To understand why forest management in eastern and western Oregon will probably take different paths, start with some background on the state’s timber industry. First, contrary to what many may believe, many on the industry and environmental sides say the state’s wood products industry is not dead — far from it.
Although many mills have shut down in the last 15 years, between 1995 and 2012 the timber-processing capacity of the remaining large mills increased 25% above the industry’s 1995 levels, according to environmental consultant Andy Kerr, owner of the Larch Company, an Ashland-based conservation group. Numerous mill owners have retooled their operations to be more efficient and to be able to mill smaller-diameter logs, which is where the industry is inevitably headed. And as old markets dwindle, such as plywood and U.S. home building, new ones are emerging, biomass and Chinese home builders among them.
“Housing starts have been extremely low for years,” says Jennifer Phillippi of the family-owned-and-operated Rough & Ready Lumber in Cave Junction. “But family formations continue, which will translate into a pent-up demand for new homes that is bound to explode. So we see a bright future for our industry here, if we can get some of these issues worked out.”
As Phillippi points out, the industry may have stagnated, but there are still lots of trees in Oregon to be harvested under the right conditions. Still, the changes that have washed over the industry have taken a toll on jobs and dollars flowing into rural economies. The industry’s infrastructure has been badly undercut, and key players in the debate over harvests remain dug into their positions. Around the state, the sector has essentially been on hold for years, awaiting some guidelines that would allow it to either proceed or continue to consolidate.
To move forward with harvesting, it may simply be unfeasible to try to satisfy all the parties at the timber table, says Kerr. “There is a bright future for the forest products industry in Oregon,” Kerr says. “But the industry won’t look the same as it did before the spotted owl.”
The industry will also look different in the eastern and western parts of the state. The reasons for those differences are rooted in geography and industry infrastructure capacity.