administrator. In one unit, both tree selection and stand objectives were left to the logger's discretion.
Dallas Gronley of Columbia Falls, MT bought the timber sale and began working in the fall of 1998, completing the sale in the spring of 1999. Lightning Excavation of Libby, MT was awarded the service contract for four units totaling 85 acres. They started working in the winter of 1998 and finished in the spring of 1999. I received the service contract for two eleven-acre units, which I started and completed in the summer of 1999.
As one of the contractors involved in the process, it is difficult for me to be completely objective about the end results of the various treatments. I feel that the land benefited from my work, and I'm hesitant to judge the other contractors who are probably proud of their work as well. The accompanying chart from the Forest Service is an economic breakdown of the three contracts. The numbers have to be understood in their relation to the condition of the land prior to and after treatment, as well as the equipment and methods that were used to meet the desired objectives. I will try to interpret them in the context of my work. As I mentioned, my analysis is necessarily subjective, but may be pertinent to ongoing or proposed stewardship projects.
Initially, I wasn't interested in working on Cedar Flats; I was too involved with FFP to feel comfortable about submitting a proposal, and wasn't sure if I could fit the project into my schedule. Because I work alone, I figured it would take me two or three months to finish the smallest units in the project; two eleven acre parcels which were to be bid on as a package. In one of these, the tree selection and slash treatment was left to the logger's discretion; in the other, the Forest Service specified the objectives.
When I walked through the units, I recorded my observations in a notebook and referred to them when I wrote my proposal. One of my first impressions was that the units lay on a ridge that was relatively high compared to the surrounding country. Its topography made it attractive to wildlife, especially whitetail deer and elk. Reading the sign, I could see that they passed through the area in all seasons, but never spent a lot of time on the ridge. After further observation, I concluded there was not enough food to hold them here for long. Rocky mountain maple, a preferred winter browse for ungulates, was abundant, but had grown beyond the reach of even the elk. Pruning the maple would encourage new growth and provide more browse for the big game, but I intended to leave some of the maple clumps intact to serve as nesting and feeding habitat for birds.
Stunted birch was the most prevalent species in the two units, especially in the roller-thinned strips. The ungulates in our area browse on it only as a last resort, and as I mentioned previously, the extensive birch thickets were shading out other plant regeneration, and limiting the potential diversity of the habitat. I didn't think the birch was healthy enough to sprout with any vigor if I cut it off as closely as possible to the ground. I hoped this would kill most of it, or at least inhibit its growth long enough to allow other plants to become established. Dealing with all this brush would be time-consuming and costly, and I guessed my time would be evenly split between slashing and logging.
The logging was largely a matter of leaving the healthiest, most dominant trees on the land and removing those that were suppressed or had been damaged by the roller thinning. The overriding goal of my treatment was to replicate the effects of a non-lethal fire; to reduce the forest's density but maintain its structure and improve its diversity. Careful, selective logging would enhance the vigor of the dominant trees pruning the maple brush would increase browse production and killing the stunted birch would partially heal the damage done by the roller thinning. I researched the chemical effects of birch trees on soil chemistry in mixed deciduous and conifer forests, and learned that birch trees cycle more nutrients, more rapidly, than coniferous species. This led me to assume that they might alleviate fluoride contamination from the aluminum plant, so I proposed to retain every healthy birch and leave as much birch slash on the ground as possible. My proposal focused less on forestry than it did on overall land health. This made some folks on the selection committee uneasy, and prior to being awarded the contract, I had to meet with the committee and provide them with numbers and technical information relating to the forestry aspect of the job. I started work in early June and finished in early September.
It's been over two years since I completed my units, and I walk through them every three months or so. The overstory trees I left are responding well to the additional sunlight and nutrients, as are the plants and shrubs in the understory. Very little of the stunted birch has regrown since I slashed it, but the pruned maple has sprouted vigorously. Whitetails, elk and the occasional moose are attracted by the plentiful browse and spend more time here than they used to. Although the forest is more open than it was, the animals obviously feel secure.
One goal of the Cedar Flats project was to experiment with the concept of selling logs in roadside decks, as opposed to selling trees on the stump. The Forest Service prescribed log-manufacturing specifications that they assumed would be suitable for the various sawmills in the area. Lightning Excavation cut logs to these specifications and decked them. A local sawmill, F.H. Stoltze Co., bought the logs, even though they weren't cut according to their standards. When Stoltze expressed its dissatisfaction, the Forest Service explained that if the manufacturing standards were too specific, they could be accused of favoring certain sawmills. To resolve this before I began working, the mills were directed to bid on the trees before they were cut. American Timber Co. bought the trees and I manufactured logs according to their specifications. In this sense, the contract I worked with was a blend of a conventional and a stewardship contract.
This log-marketing system worked well. As a result of this experience, FFP members now advocate a stewardship contracting mechanism in which a service contract is paired with a separate delivered-log contract(s). The service contract for on-ground work is awarded based upon technical and financial proposals, which include consideration of the contractors’ experience, skills and references. The delivered-log sale contracts are awarded based upon highest financial return to the Forest Service.
Another goal of the project was to compare the philosophy and methods of different contractors, and to monitor the results of the various treatments. Before work began, FFP members conducted plant surveys in the project area and took photographs from several established points in each unit. Photographs were taken after the work was done, and will continue to be taken in the future. These photos, coupled with further plant surveys, will help FFP and the Forest Service evaluate the forest's response to management.
FFP also sponsored field trips of the project while the work was ongoing as well as when it was completed. Although people weren't dissatisfied with what Lightning Excavation had done, the folks who were less inclined to endorse logging preferred my work. I think this was largely a matter of appearance: Lightning had a crew of five people using large machinery, and covered eighty acres in three months, while it took me the same amount of time to cover twenty-two acres. Like me, they used the roller-thinned strips as skid trails, but they didn't take the time to slash the stunted birch. In some cases, the repeated passes of heavy machinery killed the birch, while in others the process essentially replicated the roller-thinning. The basic difference in our approaches was that Lightning's goal was log production, while mine was forest restoration. I could afford to pay attention to the details, while they couldn't.
The attached economic summary of the project reveals that labor-intensive operations like mine may be more cost-effective than highly mechanized capital-intensive operations. Forest Service planners should consider this when they propose restoration or stewardship projects.
In my opinion, the Cedar Flats Project was a success. While some detractors have argued that the project didn't help the forest, or prove that stewardship contracting is a viable alternative to traditional timber sales, I would suggest that our work improved the overall land health of the area and demonstrated that stewardship contracts dovetail with certain situations. Public reaction has been generally favorable, and many people have urged the Forest Service to extend the project to the remaining one thousand roller-thinned acres in the area. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has failed to respond to this suggestion or take advantage of the good publicity generated by the project. In fact, apart from a few individuals who participated in the project's planning and administration, Forest Service employees seem to be apathetic about the whole thing. This is my sole disappointment with the project, and FFP's efforts in general.
FFP has been meeting for nearly a decade. During that time we have heard lots of talk from Forest Service spokesmen, but have seen little action from the institution itself. Before we can commonly use stewardship contracts to practice forest restoration and ecosystem management on national forests, the Forest Service must become the leader in collaborative efforts rather than a reluctant participant, and back up its rhetoric with complementary action. This is the only way the agency can restore our forests, our respect and our confidence.
Costs and Revenues of Stewardship Service Contracts and Comparison Timber Sale
As of April 21, 2000
Cedar Flats Service Contract #1
Cedar Flats Service Contract #2
Forestry Flats Timber Sale
Price per acre
Sold by the acre
722 tons est
Equivalent price/ton = $21.38 **
* Firewood from both stewardship contractors’ units was sold in a single transaction. Revenues have been allocated proportionately to the number of acres treated.
** The equivalent price per ton show for the timber sale should not be compared directly to the price per ton received for products sold from the stewardship units, since the timber price is net of the purchaser’s cost of removal and profit margin, if any.
Regarding the timber sale, the purchaser reported, “Sawlog volume on Forestry Flats project was over-estimated by 36%, causing severe financial strain on contractor.” No explanation has been found for how this happened.
(Table prepared by Flathead Forestry Project based upon Forest Service figures.)