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All Logged out?

Published: February 22, 2004

A logger from Scott Logging uses heavy equipment to lift a tree from a logging site on private land near La Pine.
Dean Guernsey / The Bulletin

By Rachel Odell

The Bulletin

LA PINE When Ron Scott graduated from high school in Bend in 1951, he sailed straight into a career in the logging industry that provided a good, albeit wildly fluctuating, living for more than half a century.

But today, the industry that sustained him and his business, Scott Logging, has changed as much as the mill he once relied on to process his logs.

The mill formerly located along the Deschutes River in the Old Mill District is now a mall. The forest, which was once almost entirely open to loggers, is now mostly off limits.

And as the timber industry has spiraled from its high point to its current, drastically different enterprise, parts of Oregon have reeled from the change. Jobs were lost, mills shut down and communities were vacated.

There were also efforts to protect old growth trees and endangered species, restore Oregon's streams and wild places to support the natural legacy of salmon and steelhead.

Depending on who you ask, the sweeping changes in the logging industry ushered in either economic doom or an environmental boon. In either case, the industry that helped develop Oregon no longer contributes the same amount of money to state coffers that it once did.

Recently, as lawmakers wrestled with the option of temporarily raising the state income tax, Scott and other timber industry representatives argued that if loggers had been allowed to cut more timber on federal public land, they could have boosted the state's economy substantially.

But while more logging would certainly increase the return of income and other taxes to state coffers, the additional money would not be enough to cure Oregon's budget woes, according to Gary Lettman, state economist for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Lettman did some rough calculations about how much income and harvest tax revenue would yield. However, because the figures were not peer-reviewed in more depth, he declined to offer specific numbers. Measure 30 would have temporarily raised $800 million in income taxes for the state.

"Oregon's financial problems would not be solved by increasing the cut on federal lands to Northwest Forest Plan levels," Lettman said. "That is safe to say."

That plan, adopted by the Clinton administration in 1994, promised about 800 million board feet of timber annually in Oregon alone and about 1.1 billion board feet of timber throughout the Northwest, including California, Oregon and Washington.

Failure to achieve those numbers has led to sharp criticisms of the Forest Service from the timber industry.

But agency officials say that unrealistic timber targets and not internal incompetence should be blamed for not meeting the goals.

Even those who wrote the Northwest Forest Plan never expected the targets to be met, according to Jack Ward Thomas. He was chief of the U.S. Forest Service during the passage of the plan and is now a professor at the University of Montana.

In a paper scrutinizing the plan that was published in June 2003, Thomas writes that when the plan was finalized, "the accuracy of the new timber yield projections (1.1 billion board feet annually) was challenged internally ... The protests were ignored."

Thomas believed the targets were impossible to reach because the Northwest Forest Plan prescribed so many intricate restrictions.

Specifically the "survey and manage" provision, which required agency officials to survey every sale to determine if sensitive species plants and animals whose populations were declining were present. If they were, the agency was forced to adjust their plan.

"In most cases, the proposed sale was simply dropped from consideration," Thomas wrote. "As time passed, it became clear that cutting any old growth was not likely."

One of those species was the northern spotted owl, a bird that lives in old growth trees and is considered a threatened species under federal law. As the battle over timber in the northwest escalated, the owl became an environmental emblem.

Although the plan protected much of the remaining spotted owl habitat, owl numbers have stayed steady or declined slightly, according to Eric Forsman, a Forest Service biologist who helped write the plan.

Currently officials are working on a status report that will map the locations of owl pairs and give population estimates. Forsman would not release that data now, saying he needed to wait until the status report underwent peer review and was published, which should happen this April.

"This is what we expected," Forsman said of the population stagnation or slight decline. "Habitat can only grow back so fast. We didn't expect a magic rebound."

Around the same time that the spotted owl was experiencing national exposure, logging levels dropped dramatically.

In 1994, loggers harvested 688 million board feet of timber from federal land in Oregon, according to timber harvest statistics produced by the Oregon Department of Forestry. That year loggers cut a total of 4.167 billion board feet on state, federal and private land in Oregon.

In 2002, the most recent year comprehensive statistics were available, loggers in Oregon produced a total of 3.922 billion board feet of timber. Of that, 222 million board feet came from federal lands.

Both years represent only a fraction of the logging that once took place.

In 1984, 10 years before the Clinton Administration adopted the Northwest Forest Plan, federal lands in Oregon yielded 4.084 billion board feet.

From that year, the timber yield continued to climb, peaking in 1988 at 4.926 billion board feet.

But those levels were not sustainable, according to Thomas and Forest Service economist Richard Haynes at the Pacific Northwest Research Station, an independent office of the U.S. Forest Service.

Thomas said that by the mid 1980s, loggers turned to federal land because most of the old growth on private lands had been logged.

"Cutting of old growth shifted to federal lands and continued apace," he wrote in the 2003 paper. "The idea was to take up the slack in national timber supply and maintain the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest until timber again became available from the private land cut over prior to 1980."

At the time, officials did not anticipate the controversy that would result from cutting so much old growth, he wrote.

Additionally, mills increased their automation, replacing workers with machines. Global timber markets impacted those in the Northwest and drove down the price of lumber. All of those factors combined drastically changed course for the timber industry.

The communities that had grown up around the mill and lumber towns also experienced the pinch as the supply dropped.

Since 1908, counties that had a significant federal land base received 25 percent of the gross receipts annually from natural resource extraction, i.e. timber sales, to fund schools and roads.

As the industry declined, those payments also dropped until Congress passed a law in 2000 that stabilized the amount of money counties received. Known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, the law identified 31 counties in Oregon that were eligible to receive higher national forest receipt payments than they had in previous years.

The tri-county area of Central Oregon has received those funds since the program began.

In 2000, Oregon counties received roughly $49 million more in forest receipts than the $80 million they received in 1999, according to the Association of Oregon Counties.

While the law boosted the revenue to counties temporarily, it is slated to expire in 2006, which will create new problems, said Philip Bransford, spokesman for the Association of Oregon Counties.

Even with the assistance of the secure payments act, some timber towns have disappeared with the decline in the industry.

While the local impacts may have been devastating, the overall effect on the state and the rest of the Northwest is negligible from an economic standpoint, Haynes said.

"I don't mean to diminish the pain they (timber industry employees) suffered with the changes, but the light's didn't go out," said Haynes.

He helped write the Northwest Forest Plan and said the agency was aware that changing the amount of timber available would certainly result in lost jobs. The plan estimated that there would be a loss of 25,000 jobs as a result of the changes prescribed.

"Oregon and Washington gained 800,000 jobs in that same period," Haynes said, arguing that those who were forced out of the timber industry could find employment in other sectors. "If someone lost a job, they could be absorbed somewhere else. The economy changed."

Still, someone who lost a logging job may have had to relocate, take a pay cut or make other drastic changes to remain employed, which represented a hardship, he said.

"If you were living in John Day and wanted to continue living in John Day, and you lost your job, you faced a cruel choice," he said.

Program manager for the environmental group Oregon Natural Resource Council, Tim Lillebo, said the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan and the decline in logging will ultimately prove to boost Oregon's economy.

"The plan was instrumental in protecting Oregon's natural heritage," he said. "That made Oregon a mecca for non-consumptive industries and provided a setting, a great place, for people to live."

But to Rex Storm, a forester for the Association of Oregon Loggers, the Northwest Forest Plan created a government bureaucracy, had severe impacts on loggers and has all but shut down logging on the national forests.

Both sides can oversimplify the economic perspective of the plan, said Art Ayre, state economist for the Oregon Employment Department.

He said that influences other than environmental arguments contributed to the industry's decline.

Ayre said that a recession in the early 1980s resulted when high interest rates followed low ones. A housing boom led to overbuilding, and in the early 1980s, construction employment declined by 40 percent, he said.

That decline, coupled with automation at mills, contributed to the timber harvest decline. At the same time, mills were trying to prepare for smaller logs, since less old growth was available.

As the logging industry declined, it had impacts on other supporting industries in the wood products sector, he said. For instance, shippers, wood processors and logging machine suppliers all felt the ripple effects of the decline, he said.

Oregon Department of Forestry economist Lettman said that while it is hard to quantify the economic shortfall that results from the industry's downturn, the lack of timber harvest on federal lands will have permanent impacts on Central and Eastern Oregon. He said that 74 percent of the productive forest found in Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains is on federal lands.

If that land falls out of the timber harvest schematic, "our worry is that there will be a collapse in the forest structure in Eastern Oregon, and we won't get it back," Lettman said. "We won't get it back, and then you cannot have anyone there to treat the products that come out of the forest."

But even if the timber industry receives a boost, it will never resemble the world that Scott forayed into in 1951, the logger said.

"It used to seem like there was limitless opportunity," Scott said. "Depending on how hard you were willing to work, the timber industry was operating at a high level. You could grow. Now you grow very cautiously, if at all."


Rachel Odell can be reached at 541-617-7811 or rodell@bendbulletin.com.


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