Flying back from family visits in Sacramento last week I could see from the airplane a substantial portion of Oregon’s 30.5 million acres of forestland. Not all of it, but quite a lot.
As we flew up I-5, I couldn’t see the invisible borders for timber-based counties, but from my perch I could see some of their cities and towns. As bad as the Great Recession has been for Oregon’s urban areas, smaller communities were hit sooner, harder and with longer lasting effects.
Because of the linkages between the urban and rural economies in our state, it’s been housing and forest sector-related employment that often led Oregon out of past recessions. That hasn’t been the case this time. Housing starts crashed nationwide from a high of 2.3 million starts in 2006 to a low of 478,000 starts in 2009. Currently, we’re limping along at about 750,000 housing starts per year on an annualized basis, or about half of what economists and others believe is a sustainable replacement rate for the United States.
Sawmills and other sector infrastructure have fallen the past few years, casualties of the recession. However, the forests have continued to grow and some mill owners have reinvested in their mills, betting that the economy will improve. One key to Oregon’s participation in the rebound will be greater access to federal timber, which encompasses about 60 percent of all forestland in the state.
There is growing recognition that millions of acres of our publicly owned forests, especially in eastern and southern Oregon, would benefit from active management to thin, remove biomass and supply sawlogs in order to restore forest ecosystem health. Many of the skills needed for this work are similar or identical to those jobs we think of automatically, but there are many more.
Restoring healthy forests requires foresters, research scientists, timber cruisers, and wildlife and fisheries specialists. It needs administrators and truck drivers, engineers and road graders. That’s still scratching the surface because it takes nursery employees, electricians, equipment operators, mechanics and tree planting crews. It requires lumber graders, electric generation technicians and paper mill employees. It takes accountants, attorneys, sales staff, government regulators and those who work to comply with the law.
As Oregon’s economy begins to recover, it’s not just loggers and millwrights in small towns who will benefit. All of us will benefit from a renewed forest sector. And so will our forests.
For the forest,
I was deeply saddened by the recent announcement of the impending closure of Ochoco Lumber Company’s sawmill in John Day.
Following last month’s announcement, I saw an editorial in the Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper, which serves Grant County. The writer struggled to make sense of the loss felt in John Day, a community surrounded by national forests. That struggling sawmill has been a steady supplier of lumber for decades. The writer noted that if the pending loss of 75-80 jobs were in Portland, it would be a Big Deal. The writer went on to note that the consequence of the loss is exponentially larger to John Day.
I have participated for three years on the state’s Federal Forest Advisory Committee’s Implementation Working Group, convened by the governor’s office and Oregon Solutions to support local collaboratives whereby community consensus can be reached on ways to restore eastside forests. These processes work slowly. But we believed it was a good omen when $2.5 million in federal funds was extended to support the Blue Mountain Forest Partners Collaborative for this purpose. And now this.
The loss of this sawmill — a tragedy for the John Day community — is also a blow to the future health of those forests. Without that mill, the small-diameter logs from forest restoration efforts will have to be trucked to Lakeview or Gilchrist — 210 miles or 190 miles, respectively, and both about four-hour, one-way drives. Probably not feasible, especially with today’s fuel prices.
Without sawmills located close to areas needing thinning, there’s no economic engine to make restoration economically viable. It is the lumber that will help pay for this work. Ironically, the mill closed because there is not enough timber to keep the mill open, even though it is located within eyesight of a sea of forests needing attention.
We can’t afford to lose any more mills in eastern Oregon.
Owning family forestland is worth the hard work.But believe me, it’s no picnic. I’ve gained new respect for tree-planting crews.
I discovered this while replanting a section of our 89-acre woodland this past winter. My husband, Rex, plus my father and I, spent two weekends planting 1,600 Douglas-fir seedlings on about six acres.
On four cold, wet and dark February mornings, we headed out to our property in the Coast Range near Mist. We pulled on raingear, loaded our tree bags with seedlings and grabbed planting shovels. After a while, we developed a rhythm: Pace distance, notch hole, plant seedling, tamp soil. Repeat.
On and on we worked, stopping only long enough to gobble our sandwiches with cold hands. At dark we returned home, grateful for warm showers, and collapsed into bed. The next morning, we got up and did it all over again.
After four days of this regimen, my bones were tired and my muscles were sore, but my conscience was clear.
Despite the hard work, owning and managing forestland is deeply satisfying. There are both “hard” and “soft” benefits:
• Firewood for us and my parents, and ferns for our yard
• A stream of timber revenue as part of our retirement income
• The satisfaction of seeing the tangible fruits of our labor mature into trees
• Family bonds that grow stronger working side by side
• A peaceful refuge to enjoy deer, elk, birds and wildflowers
• An inheritance for our children
Above all, we’re happy to keep our forestland green. We don’t want to see forestland taken out of timber for other uses. And we’re happy to contribute to Oregon’s economy. It’s why we work in the forest industry.
While I may complain about the work, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
But next time, I will consider hiring a planting crew!
OFRI Business Manager
“Hello? This is an owl calling. Anyone home?”
No, it’s not the script for an annoying marketing call. Instead, it’s what I was doing on a recent perfect summer evening in the Douglas-fir forest of Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park, southeast of Salem.
Yes, making owl calls. “Owling,” in the vernacular.
I was teamed with Fran Cafferata Coe, a wildlife biologist hired by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to research whether any northern spotted owls still occupy this territory. Fran is also documenting all owl species within the park.
In the twilight, we headed down the trail. Our eyes and ears were turned on. As was our neat little boom box playing the pre-recorded owl calls.
The value of owl research
The spotted owl, a dark-eyed raptor with brown plumage and white spots, has been the subject of large-scale and long-term studies since it was listed as a state and federal threatened species in the 1990s. Along with research into the owl’s biology and habits, surveys are determining population numbers and establishing preferred habitat. The results of these surveys are especially important to landowners, who use them to make management decisions about creating and protecting spotted owl habitat in their forests.
In the woods, our job was to walk a designated eight-mile loop, stopping at 12 specified locations and calling for 10 minutes per station.
We traipsed without response for eight stations. Then, at the ninth station, boom! It was the haunting, eight-note hoot-hoot-wahoot, hoot-hoot wahoo of a barred owl. (Spotted owls employ a four-noted hoot-hootoot-hoo.)
Where are the spotted owls?
I flashed my light into the trees. The barred owl loomed about 25 feet above us, watching us as we watched him. I could have stayed longer, but Coe nudged me. It was time to move on to the next station. Our evening ended with the additional sighting of a juvenile barred owl flitting through the trees. No spotted owls seen or heard.
Are barred owls displacing spotted owls? Scientists are assessing this threat. Some think the barred owl’s adaptability and aggressive nature may allow them to more successfully compete for the spotted owl’s ecological niche. Others think spotted owls clam up in the presence of barred owls.
That may be so. On this night in the Oregon woods, I heard a hoot-hoot-wahoot, hoot-hoot wahoo but not a hoot-hootoot-hoo.
“Hoos” to know?
OFRI Director of K-12 Education Programs
For more information on owls in Oregon’s forests, check out these links and OFRI publications.
A Guide to Priority Plant and Animal Species in Oregon Forests
Wildlife in Managed Forests — Northern Spotted Owl
Wildlife in Managed Forests — Oregon Forests as Habitat
The Spotted Owl’s New Nemesis, Smithsonian magazine, January 2009
Experimental Removal of Barred Owls to Benefit Threatened Northern Spotted Owls, Draft Environmental Impact Statement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, March 2012