Adding insult to injury for NW timber counties

2013-05-23 Ashley Bach

These are not good times for Josephine County in Southwest Oregon. With little federal timber harvest, the rural county is nearly bankrupt and jobs are scarce. In 1975, Josephine and neighboring Jackson County had 22 sawmills. Last month, the one sawmill remaining - called Rough & Ready - closed for good.

In the last week, both the Associated Press and the Oregonian have profiled Rough & Ready's owner, Jennifer Phillippi, and taken a deeper look at the problems plaguing the Northwest's timber counties. It's not a pretty picture. Rough & Ready, for one, had plenty of customers and demand and had 90 years of business behind it, but it couldn't get enough timber from the nearby forests to survive.

The Phillippis say environmental groups helped stifle timber sales, protesting five of the last six U.S. Bureau of Land Management sales with Rough & Ready as the winning bidder. BLM handles most of the O&C Lands.

Phillippis says her employees can probably get jobs elsewhere, but only if they move out of the county.

“What they tell me is, one door closes and another door opens,” said Ron Hults, 50, who worked at the mill for 18 years operating the various machinery it takes to turn a rough log into a smooth piece of lumber. “I’m waiting for the open door.”

So are many of the nearly 1 million who live in Oregon’s timber country.

To add insult to injury, Phillippi has had to endure criticism from environmentalist Andy Kerr, who wrote in a recent op-ed that sawmills like hers are only closing down because they didn't adapt to the changing business climate.

In her own piece this week, Phillippi says Kerr's claims were "breathtakingly inaccurate and bewilderingly unkind." She outlined numerous moves and adaptations she and her family made to keep the sawmill running.

Staying in business for 90 years doesn't just happen. It comes from being forward-looking and constantly adapting to the changes necessary for survival...

...But, no matter what innovations we pursue or how progressive we try to be, it seems that our efforts go unacknowledged by those who might prefer that we simply go away.

The timber counties have so little services left that they can barely offer law enforcement to their citizens, and three counties in Oregon - Josephine, Curry and Lane - asked voters this week to approve property tax levies to fund public safety. Voters in Lane County said yes, voters in Curry County said no and voters in Josephine County said no, though just barely (51 percent). 

The Oregonian editorial board says it's time for the state Legislature to take action to provide the counties with basic public safety, and for federal leaders to come up with a plan to increase the timber harvest. The counties themselves shouldn't be blamed for voting down the measures.

It's easy to point fingers and scold Curry and Josephine residents for putting themselves in this position. The counties have the lowest property tax rates in Oregon. But they also each have 10.8 percent unemployment, trailing only and Crook and Douglas counties. It's hard to vote for a tax increase when you don't have a job.