Citing a lack of federal timber, the Swanson Group recently announced the permanent closure of its sawmill in Glendale, which had operated since 1951. This is yet another economic sacrifice in Douglas County as federal forest management policies fail to deliver their ecological and economic goals.
To put this in perspective, the Swanson mill consumed about 120 million board feet of timber a year. If you took all the timber sold from the Umpqua National Forest, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, and both the Roseburg and Medford Bureau of Land Management Districts – the combined volume from those millions of acres couldn’t sustain even this one mill.
This artificial log shortage in the middle of the world’s most productive softwood forests is decades in the making. A quarter century ago, President Bill Clinton came to Oregon to strike a new deal – a balance between jobs and the environment. His Northwest Forest Plan promised to generate a “sustainable and predictable” level of timber harvest in western Oregon while recovering the northern spotted owl. Neither of those promises has materialized, and Douglas County continues to pay the price.
National Forests in Southern Oregon are producing less than half the volume anticipated under the Clinton Northwest Forest Plan. Meanwhile, the current BLM management plans allow sustained-yield commercial timber harvest on only 20 percent of the lands formerly owned by the Oregon and California Railroad. As a result, the federal agencies that manage 60 percent of Oregon’s forests only produce 13 percent of the statewide timber volume. On federal land, in fact, only one-tenth of the annual growth rate is harvested.
The Glendale mill joins over 300 lumber mills that have closed in Oregon since 1980. Fortunately, workers there can be relocated to other Swanson facilities. But over 30,000 Oregonians from all the other mills lost their jobs permanently.
To survive the decline in federal harvest, our mills invested in small log utilization, made more efficient use of each log, and developed new products like cross-laminated timber. No matter how efficient or innovative, Oregon mills need access to logs to be competitive in a global market. That requires at least a modest supply of federal timber.
The failure of the environmental promises of the Northwest Forest Plan are equally frustrating. Despite a 90% reduction in federal timber harvest, a recent scientific study found that spotted owl populations are declining faster than anticipated because of competition from the non-native barred owl. Some suggest it could take another 50-75 years to see if the Northwest Forest Plan even works for owl recovery.
We don’t have to wait half a century to realize that our federal forests are out of whack. Mega-fires exceeding 100,000 acres have become the norm in Southern Oregon. Ironically, even the most “protected” areas like wilderness and spotted owl habitat have burned, re-burned and are left to rot. Last year’s Miles Fire near Tiller re-burned portions of the 2002 Timbered Rock Fire. The 2017 Chetco Bar Fire re-burned the Biscuit Fire, which re-burned the Silver Fire, and so on.
This isn’t conservation. There is no value in converting large swaths of vibrant forests to moonscapes of charcoal, sterilized soil and tons of carcinogenic emissions — especially when tens of thousands of Oregonians lost their jobs to “protect” these forests in the first place.
The forest management imbalance also challenges the basic functions of our county’s government. Without additional revenue, Douglas County will continue to face increasingly difficult choices between public safety and critical infrastructure, such as the 100 bridges deemed structurally deficient. In the absence of new timber revenue, taxes and levies may be the only options to keep the county whole.
There does not appear to be any major change in course coming from Congress or the White House. That leaves it to federal courts. Several lawsuits filed by local stakeholders, including Douglas County, are challenging the legality of the severe timber restrictions on the BLM’s O&C lands.
Pending those court decisions, there are modest improvements that could at least prevent another mill closure in the county. Douglas Timber Operators and its members are working with federal agencies on common sense steps to increase forest productivity within existing parameters. For example, under the BLM’s existing O&C plan, harvest on the Roseburg District is projected to more than double by 2025 – from 25 million board feet a year to 52 million board feet. Meanwhile, the Umpqua National Forest has surpassed its annual timber target with post-fire timber salvage. The Forest also holds the potential to triple its timber output to meet the sustained-yield projections described in the Northwest Forest Plan. To do so would require a commitment by the Forest to adopt a management paradigm that aligns with this plan.
Ultimately, the Swanson mill closure is a reminder that forest management policies are choices, and they have consequences shared by us all.
Matt Hill is the Executive Director of Douglas Timber Operators.