Wood is cool again.
Those words offered a glimmer of hope to attendees of the Roseburg Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Forecast conference in Canyonville on Thursday morning.
Guest speaker Travis Joseph, president American Forest Resource Council, told attendees that the timber industry is making a comeback. That is, once the federal government loosens its grip on logging regulations.
“Wood is cool again,” he said. “It is. People are starting to really realize how important wood is in our economy and our communities. People are thinking, ‘Oh, we could be building buildings out of wood.’”
The American Forest Resource Council is a Eugene-based trade association working to rekindle logging operations in rural communities. Douglas County is Oregon’s top timber producer and has been hit the hardest by a slack logging market.
Joseph blamed the industry’s decline on the federal government for not living up to its promises. He said the U.S. Forest Service was supposed to sell 78 million board feet of Umpqua National Forest trees a year to timber companies, but has actually sold 31.1 million board feet.
“I want to tell you why we’re so frustrated, because it really doesn’t make sense when you start looking at numbers,” he said. “The federal government really isn’t meeting its commitment under its forest plan.”
Those numbers are inaccurate, says forest service ecosystem staff officer Kris Sexton, who was not at the conference. She works out of the Umpqua National Forest office in Roseburg.
The regional office was funded through Congress to sell 33 million board feet, she said. It sold 31 million, so it was 2 million short in 2016.
The recent decrease in timber harvests was largely driven by a slowdown in exports to Asia, reads the Oregon Department of Forestry’s 2015 Oregon Timber Harvest report. Canadian lumber also flooded the U.S. market, and rampant wildfires diminished supply.
Fewer timber harvests might mean fewer job opportunities for Douglas County workers, but there is hope on the horizon for diversifying its job market. Earlier in the conference, Jerry Johnson, managing principal of Johnson Economics, noted that the county’s aging population opens the door for medical professionals.
“We do see a lot of strength expected in education and health services,” Johnson said. “Health services continue to grow for really definable reasons. One of those is the fact that the aging population is leaning towards more health services.”
Community leaders in Roseburg have been trying to establish a regional allied health medical college in its town for several years now. Johnson said the college could attract medical professionals to the area, as well as fulfill the community’s need for health services.
Job openings and training opportunities could attract a younger population to carry Douglas County’s economy forward, he said. The area is also appealing to young people interested in hiking, camping and hunting through its vast forests.
When asked if clear-cutting could take away from Douglas County’s appeal, Joseph became grave.
“If you don’t actively manage these lands, then you have a greater chance of losing these forests than if you just walk away,” he said.
The public lands he spoke of are already being managed for fire resiliency, Sexton said. The forest service thins out its pines, clears out highly flammable plants, and installs fuel breaks along roads and bridges.