With the devastating news that Cave Junction's Rough & Ready Lumber Co. is closing after more than 90 years in business, I am more adamant than ever that federal forest policy is broken and our federal government has failed the good people of Josephine County. Change must happen to ensure the future viability of Oregon's timber-rich rural communities.
Even in the wake of this devastating news, not all hope is lost. It seems to me the ingredients for meaningful public forest management reform are at hand.
Looking around, we find unhealthy, overstocked federal forests in desperate need of stewardship, rural counties plagued with floundering economies and staggering unemployment, timber mills closing or struggling to survive and county governments on the brink of collapse, due to the loss of shared timber receipts to fund vital services like sheriff's patrols and county jails.
We also have more trees in Oregon's forests now than at any time in recorded history. Our existing lumber mills in Oregon have the capacity to process an additional 1 billion board feet annually. All the while, the price of timber is holding steady at profitable levels, as new home construction picks up.
A bipartisan contingent of Oregon's U.S. congressional delegation has drafted a creative, yet comprehensive, plan that would alleviate this "logger jam," the O&C Trust Conservation and Jobs Act. This proposal would provide for balanced forest management and conservation goals - an increase in timber production and forest health restoration efforts - on former Oregon & California Railroad land now managed by the federal government.
Oregon's self-professed environmentalist, Gov. John Kitzhaber, even says he supports (in principle) management goals relative to job creation, an increase in timber supply, county funding and community stability.
And finally - the icing on the cake of this recipe for recovery - Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He holds the key to success or failure in his hands.
So why is it likely that the gridlock of the past three decades will continue to plague Oregon's forest-rich counties?
It would be easy to blame the powerful environmental extremist lobby and its ability to use federal laws to endlessly litigate any meaningful timber harvest. As the Krauss and Phillippi families were wrestling with the painful decision to close their family's business and lay off 85 employees for lack of a steady supply of logs, Rough & Ready Lumber Co. was waiting on 14 million board feet of purchased sales that were held up in pointless environmental litigation.
The responsibility for the conflict could lie with those who would prefer an annual subsidy check from the federal government or an increase in local property taxes, rather than shared receipts from timber harvests, as a way to pay for vital county services.
Actually, I point to those holding the reasonable middle ground, those who have forfeited their majority power to direct legislators to solve this issue. I'm sure most citizens would agree with me that healthy forests and a healthy economy can coexist in rural Oregon.
And although I am proud of the work of Oregon's representatives in Congress, especially that of the House Natural Resources Committee, I am disappointed that during four months as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Wyden has not seen fit to address this matter. While the House has a number of proposals to fix the plight of rural America, Wyden has instead elected to focus on expanding wilderness areas, enlarging the Oregon Caves National Monument and extending federal "welfare" payments to counties.
Certainly it's to be expected that extreme opinions will be heard, but it's imperative they not control the conversation and our future.
I applaud Kitzhaber for having convened an O&C Lands Panel, reasonable people with differing but important priorities, to talk about these vital issues, advise him and craft a creative solution to managing the O&C lands. Although no specific proposal was produced, the governor must hold true to his principles and take a stand. My fear is that the distressed counties and communities in question will most assuredly drown while the task force and others continue to describe the water.
Failed federal forest policy is starving our communities. As Jennifer Phillippi, co-owner of Rough & Ready, said in a release announcing the closure of Josephine County's last sawmill, "It's like sitting in the grocery store not being able to eat while the produce rots around you."
These communities can be saved only if citizens demand from their senators and representatives political courage and an end to the gridlock. But the time to act is now. The success or failure of these efforts rests squarely with the Senate. Make your voice heard. Contact your city council, board of commissioners, state senators and representatives and federal officials.
With a good faith effort, we Oregonians can have our cake (healthy forests) and eat it, too (a healthy economy).
Simon Hare is chairman of the Board of Josephine County Commissioners. He can be reached by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone, 541-474-5221.
(Reprinted from the Evergreen Magazine)