MEDFORD, Ore. – It’s been a familiar sight in Oregon to see the constant battle among timber companies, environmental groups, and rural counties. One group says good-paying jobs are at stake, another wants to protect native animals and habitats, and the third wants to avoid more cuts to county services. The back-and-forth has gone on for as long as anyone can remember.
But 20 years ago, a new plan was supposed to change all of it.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton convened the Timber Summit in order to find a permanent solution to the battle over timber lands. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore brought together representatives from all sides of the issue, hoping to find a compromise and ensure the future of rural counties.
“The process we begin today will not be easy,” Clinton said in 1993. “Its outcome cannot possibly make everyone happy. Perhaps it won’t make anyone completely happy. But the worst thing we can do is nothing.”
The talks were filled with the same arguments from every side that had plagued the debate for years, but it led to the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. The plan set limits on how much timber could be harvested from federal lands, and tried to take into account the needs of timber companies, the protection of native species, and the economy of local counties. Over the years, rural counties would continue to be reimbursed for the lack of available timber using what became known as federal “timber payments.”
But 20 years later some say the Northwest Forest Plan has failed, and put local counties and timber companies in an even worse spot than when they started.
“It hasn’t worked,” said Dennis “C.W.” Smith, former Jackson County Sheriff and County Commissioner. “Well- intentioned, but it’s been what I would say is a failure for most of the state of Oregon.”
Smith said the act, and subsequent lawsuits, diminished the amount of timber available to harvest, which has robbed Jackson County of a key source of revenue. To make matters worse, the federal reimbursements have continued to go down as well. Between 2009 and 2013, federal timber payments to Jackson County declined from $19 million to a little more than $5 million.
Josephine County has been in even more dire straits. The reduction in timber payments forced major cuts to sheriff’s patrols, prosecutors, and the Juvenile Justice program.
“We can’t ask [taxpayers] to pay more taxes, but we have a ready, reasonable source of revenue to all our forest counties, and we’re just not able to access it,” Smith said.
It hasn’t been better for local mills. Before the Northwest Forest Plan, timber companies logged an average of 230 million board feet per year in southern Oregon. After the 1994 compromise, the amount allowed shrunk to 57 million board feet. But after several lawsuits and court cases, since 2006 local timber harvests have averaged eight million board feet per year. Many local mills have closed down in recent years.
“The Northwest Forest Plan has been an absolute, abject failure, and it’s been a disaster for the industry,” said Dave Schott, president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.
Over the years, Oregon politicians promised different plans to help get local counties back on their feet, end their dependence on federal payments, and add more timber jobs. At campaign stops, senators and congressmen made promises of “this ought to be the year,” and said they needed to “find a long-term strategy.”
But despite many promises, they still have not found a solution.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) worked with representatives Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) on a new bill to manage Oregon forest lands to provide more jobs and more timber, but the bill has stalled in the Senate. Walden admitted to being disappointed by the lack of movement on several ideas.
“They’ve got different dynamics and different ideas, and that’s part of the legislative process,” Walden said. “But we’ll never give up until we get it done.”
Some steps have been taken to prevent even more mills from closing in the short term. Rough and Ready Lumber in Cave Junction will reopen in June thanks to state loans and tax credits. A recent study identified about 28 million board feet of harvestable timber that can be used each year.
But county leaders, timber workers, and politicians said there’s still a long road ahead. Which, after 20 years, is something they’ve had to get used to.