As Sawmills Close, so too do the Doors on Rural Communities

I was born in Prineville and grew up in rural eastern Oregon in the 1950’s. Prineville had four active sawmills and several secondary wood manufacturers. Unemployment was low, and jobs were readily available. We were proud of our work and what we contributed to the wealth of the state. We had the opportunity for education, a career, and advancement if one had the desire to work hard to achieve our goals. Now after nearly sixty years of carrying the belief that rural Oregon residents could have these expectations and make their own way, I no longer believe it is true.

Something has changed in Oregon, and maybe in the United States in general, regarding opportunities for people living in rural communities. Rural Americans have become some of the most forgotten and discriminated against people in our society. I offer this perspective based on current government policies which have put the needs of rural Oregonians behind those of eco-alarmists, obstructionists, ill-informed judges and misguided lawmakers who haven’t taken the time to walk a mile on rural streets or understand the role we play.

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Many of Oregon’s rural communities were built around the timber industry, which prospered after World War II. Our federal government made a contract with rural Oregon that they were going to manage our national forests and BLM lands, and in lieu of paying property taxes, those forests would help provide jobs and pay a portion of the timber stumpage receipts back to the counties in the form of road and school funds. This was a win/win situation for our forests, our rural communities, and for Oregon.

During the 40’s and 50’s, Oregon had an influx of people from states like Oklahoma, Arkansas, Minnesota, Kentucky allured by the growing forest products industry. While these people were not minorities by ethnic standards, many of them faced similar hardships to those faced by migrant farm workers. They left the Dust Bowl to live in logging camps and to work one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. The grit of these people built the roots of communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The opportunity for many rural Oregonians to carve out a lifestyle, maintain independence, and flourish was provided by the forest products industry and by federal forest management policies. As a result, Oregon, and Oregon’s rural communities, flourished for most of the 20th century. Timber in Oregon was big business, growing to become the state’s largest industry. Rural Oregon was proud of its role in the state and contributed to economic health just like their urban counterparts in Portland, Eugene, and other cities.

Beginning in the 1990’s federal forest policies began changing, with implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in western Oregon and the development of the East Side Screens in eastern Oregon. Harvest from public timber land was greatly reduced (by over 80 percent). However, even those reduced harvest levels were never again reached and our legislators have done little to help deliver the promises of sustainable harvests from our federal forests.

There have been many missed opportunities throughout the past fifteen years that could have increased harvest levels and helped struggling rural communities near our federal forests, but partisan politics and misinformation regarding sustained forest management has prevented any meaningful actions in the forests and left dozens of sawmills idled.

When opportunities do arise for rural Oregon we often find they are minimized or rejected as with blocking the implementation of the Bureau of Land Management’s Western Oregon Plan Revision. This plan was the culmination of five years planning and called for a sustained harvest of timber from O&C county lands while creating 1,200 new jobs and preserving 3,800 additional rural Oregon jobs. Legislators appear to be siding with environmental extremists who have denounced sustainable forest management policies and prefer to see rural Oregon living on unemployment rather than on forest products jobs coming from BLM timberlands. Unfortunately, with those policies and attitudes in place, communities like Prineville, Baker, North Powder, Burns, and a host of others have no sawmills or the jobs and dreams that go with them.

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Well-meaning forest management legislation that has been proposed in recent years is misguided. Instead of opening up areas for expedited forest health harvests, these laws would only take another slice out of forest management opportunities by limiting the ages of trees that can be harvested and also put more forest land off-limits to management. These limitations would also remove a certain segment of the industry infrastructure that relies on larger trees from being able to access federal forests, thus further breaking down the contract with rural America our government once honored.

Rural Oregon residents, the federal forests, and the forest products industry are much like a garden that needs to be tended and watered. If you cut off the spigot of management dollars and treatments for the forests as has happened for the past decade and a half they will all die! We need our Government and legislators to understand that only a healthy forest products industry will deliver our rural Oregon towns from double digit unemployment; not promises based on tourism or other such panaceas. Our forests need managed, not just set aside to burn. They need the spigots of active management turned back on to allow them to flourish along with the forest products industry located there; and our rural citizens need the opportunity to once again have family wage jobs and opportunities and hope for the future.

– Tom Partin


Timber, OR: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Building With Wood

There is a bucolic nostalgia about wood buildings. Structures built from wood tend to have a rustic, outdoorsy feel; very ski chalet, very grandparent’s cabin. Although the aesthetic and sentimental appeal of wood buildings lingers, it, like most nostalgia-tied imagery, has been antiquated, pushed aside in favor of the new. Or has it?

No chagrin can be placed on someone who believes building with wood is an obsolete practice given the current technology. For many, the argument that wood could be used as a permanent and wide-reaching material for multi-story buildings stops at the mere mention of wood’s inherent flammability. That’s the perception: steel and concrete can’t burn up like wood does, so why use anything but? Images of the Great Chicago Fire and other urban disasters conjure an unflattering and misguided view of how wood acts as a building material.

Recent studies at Oregon State University (a research institute in the heart of timber land), show that wood can surpass the structural standards placed on similar building materials for multi-story structures. Concrete is used to help bond joints in the wood, giving it a strength that rivals steel. Cross-Laminated Timber has set a new standard for strength, and has proven that there is still more that can be done with timber.  Advancements like these have started a revolution of sorts, as architects and engineers begin to look at wood as the primary building material for structures in excess of twenty stories. As a result, building codes in most of North America are being reexamined to allow for taller wooden buildings.

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Not to mention it sure it pretty.

The good news doesn’t stop there, though. Compared to the production of steel and concrete, harvesting, production, and building with wood produces 31% less CO2. Wooden structures also represent a massive carbon sink, one of the largest available for urban areas. This, in addition to massive replanting efforts by timber organizations, makes timber one of the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly building materials. Who could find a way to oppose that?

Well, one town did.

In the face of overwhelming data and research proving otherwise, the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs has banned wood construction in buildings more than three stories high and over 100,000 square feet claiming that the material’s combustive properties and lack of structural integrity creates an unsafe environment.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul asserts that the decision to ban certain wooden structures from being built in the town is purely in response to safety concerns regarding the material and that he does not feel his decision will hurt the overall Georgia timber industry, which has historically done very well in the area.

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Wooden structures are not only more sustainable, but they can be erected much faster.

This refusal to acknowledge the advances in wood products and wooden buildings comes alongside a movement from the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, whose “Build with Strength” campaign rails against wood as a building material. In a direct quote from NRMCA, “Wood burns, rots and molds, and that is not a product we want in schools, multi-family housing, or retirement homes.” The implication of wood as a dangerous building material has long been debunked, and only makes those who advocate against it appear foolish.


Fire Borrowing is Bleeding the Forest Service Dry

The first thing any new session of Congress hopes to accomplish is the designation of the coming year’s federal budget. As well as being one of the most important legislative acts, it is also one of the most contentious. Every year Congress must fund every agency and department in government.  Naturally, when dealing with a multi-trillion-dollar budget, there isn’t room for everyone to get exactly what they want.

Sometimes there are cuts to education, the arts, agriculture, even the military. Recently, though, there has been a troubling trend of not providing enough financial support to combat an omnipresent threat in our forested lands: catastrophic wildfire.

As conditions become more dry and dead trees populate the landscape with increasing density (for evidence of this see California’s estimated 70 million dead and dying, a major fuels concern for foresters), the risk of catastrophic wildfire rises. At this moment, Congress has provided insufficient funds to the Forest Service for both general forest management and combating wildfires, many of which burn all summer and threaten not only our forests, but also the livelihoods of those in the neighboring communities.

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Studies have estimated that the fire season has become 78 days longer since 1970. This, in combination with a lack of understanding of the need to better fund fire response, has caused the  U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to divert hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars away from its management budget. In 2015, the USFS announced that it would alter its budget to move $250 million from routine operations to fire suppression and emergency fire response.

This seems intuitive, even necessary, in certain ways. If the forests are experiencing more destructive wildfires more often, of course, more funds should be given to suppressing those fires. It must be a contingency already built into the USFS budget, right? Well, it’s complicated. The USFS does allot a certain percentage of its annual budget to fire suppression – usually an amount equivalent to the ten-year average of fire costs.  However, when that amount is exceeded, which is becoming a yearly occurrence, the USFS “borrows” funds from other management accounts.  This includes borrowing from management accounts intended to make our forests more resilient and less fire prone by performing thinning and healthy forest treatments.

The practice of “fire borrowing” has had a devastating impact on the agency’s ability to complete its mission of managing our nation’s public forestlands.  To put the problem in perspective: In 1985, only 16% of the annual budget was set aside for firefighting, and this money was usually only used in fighting the small number of fires that grew past the point of rapid containment.

But in 2015, for the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, fire suppression and containment took up more than 50% (52%, to be exact) of the annual budget. To make matters worse, these numbers are projected to become even more lopsided, as the USFS predicts firefighting will account for 67% of the budget by 2025.

Here are some startling figures representing the USFS programs impacted by fire borrowing:

  • Vegetation and watershed management has suffered a 22% reduction in spending;
  • Facilities are down 67%
  • Roads are down 46%
  • Trails are down 14%
  • Fisheries are down 17%
  • Deferred maintenance is down 95%

Foresters are concerned of course, worried that the money spent on forest fire containment is masking the underlying causes of overall slumping forest heath. It ripples outward, of course, to anyone who works and lives in the forest. Logs are burning, meaning mills can’t get enough raw materials to stay afloat. Animal life already threatened by adverse weather are being forced out of their habitats. Recreation is being halted in impacted areas.

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The bottom line is fire borrowing is impacting everyone. The kicker? The solution is right in front of us: active management.

For many of the key decision makers, including those who allocate federal budgets, the idea of active management isn’t very sexy. Implementing it means a lot of work, and work means money. Those outside of impacted states can have trouble understanding the need to spend money on management when fires still rage across the landscape, but it is essential to impart to them that active, hands-on management is the solution.

Active management can help reduce the risk of catastrophic fires thus providing myriad environmental, wildlife, air quality, and water quality benefits; it can help kick-start rural economies by providing more raw materials to mills and create good paying jobs; it will generate a better economic return to the American taxpayer by increasing revenues for county governments and the U.S. Treasury while simultaneously reducing public outlays to suppress fire. By fixing fire borrowing, Congress can turn an economic and environmental ticking time bomb into a benefit for our forests and rural communities.


NEPA and the Antiquities Act: When is Public Input Needed?

On January 1st, 1970, Congress passed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Billed as the “environmental Magna Carta”, NEPA marked the early stages of the country’s environmental policy agenda, and mandated that all federal agencies must perform environmental assessments (EAs) and environmental impact statements (EISs) for public land being managed or developed in any significant way, and should state any environmental impacts that could result from federal action on the land.

Apart from its landmark status as an environmental oversight measure, NEPA was also lauded for its inclusivity. Since its inception, NEPA has encouraged public input on federal actions concerning public lands, including Federal forests. The public has been able to view, comment, and question EAs and EISs, with the hope that this involvement will create a more holistic outcome for those who would ultimately be impacted by any proposed changes. This has been made even more inclusive by the presence of NEPA documentation on the internet.

However, for all the inclusion within NEPA, it is the exceptions which give those who work on public lands pause. NEPA does not apply to federal courts, Congress, or the President, a clause which has caused problems when butting up against other environmental legislation, namely the Antiquities Act.

Like NEPA, the Antiquities Act (signed into law in 1906 by Teddy Roosevelt), gave the President authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments on public lands in order to preserve and protect natural and scientifically relevant areas. Although presidential powers related to the Antiquities Act have been reduced twice (both accounts were state specific), overall the President has almost unchecked power from Congress, the courts, or the public when designating monuments in this way.

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Changing one word sure makes a lot of difference. Credit: NPS historic photo

At their hearts, both the Antiquities Act and NEPA want the same thing, to, as NEPA puts it, “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage”. The Antiquities Act, due to its rapid nature, does not require or allow EAs or EISs, and thus, does not have to abide by NEPA, eliminating public comment on public land designation.

NEPA considers citizen opinion, and even releases EA and EIS documentation for public consumption, although this too can cause problems. EA and EIS reports are long by design, often reach into the hundreds or thousands of pages, can cost millions of dollars to complete, and include complex, sometimes contradictory, figures that can be impenetrable to a public audience. NEPA documentation has gotten to the point of alienating, rather than inviting, public comment through reports filled with bloat and jargon.

Neither NEPA or the Antiquities Act is perfect, and neither seems to have total consideration regarding public opinion. The key difference between the two is the level of oversight. The public, those who would use and benefit from lands attributed under NEPA, act as a balance to the federal agencies governing the process. This balance is not present in the Antiquities Act, and gives authoritative power to the President, eliminating any sense of public involvement regarding the lands they will ultimately become the beneficiaries of.

It is in the best interest of all those who reap the benefits of federal legislation leading to preserved natural spaces that the public be informed and have a period of response regarding new projects, founded through NEPA, the Antiquities Act, or otherwise. Anything less creates an environment where the needs of the few are put before the needs of the many. No judicial or legislative action has been taken regarding the Antiquities Act’s evasion of the public process, which undercuts the very notion of preserving lands for public use.

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President Barack Obama using the Antiquities Act. Credit: The White House

The appropriate use of the Antiquities Act, however noble, has come under serious scrutiny by Congress. Modern environmental laws such as NEPA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Forest Management Act (just to name a few) have become the primary statutes to protect and manage America’s incredible natural resources.

The wealth of governmental agencies managing federal lands begs the question about why the Antiquities Act, which has operated under the executive actions of Republican and Democratic administrations for the better part of a century, is not subject to public review as any other federal agency action would be. Presidential designations under the Antiquities Act should fall under the same strict guidelines for ecosystem health and forbearance that NEPA does. Only then can federal agencies truly be involved in community discourse about the future of the country’s public lands.