Collaboration is just the beginning of improved timber management

2013-01-18 Ashley Bach

It was just two months ago that a panel of experts talked about the power of forest collaboratives at the Washington Forest Protection Association annual meeting in Olympia. As we noted then, the experts cited not just the benefits but also the numerous challenges when the timber industry, environmental community and local, state and federal government come together. 

Agreeing to come to the table to reach common solutions is just the first step. There is still a long and difficult journey to come.

This is no more evident than in the deal reached last fall among stakeholders to increase the federal timber harvest in Eastern Oregon in order to save a 29-year-old sawmill from shutting down (a deal we wrote about here). The mill, Malheur Lumber Co. in John Day, was considered critical because the nearest mill is 112 miles away.

Now it's time for the details of that deal to be hashed out, and so far, it's not pretty.

The Blue Mountain Eagle sat in on two public meetings last week in John Day, attended by U.S. Forest Service leaders, timber industry reps, leaders from the local Grant and Harney counties and local residents.

One of the biggest disagreements was about the amount of timber that will be harvested. The Forest Service said it "pledged that the (Malheur National Forest) will offer 55 million board feet in fiscal 2013, and seek to ramp up to 75 million in future years. Overall, the target is to commercially treat 30,000 acres a year."

But some of that timber may be set aside - and there were a lot of questions about how much of the timber would be sawlogs and how much would be biomass.

Dan Bishop of DR Johnson Co. noted that “20 million board feet doesn’t keep one mill open.”

John Shelk of Malheur Lumber said that at 55 million board feet overall, the sawtimber portion still wouldn’t be enough for a single plant, especially if an as-yet-unspecified percentage is removed for the green program.

Industry leaders and county officials also raised concerns about what company would receive the timber contract, if it should be a nonprofit, about the budget woes of local government and about whether one local county would receive more money than the other.

At the same time, even critics of the deal agreed that it's better than the timber industry and environmentalists fighting in the courts.

Despite his frustration, (Harney County Judge Steve) Grasty offered to be part of any further discussions on community benefits, and he conceded that a long-term approach is a good idea.

“Maybe it’s the last good idea … I don’t see anything else being put on the table,” he said.

Even a modest success in Eastern Oregon could be replicated in other timber communities.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, stressed that the Forest Service needs someone who is “going to be able to jump in and get things going.”

“Time is of the essence,” he said, adding that he hopes a successful stewardship effort on the Malheur can be expanded to other forests.