A New Future for Oregon Forests

How innovative loggers and environmental capitalists are redefining timber.

By Zach Dundas May 1, 2013

The ride to the future of Oregon timber winds through its past. The route from an I-5 exit near Corvallis passes stacks of two-by-fours outside the Georgia Pacific mill in Philomath, then twists into the Coast Range toward the Siuslaw National Forest to a patch of trees called Jeep Thin.  

Logged two years ago under a contract between Georgia Pacific and the Forest Service, these 276 acres are now a light-dappled glade of skinny 50-year-old Doug firs stretching down a hillside carpeted in ferns, underbrush, and downed snags intentionally left behind.

The 630,000-acre Siuslaw, where Jeep Thin stands, now produces more than 35 million board feet every year—enough to build a small town. It also provides the Forest Service with about $1 million for habitat restoration projects up and down the Coast Range. One green advocate calls the Siuslaw “a magical, happy place where loggers and environmentalists get along.”

“What you see here, most conservationists would accept,” says Chandra LeGue, a 10-year veteran of the environmental group Oregon Wild. “You thin out young second-growth trees to let the remaining trees grow bigger and encourage diversity. Hopefully, this evolves into old growth.”

Before microbrews and microchips, forests defined this state. Just 40 years ago, timber accounted for 13 percent of Oregon’s annual GDP. Over time, 90 percent of the state’s ancient forests fell to the blade. The ’80s “timber wars” pitted environmentalists, old trees, and endangered owls against timber companies, dying milltowns, and unemployed loggers. That battle grew into a local, nonviolent (usually) version of the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. Today logging sales account for 11 percent of Oregon’s economic output. Just this year, a governor’s panel failed to broker a bailout of rural counties once bankrolled by timber money. To many environmentalists’ horror, Eugene congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, is pushing a plan to designate over 1 million acres for logging to fund those beleaguered counties.

But amid such throwback politics, Jeep Thin and the Siuslaw represent one of the emerging, more complicated futures for timber that may be better than the clear-cut past.  

“The Chinese government wants to build 36 million homes. We’re in a perfect position.”
—Roger Nance Jr.

The industry would, no doubt, love to cut more trees; the Siuslaw once produced 200 million board feet a year. But the new paradigm isn’t bad for business either. Marc Barnes, a consulting forester who works on the Siuslaw, points out that the Georgia Pacific mill is one of the forest’s biggest customers. “This model creates a lot of jobs,” he says. 

Up the coast, another, more controversial new timber business has emerged. Since 2010 Westerlund Log Handlers has shipped millions of board feet of raw logs directly from Astoria’s docks to Asia. Cut from private land usually within 75 miles of the port town, the trees feed booming construction in China, South Korea, and elsewhere. Not everyone is a fan of this new export trade. “When logs aren’t milled here, we don’t get nearly as many of the added-value jobs,” says state Rep. Paul Holvey, a Eugene Democrat, who authored a bill that would tax every tree chopped down in Oregon—but refund the money if the wood is milled in-state. 

Regardless of criticism, Westerlund’s operation is a classic example of strategic location meeting voracious new market. “Astoria has the shortest trans-Pacific shipping distance on the West Coast,” says company cofounder Roger Nance Jr. “The Chinese government wants to build 36 million homes over the next five years. We’re in a perfect position.” 

Portland, too, is evolving new woodsy business models. Nine years ago, Ecotrust launched a $30 million investment fund that buys private woodlands and makes money (and creates jobs) through selective harvesting, selling conservation easements, even trading carbon credits, such as those being sold on California’s just-launched cap-and-trade exchange. And in an aromatic Southeast Portland warehouse, the nonprofit Sustainable Wood Northwest is developing new products made with so-called “junk” trees traditionally ignored by the industry, reaping about $1.4 million in annual sales.

“There are mills out in rural Oregon that need new markets,” says Sustainable Wood NW’s Ryan Temple. “There’s an urban crowd that wants to buy local wood. We bring them together.” 

That might be the most hopeful idea out in the underbrush: that Oregon’s forests—still a robust 40 million acres—could again unify the state. As the politics play out, new ways of working and living with our trees can thrive.

“I tell my guys that trees you leave standing are more important than trees that you send down the road,” says Lee Miller, the logging contractor whose company cut Jeep Thin’s trees. “And we’re booked solid.” 

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