If the outcome of the 2016 presidential race has taught us anything it is that our country needs to pay greater attention to building reliable, good paying jobs for families in rural communities who have for too long been left out of our nation’s economic recovery. Many of these communities are located in heavily forested states in the West, Upper Midwest, Northeast and South, where the forest products sector suffered historic economic setbacks during the Great Recession.
In these communities forestry and forest products manufacturing have historically been the mainstay of good paying family-waged jobs not only to those who work in the forest, haul wood or operate mills, but also to those in the businesses that supply needed materials and services to the sector or that benefit from the purchasing power of fully employed families.
The ultimate source of jobs in these communities are the forests themselves, especially the “working forests” or those managed to provide a continuous supply of wood for lumber, paper and packaging, energy and other economically valuable products. Most working forests – over seventy percent nationally – are privately owned by families, small and large businesses and an increasingly broad array of Americans who invest in forest ownership through modern investment opportunities. Today more than 2.4 million jobs depend on private working forests. Building and preserving these jobs begins with ensuring that working forests, and those who own and manage them, continue and flourish.
Over the next several months, policy makers in Washington will consider how to build and retain reliable, good paying jobs in rural America. Three common-sense approaches will provide a good start for forest communities.
Strengthen Markets. Markets for forest products and energy enable working forests to thrive. Today our forests hold 50% more wood than they did 60 years ago in large part because of the markets that sustain them. Unfortunately, some markets supported by working forests are constrained by economic and regulatory policies that bind rather than unlock the job-creating benefits these forests can provide. We can change this through efforts to revitalize home construction, harness wood as an advanced construction material for tall buildings, recognize biomass as a fundamental element of energy security and unlock the vast array of technology-driven bio-based products that can be derived from wood.
We can also structure environmental policies to acknowledge and reward the power of working forests to clean our water and air and provide abundant habitat for at-risk species. This can be done by orienting regulatory requirements for species conservation, water quality and air quality to recognize that working forests are a solution to rather than a source of environmental challenges. Looking at working forests in this way empowers foresters to willingly engage in conservation.
Retain Tax Stability. Working forests are long-term investments requiring significant up-front capital outlays, the assumption of uninsurable risk for decades and the patience and stamina necessary to realize an eventual return on investment. For more than a century we have tailored the tax code to address risk, reward patience and help sustain business operations over long holding periods. Maintaining these provisions within the fabric of pro-jobs tax modernization will help forest communities prosper. Eliminating them could unintentionally leave these communities behind.
Modernizing Our Investments. Over time federal investments impacting working forests have veered off course. An increasing percentage of the U.S. Forest Service’s overall budget has been devoted to fire suppression using an antiquated approach that raids the agency’s operating funds to pay for firefighting thereby paralyzing programs that could help create and preserve rural jobs. Replacing “fire borrowing” with more rational emergency funding and devoting greater resources to active forest management, developing forestry expertise and building a stronger capability to measure and analyze changes in forest inventory to inform forest management decisions would help sustain the jobs needed to maintain the long-term health and productivity not only of private forests, but also our ailing federal forests.
These common sense ideas will help build and preserve good paying rural jobs in the near term and lead to additional job creating opportunities down the road. Pursuing them now sends a clear message that we have heard our rural voters and are determined to respond by giving struggling forest communities and the working forests that sustain them a hand up and a brighter path to economic recovery.