Warm Springs Forest Products Industries supplies its mill in Jefferson County with logs from both eastern and western Oregon.
// Photo by Oregon Forest Resources Institute
Given the polarization in the west, there is some debate about whether Kitzhaber’s proposal will ever take off. And even in the east, Wyden’s proposed legislation does not satisfy everyone. Many timber officials grumble that Wyden threw the industry a bone; the “stewardship” strategy gave the environmentalists everything they asked for, including protection of larger trees, no clearcutting and other measures to protect watersheds and wildlife.
There are other unknowns, including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which control 60% of all Oregon forests and 70% of the forestlands in the east. They would have to agree to increased logging. The Malheur contract would also have to be the first of many to reignite the industry. Loggers and mill workers have retired or moved away, so their ranks would need to be filled once again for the plan to work.
Many of the mills that once finished eastern Oregon trees have closed, and substantial investment dollars would be needed to re-create the infrastructure, adds Charles McKetta, a principal with the Boise-based consulting firm Forest Econ and a co-author of The 2012 Forest Report for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute — a document that goes to great lengths to outline the east-west divide. Mill investors are leery because of the uncertainties surrounding the timber harvesting issue and the viability of thinning strategies as the key to reviving the industry, McKetta says.
Despite these hurdles, many believe stewardship/maintenance is the first step toward a harvest compromise in the east — a first step that has yet to be taken in the west. In the end, it’s hard to escape the irony of that geographic split. In the east, where the industry has been decimated by years of logging restrictions, a clear and undeniable crisis exists. Now a model for reviving that region’s industry is emerging. Environmentalists, timber executives, politicians and community leaders are finding a meeting of the minds and are cautiously moving ahead with a strategy that could — could — create jobs, produce taxes, support communities and restore bone-dry, choked, fire-prone forests to health.
But in the west, where the infrastructure to support tree harvesting and processing remains largely in place, where trees continue to be cut, though in declining numbers, the crisis is not so palpable. The parties are dug into their positions, extremely wary of one another. The industry staunchly defends its right to harvest larger timber, while conservation groups just as steadfastly marshall the forces to thwart them. Meantime, mills run at far below capacity as communities slip further into poverty.
Wyden and Kitzhaber’s proposals both acknowledge that the disparate parties involved in the timber harvest debate share common interests. The environmentalists want healthier forests, the mill owners want trees, and stewardship means removing and processing trees and reinvigorating the forests. But whether a settlement in western Oregon can be negotiated in the absence of a complete industry collapse remains a troubling question. Meanwhile, in the east, the opposing parties seem to have reached an understanding — that a crisis is too good an opportunity to waste.