Uncertainty is a daily reality for timber towns


The headline out of Lane County, Ore., over the weekend was cheerful: “Resurgence in building boosts Lane County wood products industry.” The story in the Eugene Register-Guard, describing an upswing in the timber market, was similar to an article in the Wall Street Journal in February that also focused on Lane County, “Logging Towns Are on a Roll.”

After some lean years, any success in the timber market should be celebrated, as was pointed out in the Register-Guard story.

Kevin Binam, president and chief economist at the Western Wood Products Association in Portland, forecasts three “very good years” for the wood products industry — 2013 through 2015. Then in late 2016, growth will turn down again as inflation sets in and the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, which could cool down the housing market, he predicts.

But for now, there is much to celebrate.

“All in all, (these are) the best times the building products industry has seen since maybe 2006,” Binam said.

But for timber-dependent communities, the economic picture is more complicated and tenuous than described in the stories out of Eugene. And it’s important to not forget this, given that Congress is still failing to act on any meaningful reform of the management of federal timberlands.

In Grays Harbor County, Wash., local residents cheered when the Harbor Paper mill reopened last fall after a 16-month closure. But as the New York Times pointed out earlier this month, the mill closed again in February and has yet to reopen. Employees are waiting on “start-up organizational meetings” that have yet to be scheduled.

God knows everyone involved wants the mill to re-open again, and here’s hoping that the new owners of the mill, who took over last year, are able to make it work. But the uncertainty in Hoquiam is proof that the U.S. Forest Service’s mismanagement of our federal forests has a real impact on people’s lives.

From the New York Times story:

What compounds the stop-and-maybe-go anxiety for workers like Rob Harder, 44, a 19-year veteran of Harbor Paper who worked his way up to machine tender, is the ticking clock on his unemployment checks.

The mill was not in operation long enough, he said, from its reopening through February, to reset his state benefits, which began paying out in June 2011 with the initial shutdown. What that means, Mr. Harder said, is that if he does not go back to work within a few weeks, his unemployment compensation will be cut by more than 40 percent, to about $300 a week…

Mr. Leonard, 47, said that in recent weeks, he and his family — his wife, who does not work outside the home, and their four children — have been fixated on April 15, a date most people associate with taxes. But to them, it has meant rescue, or at least the hope of it.

“I basically held onto that premise, that we were going back on the 15th,” Mr. Leonard said. “If something doesn’t pop soon, I have to rethink.”

In Southwest Oregon’s Josephine County, the Rough & Ready sawmill just closed after 90 years of operation. Josephine County is already close to bankrupt and its voters last year rejected a property tax levy that would have helped stem the bleeding. The financial situation is so bad that inmates have been released from the local jail to try to make the county’s ends meet.

With no sawmills left in the county, even private logging likely won’t pencil out because the travel time would be too great. Reading the mill owner’s words is heartbreaking.

“For 23 years now, we’ve been pleading with members of Congress and the federal agencies to do something about these log supplies,” said Jennifer Phillippi, the family- owned mill’s CEO and co-owner.

“We were prepared to stick it out, but in the last few weeks it became clear to us that, at least in the near term, nothing is going to happen.”

The federal government owns 80 percent of the forestland around the mill, Phillippi said.

The future is unclear, to say the least.

Phillippi said it’s possible the mill could re-open if Congress allows more logging, or that another owner with access to timber supplies could buy the mill. But she said she doesn’t want to raise false hopes with employees.

“If Congress comes up with a solution that would work, we would take advantage of it,” she said. “But if there’s anything like that, it’s going to take two to three years before the wood really starts flowing.”