The Oregon Department of Forestry’s annual report on timber production shows the need to increase logging on federal lands.
The report contains good news and restates a troubling trend. On the plus side, timber harvests in 2013 topped 4 billion board feet for the first time since 2006. Oregon produced enough timber to build 419,920 houses.
Recovery from the Great Recession continued, and demand for timber has room to grow. Housing starts nationally were still only about two-thirds the historical average.
The troubling trend is Oregon’s overreliance on private timberlands to the detriment of the environment and economy.
Privately owned forests make up 34 percent of Oregon’s timberlands and produced 77 percent of the timber.
The federal government manages 60 percent of the timberlands and yielded 13 percent of the harvest.
It’s an old story. The federal government sells a fraction of the timber that grows each year on the lands it manages, putting pressure on private lands to meet demand.
Annual harvests on private timberlands are sustainable for now. But they might not be if construction fully recovers and overseas demand for raw logs stays high or picks up.
Gov. John Kitzhaber’s task force on Oregon & California Railroad lands concluded in early 2013 that Oregon’s private timberlands would be insufficient in flush times.
“Timber from public land is likely necessary to allow Oregon’s mills to respond to a prolonged surge in demand,” the report stated.
Harvests on private and federal lands were once roughly proportional. Federal timberlands accounted for 57 percent of the harvest in 1988, two years before the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species.
Since then, federal timber harvests have fallen by roughly 90 percent.
Meanwhile, private timber harvests have fluctuated, depending on demand. The yield peaked in recent years at 3.6 billion board feet in 2004 and hit bottom at 2.1 million in 2009.
In contrast, federal forest management defies economics. In the high-demand year of 2004, the Bureau of Land Management sold 96 million board feet. In the recession year of 2009, it sold 147 million board feet.
Private timberland owners have cut more in each of the past four years to meet the gradual increase in demand. Private lands, however, can only produce so much.
The Department of Forestry estimates that 3.8 billion board feet grow each year on private timberlands. The yield last year was 3.2 billion board feet.
Private forests still have untapped capacity and may be able to meet demand. Still, communities surrounded by federal forests won’t benefit as much as they should from the good times. Mills that depend on federal logs will miss out, too.
Also, private timber can be exported as raw logs, diminishing the number of jobs created.
The timber is there for the federal government to cut. The BLM estimates 1.2 billion board feet grow annually on O&C lands alone in Western Oregon. The annual harvest since 1995 has been about 150 million board feet.
Yes, the timber industry is bounding back. Right now, though, the federal government has a ceiling over how high the rebound can be.