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Pandemic, fires affect timber supply, demand

Issue Date: November 4, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

California's record-setting 2020 wildfire season has whipsawed timber professionals around the state—even those whose territories have escaped the blazes so far.

"We haven't had any major wildfires in our home area," said Sasha Farkas, a Sonora-based logger. "I will say it has hindered some of our work, because the federal government and the state are taking extra precautions to make sure fires don't start. They're trying to limit work hours, just to reduce the chance of ignitions."

Some days, he added, he has to end work at 1 p.m.

Meanwhile, lumber buyers are having to dig deeper into their pocketbooks—although it's not clear that's directly a result of the wildfires.

The National Association of Home Builders in Washington cites reduced domestic production due to shelter-in-place and social-distancing guidelines resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic for soaring lumber prices that have added about $16,000 to the price of a typical single-family home.

The increasing prevalence of wildfires "represents yet another supply constraint layered on top of the effects of the pandemic," said David Logan, an economist at the homebuilders' association.

Even though lumber prices have dropped by about one-third since mid-September, Logan said prices remain above the prior record, set in 2018.

"We still have a ways to go to get to a price point where builders can afford a stable, ongoing supply of lumber," he said.

As of Oct. 23, kiln-dried 2-by-6-inch lumber was selling for $650 per thousand board-feet, or mbf, according to Madison's Lumber Reporter, down from $948 per mbf the week prior. Prices on the whole remain higher than two years ago, Madison's noted; for example, kiln-dried 2-by-4-inch lumber was priced about $700 per mbf in late October, compared to $622 in June 2018.

Mike Albrecht, a logger and registered professional forester in Tuolumne County, attributed the price spike in part to demand from people taking on projects at home and buying lumber at big-box stores.

"People really went into home improvements," Albrecht said. "We thought lumber demand might really drop off, and the opposite happened. There was a huge demand for lumber for people that, when they weren't working, they were able to stay home and start fixing their decks and doing some add-ons."

Timber supply in California should not be an issue for the next couple of years, he said.

"Generally, in California, lumber and timber inventories at the sawmills have stayed up pretty well," Albrecht said.

There was an impact right after COVID-19 hit, he said, "but it stabilized, and it's pretty good right now," adding, "Now, with these fires, I think we're going to have plenty of logging and plenty of timber flowing next year."

That, he said, is because of this year's round of wildfires and the salvage logging likely to ensue. As of last week, more than 4.1 million acres in California had burned this year, according to Cal Fire; of that, nearly 2.2 million acres occurred on U.S. Forest Service land.

Albrecht said there will be two sources of salvage: private land subject to the California Environmental Quality Act and federal land covered under the National Environmental Policy Act.

On private land, "they have emergency exemptions that allow you to go right to work in timber salvage," he said. "You generally can be working within two weeks, once you file the paperwork."

Federal land is a different story, Albrecht said; there, it can take a year to put a plan together and get moving, though the affected timber might still be usable if he can salvage it in time.

"If you can get into the forest within two years, you can do an awful lot of good salvage," he said. "After two years, it's just the bigger trees—say, trees over 2 feet in diameter (that) might still be good into that third year."

It'll be decades before the forests recover, he added.

"Once again, it's Mother Nature's massive clear cuts that are going to supply that timber," Albrecht said, "and then we'll be back to needing to get all that land reforested, and then you're looking at 40 to 50 years before you have a good, healthy forest back."

Farkas has been working on a salvage project on state land in Santa Cruz County, where the CZU Lightning Complex fire ignited during an August thunderstorm. Salvaged Douglas fir trees, he said, are in for a long haul, because the only sawmill in the vicinity can take only redwood.

"The closest mill for Doug fir from Santa Cruz is in Sonora," which is 150 miles away, Farkas said. "It's taking log trucks between 10 and a half to 11 hours to make a round trip, so the trucking costs are extremely high."

This helps make removing Douglas fir uneconomic for landowners, he said, noting environmental restrictions on the Central Coast that have made logging "so difficult."

"And with residential encroachment on timberlands and just the value of land for development, period, people aren't logging anymore," Farkas said. "A Doug fir mill couldn't sustain itself here, even though the lands still produce plenty of wood."

Albrecht, who serves as president of Associated California Loggers, said he's concerned the U.S. Forest Service might zero in on salvage logging to the exclusion of other projects.

"We're going to really encourage the Forest Service: Don't drop your green-timber sale program or the planning for that during the salvage process, because we'll need to shift back to that, and that takes a long time to get that planning going again," he said. "We want to see them doing both."

At the homebuilders' association, Logan said the best long-term solution "is really making sure that forests are planted properly, with a strong reliance on being good stewards of the land," noting many publicly held lands are overcrowded.

"It helps the producers, and it helps the end users," he said, "and it's better for the environment. Our planting practices and oversight of timber on federal lands is pretty outdated."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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