The National Forests cover 8 percent of the nation, an area about the size of Texas. All public lands make up about one-third of the nation’s timberland. Timberland is differentiated from forestland by its ability to provide commercially valuable timber.
The last several decades have seen a management paradigm shift on national timberlands from commodity production, when they provided nearly 17 percent of the nation’s timber production, to preservation. Today national forests produce less than two percent of U.S. timber production.
A lot of public forest land is off limits to timber production. More than 75 million acres are set aside in federal and state wilderness and park areas. That does not include other management set asides such as 28 million acres of forested roadless area and another 24 million acres that are included in the Pacific Northwest Forest Plan, most of which is off limits to timber harvest.
It is beneficial to realize the alternative uses of the nation’s public forest lands. It is difficult, however, to know how the different uses are valued without a competitive market to signal the price. Are the forests more valued for timber or recreation, for example? Are the two mutually exclusive? In the end, public lands tend to be managed according to political criteria.
In recent years that has meant less harvest and more timber mortality, which, at least in part, has added to the high fire risk that exists in the forests. More fires mean more carbon in the atmosphere. That is an unintended consequence of current national forest policy.