State forestry budget gets attention of timber industry
BEMIDJI – The timber industry is taking in an interest in how much the state Legislature appropriates to forest management.
Although they have been operating with about 100 fewer foresters than they had just a few years ago, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has still been able to consistently produce about 800,000 cords of wood a year. That number is a general marker of what’s needed to help sustain the timber industry.
But that output would have decreased significantly under Gov. Mark Dayton’s original budget proposal issued in January, industry representatives said. The additional $2 million per year proposed in that budget wouldn’t have been enough to cover decreases in other DNR forestry funds, said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers Association.
“The previously proposed level would have caused (the DNR) to reduce their timber sale offerings by 200,000 to 250,000 cords a year,” Brandt said. “We think that would have had a very, very significant negative impact.”
But in his revised budget released last month, Dayton appropriated $8 million more for forest management than it was forecasted to receive in the next two years.
“If we get that, that will allow us to hire a number of new foresters,” said Dave Thomas, the DNR’s northwest regional forestry manager. “We’re struggling to get out 800,000 cords per year with the limited amount of staff we’ve got right now.”
In fiscal year 2008 to 2009, the forest management department was budgeted for $71.6 million in general fund expenditures. That number has been reduced to $38.4 million in the 2012 to 2013 fiscal year.
At the same time, the department has seen decreases in the forest management investment account, which is funded by revenues from wood sales, making it subject to market and natural forces outside the control of lawmakers.
Craig Schmid, the DNR’s deputy forestry director, said wood prices have been split in about half since the recession hit, and the DNR had to sell timber from blow-down areas last year. That damaged timber sells for about a third of what it would normally.
Dayton’s revised budget proposal would help the DNR cover losses in the forest management investment account and continue to put out the 800,000 cords of wood per year, Schmid said.
To keep wood outputs steady with fewer staff, Schmid said the forestry division has streamlined operations to focus on producing timber, fire prevention and planting trees.
“We’re getting about 15 retirements a year,” Schmid said. “And we’ve gotten to the point where we wouldn’t be able to offer that 800,000 cords of timber. We just don’t have enough people left to do it.”
“And the forest industry, they obviously perk up when they hear that,” Schmid added.
Public landowners like the DNR have become important to the timber industry. Since prices have dropped in recent years some private landowners have been reluctant to sell wood in hopes that prices rise again, Brandt said.
“The lack of availability of private wood has been the reason why the public wood has been so important to us,” Brandt said.
With that vital source of timber in mind, representatives of the Bemidji Area Forestry Affairs Council and their colleagues from the Grand Rapids traveled to the Capitol last month for the first time as a group.
Pete Aube, a member of the Bemidji Area Forest Affairs Council, said legislators were receptive to their presentation.
“It was very candid and open,” Aube said. “I think everyone felt that it was a day well-spent.”