Sawmills are key to forest restoration

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.

Paul Barnum
Executive Director