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Timber cash stuck in the muck

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

There has been a lot of hopeful hype this summer that timber may be poised for a comeback.

The optimism has nothing to do with economics. Lumber prices and production are down more than 25% from a year ago, and they weren’t that strong then. The housing slump has pulverized demand for building products, and no state has suffered more than Oregon, the largest lumber producer in the nation.

So it’s not surprising that forestry companies are lining up hungrily for federal stimulus money to put their people back to work preventing wildfires, converting wood scraps into biofuel and fixing bridges, roads and culverts.

Over $123 million worth of Oregon-based stimulus projects had been approved by the U.S. Forest Service as of July, including a $3.25 million youth jobs program, tens of millions of dollars worth of various fire prevention efforts, $1.25 million to restore sand dunes on the coast, $2 million to improve fish habitat in Douglas County, $5 million for the Warm Springs tribe’s woody biomass enterprise and $5 million for a new wood pellet plant in Grant County.

But the money has been slow to flow, clogged by a process that Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, calls a “bureaucratic nightmare” with “a lot of talk but very little action.”

Geisinger says only two forestry projects have received stimulus money, and both were simply expansions of previously approved fuel reduction projects in the Deschutes National Forest.

Peggy Kain, an assistant director at the Forest Service’s Portland office, says, “Everyone on all sides is really scrambling to get things finished, but it’s still a little ways out before they can go.”

Months have already passed. Not long after the passage of the $789 billion stimulus bill in February, the Oregon Department of Forestry compiled and submitted a list of 217 projects worth $252 million to be considered for federal stimulus funds in the spring.

As of mid July, none of these projects had launched, and the return of the fire season makes it unlikely any of the fire prevention projects will be completed this year, ODF spokesman Rod Nichols says.

ODF is also applying for $14 million in stimulus money from NOAA Fisheries to hire contractors to restore streams and improve fish habitat. As of mid July, none of those projects has launched either.


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