Finding a Northwest timber solution will be a challenge

2012-10-19 Ashley Bach

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, knows that things are bad for Northwest timber counties. It's why he is part of a group of federal, state and local officials trying to come up with a plan to increase the timber harvest on federal lands in Oregon, a proposal that could be a model for other Western states. But he thinks that the timber counties have to be willing to make reforms as well, including raising their own taxes to keep their county governments afloat.

Wyden's principles acknowledge that rural counties have high unemployment but say they "need to do their part in reducing disparities in tax rates" and develop local revenue. Currently, the counties in question have some of the lowest tax rates in Oregon.

Wyden, though, may have underestimated the mood of the rural counties. Tax increases have failed to gain traction this year in the timber-dependent counties, and a spokesman for the counties says the idea of a tax increase is a non-starter. That's especially true in Josephine County in Southwest Oregon, which rejected a tax increase this year despite these dire straits.

Josephine County, population about 83,000, recently lost $12 million in federal timber county subsidies. The jail, sheriff’s patrols, prosecutors, probation officers and juvenile programs have all been drastically cut. The lockup has room for 69 inmates — only enough space for the worst offenders. As a result, theft and burglary suspects are regularly turned loose, only to be picked up later for new crimes.

Not only does Josephine County refuse to raise taxes, residents in one town have started an armed posse to watch out for crime in place of overstretched deputies. 

Instead, some folks in Josephine County, larger than the state of Rhode Island, are taking matters into their own hands — mounting flashing lights on their trucks and strapping pistols to their hips to guard communities themselves. Others have put together a virtual neighborhood watch, using Facebook to share tips and information.

“I believe in standing up for myself rather than waiting for the government to do something for me," said Sam Nichols, a retired marina manager.

Despite the ingenuity of residents, these timber counties do have serious economic problems that need a long-term solution. A three-person group of experts spoke about the future of the Oregon timber industry at a breakfast this week: Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner and head of an association of Oregon timber counties; Andrew Miller, president and chief executive officer of Portland’s Stimson Lumber; and Joshua Prangley, vice president of basic materials investment banking for J.P. Morgan Chase in Chicago.

Robertson said he thinks the panel of timber, envrionmental and community leaders formed this month by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (and supported by Sen. Wyden) could make real progress toward a plan to increase the timber harvest.

But the Northwest timber industry may also have more internal problems to deal with in years to come, said Andrew Miller of Stimson Lumber.

Despite signs of revival in Oregon’s wood products industry, panelists cited trends that may shift control to non-Oregon companies.

“I get calls every week from investors wanting to buy timber land,” Miller said, citing an increasing appetite among outside investment funds.

He also foresees potential new ownership of the remaining privately held timber companies in Oregon when current families decide to leave the field. When there isn’t a younger generation in the family willing or able to take over the companies, Miller said, financial institutions in Boston and Chicago might step in and acquire local companies.