Timber country is ready for a resurgence

2013-11-13 Ashley Bach

The plight of our country's timber towns has been well documented here and elsewhere. But it's a story that needs to keep being told because the livelihoods and futures of entire swaths of the American West are at stake.

As we've noted in the past, finding a solution that improves these towns' economies is not as simple as just magically finding a new source of income, as many environmental groups like to claim. The Seattle Times this week took a look at the city of Forks, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The small town that used to be filled with logging trucks is now filled with tourists who come to see the sights behind the "Twilight" series of vampire novels, which was set in Forks.

As the Seattle Times' Ron Judd points out, though, the flood of tourists, while certainly a boost for the town, is no game changer. And even if it was, no other timber towns have a blockbuster film trilogy to their name.

Judd writes of all the "Twilight" hubbub in Forks: "It’s fun, and survival." 

It’s not exactly a gold rush. Aside from this window dressing, the town doesn’t look much different today than it did a decade ago. No major resort developer has yet been willing to gamble on such a far-flung place. But people like Bingham prefer to think of what post-timber Forks would be without “Twilight.” (For a reminder, they need only drive south, to Hoquiam or any other Southwest Washington town still on the canvas after the left hook of Big Timber’s death.)

It's not easy clawing back. In Grays Harbor County, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in Washington, local leaders are working on Grays Harbor Vision 2020, a plan designed to revitalize the community.  Voters in Curry County, one of the hardest-hit timber counties in Oregon, just rejected a tripling of their property taxes to help rebuild a decimated public safety system.

There are signs of hope. The Daily Astorian in Northwest Oregon cited a recent article about local timber companies that have found success despite the local downturn.

...As the lead story in the November edition of Coast River Business Journal makes clear, some rugged survivors have fought their way through to the other side, and are once again starting to prosper from the trees that grow so well on our fertile hills.

Warrenton Fiber/Nygaard Logging, Hampton Affiliates, Westerlund Log Handlers and Weyerhaeuser all are good examples of working in a smart and forward-looking manner to make a living from the land. Diversification and an ability to react quickly to changing market conditions allow them to compete in a truly international market.

...Must we remain conscious of the importance of conserving coastal watersheds and habitats? Of course.

But it is remarkable and gratifying to observe local people continuing to build prosperous lives based on an industry of such profound historical importance in our region.

Forester Thomas Hoesly wrote this week that Northwest timber towns should not forget the woods as they work toward a brighter future. Namely, local communities will benefit from the sweeping package of timber reforms currently in the U.S. Senate and approved by the House in September, he said. The Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act would restore jobs and forest health.

Hoesly lists some of the recent economic setbacks on the South Oregon Coast where he lives and works, and cites U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio's description of Southwest Oregon as a “new Appalachia.”

The federal legislation, which works hand-in-hand with the region's timber history, is the shot in the arm the region needs, he says.

It’s highly unlikely that we will return to peak historic harvest levels, but restoring regional timber supplies is a key solution for putting the South Coast’s economy back on track. Our elected leaders and economic development officials should continue efforts to bring in new businesses and diversify the economy, but we shouldn’t ignore one of our greatest assets that can help us achieve a better future.