Three years ago, Donald Trump made a campaign stop in Eugene and promised supporters that if elected president, he’d boost Oregon’s timber industry, bring back jobs and boost rural economies.

What became of Trump’s promise to Oregon voters post-election? Was it just Trump being Trump or did he have serious plans to overturn decades-old environmental protections and boost commercial logging in this state’s national forests?

A look back shows little has changed since Trump took office. The matter of increased logging in Oregon’s national forests hasn’t surfaced as a serious issue for the White House. The timber harvested from national forests in Oregon is still associated with thinning projects conducted for fuels reduction and wildfire management, as it was under President Barack Obama.

If Trump had considered ways to squeeze Oregon’s federally managed forests for more revenue, he would have found layers of legislation designed to protect them. The National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act are a few of the laws that together protect public lands from practices such as clear cutting.

“It is not the case that the Trump administration can simply direct land management agencies to offer more timber for sale and the agencies can snap their fingers and sell more timber,” said James Johnston, a research associate at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

In Central Oregon, the laws and regulations that protect the forests on public lands are nearly all managed by the U.S. Forest Service — these include the Deschutes, Ochoco and Fremont-Winema national forests.

These forests, along with many others across the state, were heavily affected in 1990 when the northern spotted owl was added to the Endangered Species List — the listing led to a ban on widespread felling of old-growth trees for commercial purposes.

Even though the spotted owl did not live in the Ochoco National Forest and was only found in parts of the Deschutes and Fremont-Winema national forests, litigation to protect old-growth forests to protect other species had the same impact as the rules that affected Western Oregon national forests.

As a result, timber production on federal land tumbled 80% to 90%, shutting down mills and forcing thousands of loggers and mill workers to retrain for new careers.

At the time, about 4 billion board feet of lumber was taken off the market, sending some rural communities into economic tailspin. The number of mills in Prineville went from five to zero. The Crown Pacific mill in Bend — formerly the Brooks-Scanlon Mill, for a time one of the world’s largest producers of lumber — closed in 1994.

In 1990, wood products and natural resources accounted for 12.3% of total private employment in Deschutes County — that share dropped to 1.3% in 2018.

“In those days (the early 1990s), we blamed the Democrats,” said Bruce Daucsavage, general manager of Prineville-based Ochoco Lumber. “But really, the public decided. There needed to be a re-balance.”

Central Oregon did re-balance its economy and a number of new businesses and sectors filled in the gaps. There’s a growing tech sector and professional services sector, not to mention more brewpubs and construction jobs.

“The industry that has really gained a notable share of total private employment in this economic cycle is professional and business services,” said Damon Runberg, Oregon Employment Department regional economist. “The broad professional sector only accounted for 6.5% of all private-sector jobs in 1990 and 9.9% by 2000. However, that share rose to nearly 14% by 2018.”

Attempting to bring timber jobs back comes with risk. There’s greater competition from foreign markets, plus a strong dollar that makes Oregon timber harder to sell. An unstable housing market has sunk the price of lumber during the past year. On private lands, the amount of timber sold is a function of market forces.

“When markets are good, we produce a lot of lumber; if the demand doesn’t catch up, we have too much,” said Daucsavage.

Even if more logs were being harvested, that does not necessarily translate into more jobs, because technology advances have automated much of the tree-felling and milling process.

These days, enormous mobile units can cut a tree and strip all the branches in less than a minute, eliminating many of the traditional lumberjack jobs.

Oregon had about 32,400 jobs in wood products manufacturing in 2005.. From 2005 to 2011, about 13,500 jobs were lost during the Great Recession. Since then, Oregon has added back only 3,500 jobs in the sector, according to Johnston, an OSU faculty member since 2016.

“Whenever we experience a constriction in manufacturing capacity associated with a down housing market, the rebound in manufacturing seems to mostly be a function of additive productivity,” Johnston said. “We put better technology in the mills so the jobs are not added back.”

While bringing back jobs into the timber industry by cutting more trees may be off the table for now, there are opportunities to stimulate job growth and salaries said Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers.

Geisinger believes technical jobs will be available for those who can operate and maintain the automated equipment being installed in the timber mills.

“Jobs for the guy with the flannel shirt and work boots may be fewer, but there are increasing jobs for the guy in the white coat and in the lab room,” Geisinger said. “And those technical jobs are well-paid compared to jobs in the mill.”

Given automation in the industry and the steadfast environmental rules against increased logging on federal land, not to mention a recent downturn in the price of lumber, the odds are stacked against Trump’s 2016 declaration.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who visited the Deschutes forest on Friday as part of a tour to study forest restoration, believes Trump needs to focus less on profit and put more effort on restoring federal forests to healthier conditions that are less prone to out-of-control wildfires. In the Deschutes National Forest, federal and local agencies, as well as nonprofits, are collaborating to restore forests to more natural conditions before mass logging took place in the early 20th century.

“I think that it’s easy to say we’d like to cut more timber. But how do we do it in a fashion that is going to keep us out of the courts and actually going forward? That’s where the stewardship agreements and the collaboratives are paving the way for the future.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com

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