Dry-side federal forest after receiving a restoration treatment near Sycan March, Klamath County.
// Photo by Oregon Forest Resources Institute
Eastern Oregon is dominated by ponderosa pine forests where old growth barely exists. These forests are mostly federally owned and managed. They are largely dry and considered unhealthy by environmentalists, who cite an overgrowth of young trees that represents a fire hazard and crowd out the remaining old-growth stock. The infrastructure has also been seriously damaged; with most federal forest closed to logging, the mills disappeared.
In western Oregon, by contrast, state and private ownership of the predominantly Douglas fir forests nearly equals the percentage controlled by the federal government. While considerable old-growth stands remain, there are also plenty of medium-sized trees that could be cut without setting off “old-growth” alarms. These forests are wetter than in the east and are generally seen as healthier.
About that infrastructure: Although most of the mills in the east have closed, some five dozen still operate in western Oregon. The ones that survived the ravages of the spotted owl restrictions in the 1990s and the recession tended to have very deep pockets; many invested in new equipment and the latest technology.
Among the surviving mills are nine of the state’s largest operators — including Rough & Ready — which have been branded “dinosaurs” by Kerr. These operators, longtime timber harvesters like D. R. Johnson, Herbert Lumber and Swanson Brothers, are still geared up to process larger logs. Although there is considerable resistance across the region to these harvesting practices, the “dinosaurs” wield lots of political clout — one reason why gridlock in the west is expected to persist going forward.
Wyden and Kitzhaber’s proposals are unfolding in this bi-state environment. Due to fire danger and the almost complete decimation of the industry in the east, Wyden has enjoyed a fair amount of success brokering a truce among environmentalists and timber companies in that part of the state. The key to the compromise he proposes is the thinning of younger trees in parts of forestland that were clear cut.
By thinning the younger trees and removing the underbrush, known as biomass, the forest becomes healthier for the older trees, fire danger is reduced, and it is a better habitat for wildlife. There’s a market for these younger, smaller-diameter conifers — not as strong a market as exists for bigger logs, but a market that does not face as many of the environmental and regulatory obstacles. Wyden’s bill died in committee the first time around. Now that he chairs the Energy and Natural Resources committee, the bill should at least get out of committee and onto the Senate floor.
The bill “is a peace treaty that will lead to significantly more logging in eastern Oregon,” says Kerr. “At the same time, it calls for astute conservation and restoration of the forest.”
Even without the legislation, more milling is about to take place in the east. The Forest Service is considering a 10-year “stewardship” contract in the Malheur forest region, where a timber company would be assured of access to timber through a thinning and cleanup plan. This contract would be a true test of whether the forest- maintenance strategy can allow timber firms to operate profitably.
Ochoco Lumber is the likely candidate to be awarded the contract. After it threatened to close its last mill in John Day, last summer, Wyden and others encouraged the Forest Service to open up some timberlands to harvesting. Today Ochoco’s president, Bruce Daucsavage, is highly optimistic that his company will be able to turn a profit from the thinned trees and the biomass they would gather. “Frankly, we will not survive without those logs,” he says.
But in the west, a cadre of influential timber industry executives like Jennifer Phillippi takes exception to Wyden’s solution. They argue that without harvesting a certain percentage of larger-diameter trees (not necessarily old-growth trees, Phillippi says), their businesses can’t remain viable.
Phillippi says Rough & Ready’s primary tree supply comes in the 22-to 24-inch diameter range — far short of the 60 inches that defines old-growth trees. But the trees that are generally included in thinning proposals are less than 20 inches. Those trees are unsuitable for many of the lumber markets Oregon’s companies serve, she says.
The many western Oregon rural communities that have been devastated by the wood products industry decline also want to see forests opened up to more large-diameter harvesting. These communities received substantial federal subsidies to offset timber losses, thanks in part to Wyden’s advocacy for the funds. But those have now been eliminated; the small towns are essentially broke.
Timber companies and rural officials in the west were buoyed by the recent proposals floated by Kitzhaber, who has suggested that a return to more aggressive logging, including harvesting more old timber, would revive the timber industry and pump badly needed funds into the rural communities. In the west, Kitzhaber has become the champion of the industry.
For their part, environmentalists have vowed to fight Kitzhaber’s proposal on grounds it would threaten old growth and mature forests. Industry representatives are also poised for confrontation. Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, for one, believes it’s time to mount a serious challenge to the grip environmentalists have held on western Oregon logging policies.
“Natural resources are what run the state’s economy. Federal forests used to provide 60% of our products. Now it’s only 10%, and we’ve got to move that pendulum back a bit,” Geisinger says.