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Can Oregon’s timber Industry make a comeback?

In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump pledged to revitalize many of the country's most iconic blue collar industries. In Oregon, where the timber industry has lost tens of thousands of jobs over the past few decades, candidate Trump promised those jobs would come back. Newshour Weekend's Christopher Booker set out to Oregon to learn about the state's historic timber industry, and how, if it all, the fortunes of those who work in it have changed.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As Donald Trump campaigned throughout america in the run-up to the 2016 election, he pledged to revitalize some of the country's most iconic blue collar industries. From coast to coast, then-candidate Trump told audiences that their jobs were coming back, including those who worked in Oregon's timber industry.

  • Donald Trump:

    Timber jobs have been cut in half since 1990. We're going to bring em' up folks, we're going to do it really right, we're going to bring em' up.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Before coronavirus restrictions, NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker set out to Oregon, to learn about the state's historic timber industry and how, if at all, the fortunes of those who work in it have changed.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Watching a tree run through the Southport Lumber Company in Coos Bay, Oregon is nothing short of remarkable. The process takes about 30 minutes – each tree running through a 21st century production system that would have been hard to imagine just a generation ago.

    The mill – built in 2005 – can process 100 truck loads of raw timber a day, producing lumber and wood chips that are eventually turned into paper products. And while the mill is in every way an extension of Oregon's economic past, it's also a window into why the industry's future is so uncertain for the state's workforce.

  • Jason Smith:

    You can see these saws every time a log comes in. They shift positions. Chop the log into shorter segments.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Jason Smith is the manager and one of the co-owners of Southport Lumber Company.

  • Jason Smith:

    If you look up at the screen up here, it shows a cross-section and a profile of the log, what the products we're going to get out of each log, how it's going to be positioned and rotated and presented to the cutting tools to to optimize the value of the lumber out of the logs.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The company has invested heavily in technology and automation – and the workforce is much more specialized than a generation ago.

  • Jason Smith:

    Each board in our mill is scanned with computers. It is optimized, automatically grade stamped by a computer and then processed down a sorting line automatically and it goes to a stacker. That whole process is done with a couple people, whereas in the past it was done with ten or twelve people.

  • Christopher Booker:

    This efficiency is one of the reasons Southport has survived when many mills in Oregon have not.

  • Mindy Crandall:

    What we've seen in the industry is the same thing that we've seen in most industries in the United States, where if you look long term, we tend to produce the same amount of output with fewer workers.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Mindy Crandall is a professor of forest policy at Oregon State University and studies the state's forest products industry.

  • Mindy Crandall:

    When we talk about revitalizing an industry. I'm always really curious what the metric is that people are using. Are we talking about output? Are we talking about employment? Because those two things are very different.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Since the mid-1990s, the amount of timber produced in Oregon has stayed relatively consistent. But during that same period about half of the state's mills have closed. And nearly 30,000 fewer workers are employed in the timber industry.

  • Mindy Crandall:

    A lot of the older, less efficient mills tend to close when conditions are rough. And then the mills that pick up the slack tend to be the newer, more highly efficient, more mechanized mills. Logging has gotten more mechanized. These tend to be good things in the sense that they are indicators of improving U.S. productivity. But it does mean that employment trends down, even if everything else about the industry stays the same.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But there has been a major transition in where Oregon is getting its logs – a change that has deeply divided the state for decades. Nearly two-thirds of Oregon's forests are public. Controlled by either the federal government or Oregon, like this state forest. Just 20 miles from Coos Bay, the question for many in the timber industry is whether these trees in these public lands could be used to meet local demand for logs.

    Between 1989 and 1995, timber harvests on federal land fell by 90 percent. That's in large part because of the northern spotted owl. it was listed as a threatened species in 1990 under the federal Endangered Species Act. And as a result of lawsuits and protests, large portions of its habitat in the Pacific Northwest became off limits for logging. Leaving the timber industry to look to private land.

  • Brennan Garrelts:

    This past year, we've lost two mills within our region. And that's largely driven by supply.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Supply of timber.

  • Brennan Garrelts:

    Yeah, raw wood supply,.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Because they can't they just can't get enough?

  • Brennan Garrelts:

    Correct.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Brennan Garrelts is a logging manager with Lone Rock Resources- a timber company that owns 135 thousand acres of land throughout Oregon. It employs 105 people, harvesting trees and then replanting them, each one taking decades to get to a point where it can be cut.

    So you are within this ecosystem in an enviable position. You are the ones with the timber?

  • Brennan Garrelts:

    Correct.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But garrelts says there's a finite number of trees that lone rock can cut each year.

  • Brennan Garrelts:

    We are absolutely sustainable. We manage and harvest and we have limitations on how much we harvest every year because we are looking at the long term future of our company. So we can't just all of a sudden cut way more than we're growing.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Lone Rock sells to about two dozen different mills, including Southport.

  • Jason Smith:

    I can't think of any other sawmills that really have the access to the barging infrastructure that we do.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Jason Smith says Southport gets about 10 percent of its logs from federal land, and with less locally available logs, the company has broadened its supply.

  • Jason Smith:

    We are buying logs throughout British Columbia. We buy logs in various ports in Washington and have on and off, bought logs in California and Oregon ports as well.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But not every mill in the area has managed to stay competitive.

  • Donald Turner:

    There was one hundred and eleven full time employees. Ninety six of those were hourly and the rest were salary.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And you're the last one.

  • Donald Turner:

    I'm the last person. Yes.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Donald Turner is president of the local machinists union – and now, the last person to work at Georgia Pacific's mill in Coos Bay. The mill closed last year and turner now takes care of the grounds.

    What did the closure mean for Coos Bay?

  • Donald Turner:

    Well, it was 111 family wage jobs lost and then the outlying jobs from there, all the log truck drivers, we would get anywhere from one hundred upwards of one hundred or more loads of logs a day.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Unlike Southport, the Georgia Pacific mill only processed one species of tree – the Douglas Fir – and the company said cheaper Asian logs made the mill in Coos Bay too expensive to supply.

    Another piece of the complicated puzzle that is the timber industry – making broad political pledges – like the one Donald Trump made in 2016 to bring back jobs – ever more complicated. Since taking office in 2017, the number of timber jobs in Oregon has been relatively flat.

    When you hear politicians reach out to timber workers and say we're going to bring this back, what goes through your mind when you hear pledges like this?

  • Mindy Crandall:

    I'm both a little skeptical and a little sad because I think a lot of rural places are tired of being promised quick, easy fixes. These are, these are what we call wicked problems. Right. Forestry is a hugely valuable industry that produces goods that we need and produces a ton of ecosystem services that people also really value. So to say that there's a simple solution to, for example, forcing more employment into an industry that is trying to stay competitive globally I think is over simplistic.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Were you surprised when then candidate Trump came in 2016 and started making overtures to the forest products industry?

  • Jason Smith:

    I wasn't surprised. I think that the President was looking at opportunities where there is burdensome regulation from the federal government side of things. And if you're looking for a poster child, I think our industry screams. We've been overregulated. If you look at the potential of our lands there, there, there, we could support a very vibrant industry and we're nowhere near where we could be.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But Jason Smith is not counting on a major change in federal policy.

  • Jason Smith:

    I don't know how we can ever get to the good old days. I think we've reached a point where we're basically operating on what the private timberlands can produce. And any of the federal timberlands is kind of a bonus at this point.

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