Adopting the latest plan from the Bureau of Land Management could lead to the financial ruin of Douglas County, timber executives and a county official said Thursday.
Timber industry executives, advocates and Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman spoke to The News-Review, emphasizing that the bureau’s recently announced plan for managing forestland in Western Oregon continues to squeeze timber harvests so downsizing, for private companies and the county itself, is inevitable.
A rash of layoffs at mills in Josephine and south Douglas County point to the path that the timber industry is on, as well as the communities that rely on that industry, said Steve Swanson, who runs the Glendale-based lumber company Swanson Group.
“You’re beating your head against the wall trying to compete for wood outside of your region and hauling it past other existing mills,” he said.
The bureau revealed its latest proposal to govern 2.5 million western Oregon acres on April 12. The plan determines how much timber can be harvested, and while it raises the harvest by 36 percent, pro-timber groups say it falls short of restoring the logging industry that once allowed southern Oregon counties to thrive.
The two sides disagree on the legal precedence of logging the lands. Pro-timber groups call the plan illegal for disobeying the O&C Act of 1937, which first gave the bureau the land on the condition that 500 million board feet was made available to harvest in 18 counties in Oregon.
The bureau contends it must follow federal mandates to protect fish, wildlife, old growth forests and waterways.
Jim Dudley, an executive with Swanson Group who said he has watched the two sides be at logger heads for 22 of his 25 years of experience in the industry, said that logging economies along the West Coast have wilted — and the communities around them have deteriorated without those family wage jobs.
“Sad part is those people that have lived in those communities for four or five generations, there’s nothing there for them anymore,” Dudley said. “You see alcoholism, you see drug abuse, you see kids that aren’t being well educated anymore. No sports programs because the schools are broke.”
Since the passage of the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Act in the mid-1990s, timber interests have been at loggerheads with environmental groups. Freeman, a lifelong Douglas County resident, said current leaders within the bureau lack the institutional knowledge to strike the right balance between the two groups. Allyn Ford, of Roseburg Forest Products, simply called them “dispirited.”
“They are being attacked by the environmental community, they have conflicting legislation,” said Allyn Ford, of Roseburg Forest Products. “I can’t point the finger at the people (at the bureau) themselves, but they are dispirited.”
In the end, the new plan fails on many levels, the logging industry representatives said. Joined by timber advocates Nick Smith and Bob Ragon, the timber executives said that the lands have been mismanaged and carelessly overgrown in the name of protection. With Douglas County being 52 percent owned by the federal government, Swanson called the bureau bad neighbors.
They all pointed to the increasingly destructive wildfires. In 2014, the Douglas Complex fires burned over 40,000 acres. The Stouts Creek Fire burned more than 26,000 acres last summer. The pro-timber groups said the hands-off approach led to overgrowth, effectively stockpiling dry vegetation to catch fire.
“These fires are getting bigger and bigger,” Swanson said.
Public and private lands were both caught in the fire, but private landowners managed to salvage the burnt wood while much of the wood on public lands remains untouched.
“They leave that wood. They leave it there to rot,” said Freeman. “If you had a field full of $100 bills and you knew the rain was going to rot those $100 bills, you’d likely go pick them up, right? Not the government. They let them sit there and rot.”
From a county perspective, Freeman said the bureau’s plan shortchanges the timber-reliant government directly. Vanishing funds from the timber industry will lead to cuts in services. Fees have been placed at the once-free dump and also at county parks. The county is looking to remove the library system from its payrolls. And while the bureau emphasized greater recreation in the new plan, Freeman pointed out recreation would not financially benefit the county. The county only benefits when there is a timber harvest.
Cuts will continue, he said, because counties don’t have the funds and may someday require help from the state.
“This plan will push counties into insolvency,” Freeman said. “... These services from the county are what I call the habitat we create for the human species from these lands.”
Freeman, who graduated from Oakland High School in 1983, pointed to a time when young people could go right from school to work in the mills and earn family wage jobs.
“Friends of mine went to work for Allyn’s company making more money the first day they went to work for him than the schoolteacher was making,” Freeman said. “Those guys bought homes, got married, had children, had new pickups, fishing boats and a retirement plan and health insurance and they would work there their entire career as their dads did before them.”
The executives said they were also let down by policymakers. Legislation that would have grown the harvest cap to at least 500 million board feet passed the U.S. House of Representatives but stalled in the U.S. Senate despite Sen. Ron Wyden sitting as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
“From his penthouse or wherever he lives in Manhattan, it looks just fine,” Swanson said of Wyden who he said did not make an attempt to carry the legislation forward in the Senate. “But if he’s on the ground here in Oregon, it’s not fine.”
Swanson also pointed out that the wildlife the bureau planned to protect, like the northern spotted owl, are still on a path to extinction despite the curtailing of logging.
“Logging was blamed for the extinction of the owl, (but) nothing’s changed,” Swanson said. “There’s less owls than there ever was before... They’re now blaming it on the bard owl.”
Smith, of the pro-timber group Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, said it’s on the congressional leaders to come up with a solution.
“They are the ones who can chart a path through this,” he said.