Several members of the Douglas Timber Operators met with The News-Review editorial board recently, and there was less pessimism than one might expect.
Recent events have pushed the timber industry farther away than ever from having a reliable supply of logs from public lands, a problem masked somewhat by the Great Recession.
As the economy recovers, the problem will become more acute. Right now, the outlook isn’t good. Consider these developments in the past few years:
• The governor and two other statewide elected officials voted to increase logging in the Elliott State Forest, but environmentalists stopped the timber harvests cold with a lawsuit. Now the state harvests even less timber than before.
• The U.S. House passed a promising bill to increase logging on Oregon & California Railroad trust lands, but U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, declared it dead. Wyden’s opinion matters more than any other lawmaker on this issue. He says he supports increased harvests, but he won’t fight for them. Meanwhile, Oregon’s other senator, Jeff Merkley, is simply AWOL.
• The Obama administration proposed testing whether carefully crafted timber harvests can diversify habitat. Environmental activists responded by sitting in trees and filing lawsuits.
Furthermore, with environmental groups enjoying so much success in halting logging on public lands, they inevitably go after private timberlands next.
Still, mills are investing in equipment. Companies are looking forward to construction returning to historical levels.
Although the industry has suffered setbacks, it’s built for the long run, particularly in Douglas County, where family-owned, rather than publicly traded, companies dominate.
After meeting with timber industry leaders, we see many reasons to be optimistic.
• The politics are changing in favor of the timber industry. Democrats traditionally allied with conservation groups are realizing there’s no satisfying organizations like Oregon Wild. The pendulum has swung in favor of such groups, yet they are shriller than ever, raising money in the short run but alienating potential supporters in the long run. Wyden takes a soft stand in favor of slightly more logging and gets pummeled. How long will he stand for that?
• More people will make the connection between income inequality and environmental policies that impoverish communities and offer little tangible benefits, like cleaner air and water. During the Depression, liberals cheered dam building because it helped the Working Man. They could cheer logging for the same reason.
• The timber industry exists because it makes useful products. If supply doesn’t keep up with demand, prices will rise. Urban do-it-yourselfers shocked by the price of lumber at Home Depot will rethink their positions on clear-cutting.
• The courts may provide relief. The 1937 O&C Act and the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan already mandate higher timber harvests on federal lands in Oregon. Someday, a judge may make the Bureau of Land Management actually follow the law. Glendale-based Swanson Group is at the forefront of this effort.
• Environmental arguments against logging will weaken as overgrown forests become vulnerable to disease and infernos. People who see Southern Oregon as simply a place to recreate may not like clear-cuts, but we bet they like scorched earth even less.