Analyst: Lack of logs threatens jobs

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 05, 2012 01:32 pm

Boise Cascade’s local forest policy analyst appeared before the Union County Board of Commissioners Wednesday, predicting dire economic consequences if the supply of logs off federal forests doesn’t improve.

Boise Cascade’s Inland Region runs a plywood plant and stud mill in Elgin, a particleboard plant near Island City and a sawmill in La Grande. The analyst, Lindsey Warness, said jobs at those facilities are threatened because of a lack of timber sales on nearby federal land.

Warness said the Elgin facilities are currently running at full force, but the particleboard plant is operating at about 60 percent capacity and the La Grande sawmill at about 15 percent. She said that if timber supply issues aren’t resolved, closures and loss of mill infrastructure could result.

“We are a large company but we’ve shut down mills in the past,” Warness said. “In La Grande, it’s just a skeleton shift. We’re breaking even at that mill. We’re not even making money. We know that if we don’t get the wood we need, something’s got to give.”

Warness repeated a statistic she’s given in similar presentations, saying that 75 percent of the forested area in northeast Oregon is federally owned but produces just 20 percent of the timber used by mills. She said only about four percent of Boise’s output comes from federal forests in the region.

According to Warness, Boise is transporting logs from faraway places in Idaho and Washington. She said that the high cost of fuel is draining the company’s resources.

Boise Cascade gets some of its log supply locally from Hancock Timber Resources Group, formerly Forest Capital Partners. Warness said a timber supply agreement with that concern runs out in 2014 and renewal is uncertain. In the meantime, supply from Hancock by itself isn’t enough to keep Union County operations going.

“They cannot supply us completely. We need timber off the forest in order to keep moving forward,” Warness said.

Warness said the answer to the problems is for the U.S. Forest Service to expedite “environmentally sound, scientifically-based” projects. On the plus side, she expressed optimism about the Snow Basin sale on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Baker County.

“With Snow Basin, we can cut three times what we’re cutting now, and the mills can run,” she said.

Warness talked at some length about the troubles at the Malheur Lumber Company in John Day. The mill had been slated to close Nov. 1 because of chronic shortages of logs off the Malheur National Forest and the expense of trucking saw logs in. Recently the closure date was extended by six weeks, and Forest officials have announced programs to increase timber sales on the Malheur National Forest.

Still, the future of the mill is uncertain.

“A collaborative is working to keep it open,” Warness said. “We are in the same boat here. We’re getting a good amount of wood from outside the area, and we’re paying those prohibitive costs.”

Warness expressed concern that the situation in John Day might repeat itself in Union County if the supply of logs from national forests doesn’t improve.

“If we lost Elgin, about 150 high-paying jobs would be gone. It’s very concerning, and it could happen here. My message is, we’re on that precipice,” she said.

Following Warness’s talk, County Commissioner Mark Davidson said he thinks the Forest Service needs to take a more active role in forest management, both for the timber industry and for forest health.

“It’s really sad we need a closure notice to go out before people act,” he said. “We’ve been going down this path of no active management for 20 years. Three hundred and fifty million acres of timber is dying, and we’ve got a tinder box out there. Without active management, fire is a certainty.”