EASTERN OREGON Recent lumber mill closures announced in three eastern Oregon counties have sucker- punched the region’s economy. Approximately 198 jobs have dried up with the closings of the Grant Western mill in John Day and the Wallowa Forest Products mill, both operated by D.R Johnson, and the Louisiana-Pacific mill in Hines. State forest officials say that the number of mills operating in the east this year dropped from 13 to 10, and the region’s timber harvest declined to historic lows. Factors include a decline in local timber supplies, spiking gas prices and falling timber prices.
Those 198 jobs in counties where the total population is about 22,000 is the equivalent of the Portland metro area losing more than 26,000 jobs, according to state calculations. In Harney and Grant counties, which already have among the highest unemployment rates in the state, the loss of well-paying mill jobs is especially acute. In 2006, Harney’s annual unemployment rate was 8.2%, and Grant’s was 8.4%; the state average was 5.4%.
Coupled with fires that are ravaging forests and drought that is hurting farming and ranching, a coalition of eastern county officials recently gathered under the rallying cry of “enough is enough,” says Harney County judge Steve Grasty. But the issue is longer-lived than just the recent fire and drought. Grasty says current federal timber policy has resulted in tinderbox stands of dead trees on federal land, while mills and jobs suffer. He says the coalition will advocate for forest practices that are beneficial to both forests and communities and allow more local timber to be cut. Some conservation groups oppose more logging in national forests.
“Our future is somewhere between doing nothing,” says Grasty, “and doing what we used to do.”
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