Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Logging increase won't lead to job boom: Guest opinion

The Oregonian

October 15, 2013

By Andy Kerr

The Oregon timber war of 1989-94 is being reignited.

This time, the culprit isn't not those pesky conservationists (I was one) who back in the day said clear-cutting two square miles per week of Oregon's ancient forests had to stop. Instead, it's politicians trying to bring back the antiquated industry of the past.

Let's examine evidence from 1995 (the first full year of the Northwest Forest Plan, which ended the timber wars as we had known them) and 2012 (the last year for which comparable data are available):

• Oregon softwood lumber mills — 94 in 1995, 54 in 2012, a decline of 43 percent.

• Oregon wood products jobs — 46,200 in 1995, 25,500 in 2012, a decline of 45 percent.

• Total Oregon jobs — 1,428,200 in 1995, 1,638,300 in 2012, an increase of 15 percent.

• Oregon timber jobs — 3.23 percent of all Oregon jobs in 1995, 1.56 percent of all Oregon jobs in 2012, a decrease of 52 percent.

• Logging and milling jobs per million board feet of logs cut — 2.04 logging and 7.91 milling jobs in 1995; 1.52 logging and 3.52 milling jobs in 2012, declines of 26 percent and  55 percent respectively.

• Milling capacity of Oregon softwood sawmills — 5.8 billion board feet of lumber in 1995, 7.2 billion board feet of lumber in 2012, an increase of 24 percent (remember: with 43 percent fewer mills).

Counting facilities and jobs, the Oregon timber industry is about half as big today as it was when the Northwest Forest Plan went into effect. Counting milling capacity, the Oregon timber industry is about a quarter larger today than in 1995.

Automation will continue to take its toll on both the number of mills and jobs. To the timber industry, jobs are just a cost of doing business. The reason it does business is profit.
The workers who remain in the more-automated mills of the future are more likely to be wearing a technician's white coat than a blue-collared shirt. In the woods, automation means more workers operating joysticks inside air-conditioned cabs than actually setting chokers.

More of the remaining 54 mills will close. Nine remaining Oregon lumber mills have a business model that requires the milling of large logs from large trees that come from old forests. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Peter DeFazio and Greg Walden all oppose logging such forests and agree the social license no longer exists to log older forests on federal forestlands.
The evidence is clear: The Oregon timber industry of the future will have an increasing appetite for logs but provide fewer jobs to help people put food on their tables. In both absolute and relative terms, the Oregon timber industry is declining as compared to the rest of the Oregon economy.

Yet many Oregon politicians want to allow for dramatically increased clear-cut logging on federal forestlands. It doesn't make sense to throw more tax monies and public assets at an industry in inevitable transition.

Today it takes five acres (about five football fields) of clear-cuts per year to produce one timber job. As industry automation (pronounced "innovation") continues, it will take even more clear-cutting to produce each of a smaller number of wood products jobs.

What about those current and future Oregon jobs that depend on clean water, abundant wildlife and scenic beauty?

Andy Kerr ( consults for conservation organizations across the West that seek to protect wildlands, wild waters, and wildlife. He splits his time between Ashland, Ore., and Washington, DC.

Link to The Oregonian piece. The op-ed also ran in the Salem Statesman-Journal on October 7, 2013 with the title of "Antiquated Politics for An Innovating Oregon Timber Industry" and Klamath Falls Herald and News on Sunday September 9, 2013 with the title "Archaic Politics Won't Gain More Timber Jobs."