I attended the Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting on Dec. 14. At the end of the BOC meeting, outgoing Commissioner Morgan used her time to lecture the attendees on her opinion about the current fiscal situation of the county. She opined that the budgetary deficiencies are the result of the spotted owl listing. I have heard the same claim from Commissioner Boice.
I have studied the spotted owl for over 30 years. It is time that the BOC and other public employees stop blaming the spotted owl for something that was a combination of poor planning and shortsightedness. The commissioners have expressed their opinion but the facts can be found in documents exploring the history of the timber industry in Douglas County (http://www.company-histories.com/Roseburg-Forest-Products-Company-Company-History.html).
In the mid ‘40s Kenneth Ford “made large purchases of Douglas County timberlands, which he was able to get for as little as $2 an acre. He soon owned some 160,000 acres in Douglas County. Rather than cut on his own land, however, Ford secured rights to cut timber on nearby government-owned land.”
“In the early 1980s, the timber industry suffered a downturn as the housing market slumped. The downturn hit Roseburg particularly hard. Because it had contracted to cut government timber while prices were high, it was liable for significant losses when prices fell over the next few years. During the late 1970s, Roseburg signed contracts with the United States Forest Service worth $383 million for 1.3 billion board feet. The company’s average cost worked out to about $300 per 1,000 board feet. By 1983, however, the going price per board foot was only $120. Roseburg stood to lose a huge amount of money if it harvested the wood at this price, and his was not the only lumber company in this position. Scores of companies in the Northwest were affected, and total possible industry losses were estimated at $2 billion, according to Forbes magazine (Jan. 30, 1984).”
The federal government bought back those high bid sales. Douglas County Commissioners apparently did not object even though these sales would have resulted in quite a bit more revenue for the county budget.
The tired argument of blaming the spotted owl for the fiscal woes is nothing more than deflection of the real issue that improper leadership when the county really needed it is to blame.
The company rebounded enough that they “… bought an interest worth $750 million in International Paper’s area forests. The arrangement brought Roseburg 214,000 acres of second-growth timber in the mountains between Reedsport and Eugene. Though Roseburg again offered no comment on the deal, it seemed to be part of a long-term strategy to supply the company with enough timberland so it would no longer need to rely on government-owned trees.” The company then experienced competition in the market that resulted in layoffs in their plywood plant. None of it related to the spotted owl listing.
More recently when the timber companies fought to decrease their contribution to county budgets, the Douglas County commissioners did not object, siding instead with the industry. Ernie Nieme (http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/06/logging_expansion_wont_help_ru.html) writes about the reasons for the decline of revenue in the counties, among others are: “The industry also has directly grabbed from county coffers money that could support public safety and other social services. Timber companies operating in Oregon used to pay timber-harvest taxes similar to what they paid in Washington and California.
They don’t now. In 1993, using the spotted owl as an excuse, their lobbyists convinced the Oregon Legislature to phase out the tax. They still pay it in California and Washington, and many companies operate profitably in all three states. If Oregon had a similar tax, it would have provided counties in western Oregon about $40 million in 2011.
Increased logging on federal lands will not fix these problems. Instead, it will diminish jobs in one of Oregon’s fastest growing industries, outdoor recreation. The outdoor recreation industry employs about 140,000 workers in Oregon (logging and wood-products manufacturing employ fewer than 30,000). Nationally, jobs in outdoor recreation are growing 5 percent annually. High-quality recreation attracts middle- and high-income families to settle in rural counties, too, boosting local economic activity.
There is abundant research and data showing that our federal forests would do far more for workers, families and local businesses if managed for ecosystem and human health rather than as tree farms. Yes, rural economies are suffering. But reduced logging on federal lands is not even close to being the main culprit. In the 1990s, lawmakers phased out what was called the “privilege tax” on timber. According to analysis by InvestigateWest, that decision has saved Oregon’s timber companies an average of $59 million each year, adjusted for inflation. “Restoring the privilege tax on private timber companies could provide nearly $50 million a year for schools and $25 million for Oregon counties.”
The spotted owl was listed over 25 years ago and even without the listing of the spotted owl, the harvest rate of the 1980s could not be sustained. The listing of the spotted owl led to a comprehensive, scientifically based and peer reviewed document called the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP). The 1937 Oregon & California Railroad Act contained provisions for “protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilties (sic),” essentially protecting an ecosystem. The NWFP was designed to do just that, protect an ecosystem. Economists have pointed out that the spotted owl has been used as a convenient scapegoat to hide the real culprits. Blaming the spotted owl for deficiencies in the county government more than 25 years later is nothing more than deflection of the real issues of improper leadership.
As the timber industry thwarts regulations that could contribute to the county budgets, shouldn’t the county leaders object to that as well? While the counties continue to get revenue from federal lands (there is still harvest on federal land), more concern should be focused on the more recent reduction of revenue from private lands. More support should be given to ideas for other forms of revenue, including legislation that could alleviate the budget deficits.
It is time for the Douglas County elected officials to accept that we cannot keep hoping that timber receipt levels from the 1980s will be resurrected. It is possible to institute changes that could increase revenues from private timber lands that were historically owned by Douglas County. Our county needs fresh ideas. There have been a lot of good ideas that have been expressed by members of the community with little support of the commissioners. Even if the harvest were to resume at an unprecedented rate, what is the plan for when harvest of merchantable trees is no longer possible? Continuing to focus blame on the spotted owl is counterproductive.
Janice Reid has lived in Douglas County while studying the spotted owl for over 30 years.