Life After the Timber Bust

Here’s a July 26, 2016, AP article about an Oregon town that has survived the federal timber bust: Prineville, which is home to several Facebook and Apple server farms, as well as the venerable Les Schwab Tire distribution center. There are lots of construction jobs now, but will server farms provide a level of employment comparable to the former timber industry? I doubt it.

Former Oregon lumber town rides digital wave to a comeback

For perspective, you might read these articles about other towns where things aren’t as rosy. Sweet Home, where “The patchwork that resulted — some people with money, many people without and few ways to earn a wage — now defines much of rural Oregon.”:

Town That Thrived on Logging Is Looking for a Second Growth

And Oakridge, where “About 1,600 people — nearly half the town’s population — come to the Oakridge food bank each month to pick up free supplies.”:

Former Oregon Lumber Town Tries To Reinvent Itself



20 thoughts on “Life After the Timber Bust”

  1. Prineville and other server farms got the juice from the aluminum plants, which at least made something tangible.

  2. The aluminum plants shut down years before there was a Facebook, but maybe they do get juice from the Columbia River dams, which used to power the smelters.

  3. There is more than enough salvageable old growth timber around Oakridge, which no one would miss if it was harvested, that could keep a couple of small sawmills in Oakridge going forever. But instead it is left to rot because the leaders of the FS are afraid of Oregon Wild and others like them. (or FS leadership actually believes in the same philosophy as these eco-corporations.)
    Mostly the only timber sales that are happening are large thinning sales that are harvested by the big mills down in the valley.
    I remember a past district ranger of Sweet Home telling me she was moving because the schools weren’t good enough. And who use to help support the schools? Timber dollars.
    These are towns that are in beautiful locations that are surrounded by natural beauty and resource.
    They can enjoy the beauty but the resource is off limits.

    • I dare say the communities of Eugene/Springfield would miss the old growth around Oakridge, not to mention the spotted owls and other wildlife that are still suffering form the old growth logging binge that nearly ruined the old growth ecosystem on the south end of the Willamette National Forest. Salvage logging is an outdated practice that has not place in an ecologically enlightened restoration toolkit. Large snags provide valuable habitat. Agency plans fail to recognize the newly emerging value of complex early seral forest habitat that needs to be enriched with lots of big wood. Outdated thinking like salvage logging will not solve any of our problems.

  4. The three articles offer background for a discussion of the premise that recreation/tourism jobs are the equivalent to jobs in the woods and mills. My area has a very popular mountain biking trail (BLM’s Sandy Ridge Trail System, an hour east of Portland, Oregon). Though my observations are merely anecdotal, trail users don’t bring a lot of business to the towns nearest the trail (Brightwood, Welches, Zigzag) — at least, not enough to make a difference. The only new business is the marijuana store in Welches, and I reckon it’s not the mountain bikers who are the patrons.

    • Hmmm…Mountain bikers don’t get high?

      Anyway, why did these timber mills close down? Was it part of the “automation era” and “timber export era” or “free trade era”…all of which was around the end of the “Old-Growth Logging era” (ie because most all the old-growth was already cut down).

      If so, seems like the “premise that recreation/tourism jobs are the equivalent to jobs in the woods and mills” doesn’t really apply.

      • “Timber export era”? A third of American softwood consumption is imported from Canada and I highly doubt much (if any) comes from Canada’s second-growth plantations. We’ve been importing for years.

  5. Oakridge was a ghost the last time I was there. Hadn’t been long, stuff was still in good shape, but you could tell the paint was going to peel soon.
    Tourism is seasonal, and worse, based on amenity income which itself is fickle. The jobs themselves pay little per hour — not like any tourist sector employees actually go to other resorts when they have time off — unpaid time off, at that. As a foundational source of commerce and taxes and public infrastructure and private prosperity, tourism just doesn’t hack it. At best, tourism is gravy.
    Never mind the amazing social hierarchy in pure “amenityvilles.” Whitefish, Aspen, Vail, Jackson, Martha’s — wherever you go, it’s a core of well-off “locals” serviced by peasant commuters. What an ideal that is.

  6. My wife and I visited Whitefish in June — enjoyed traipsing around Glacier National Park and excellent beer in a brewpub. On the road back to Oregon, we passed through Libby, Montana — what a stark difference. Libby seemed to be at the opposite end of the economic spectrum from Whitefish. Found a 2012 article in the Missoula Independent, “Will logging ever come back to Libby, Montana?”

    The situation there is more complex than in Oakridge — the closure of a mine also had a big impact — but overall…. “Libby once boasted the highest paying jobs in Montana. Now, it has one of the state’s lowest average salaries. In 2009, average household income in Libby was about $27,000, while the state average was over $42,000. The industry that built the town fell on hard times in the early 1990s, when environmental lawsuits, pine beetle outbreaks and wildfires scaled timber production back by more than 75 percent of its peak, to 60 million board-feet per year.”

    I found these stats from the USFS for select years:

    FY 1985: 180,249 MBF
    FY 1995: 70,280 MBF
    FY 2005: 48,033 MBF
    FY 2015: 49,411 MBF

    The 2015 cut was 28% of the 1985 cut.

    • That’s not even the beginning, Steve. Libby went from being a Class AA school like Flathead, closely matched in athletics in the late 1970s against us. Three years ago, they decided to cut back to Class B after being Class A shortly after the mid 90s bust. Meantime, Flathead has been joined by Glacier as a Class AA school from the beginning.
      But Flathead was always more diverse. Had Anaconda, a railroad division point, a significant farm sector, over a dozen competing sawmills, and was “saved” by amenity migration and the associated construction center. Still, wages are weaker than cost of living and unemployment is still higher than it used to be. And there’s a definite class breakdown in site of residence that didn’t exist before.

  7. The original post said “will server farms provide a level of employment comparable to the former timber industry?” Hell, the timber industry couldn’t even sustainably provide that level of employment. Logging proponents need to quit looking in the rearview mirror through rose-colored glasses. Logging is a boom-bust enterprise that fosters community instability. Our forests are (economically, socially, and ecologically) much more valuable vertical than horizontal. BLM’s 2015 Western Oregon Plan Revision DEIS (p 472) said:

    Over the long-term (1969-2007), timber-based industries nationally exhibited low or negative growth rates with high volatility compared with the United States economy as a whole, indicating that these industries tend to be inherently volatile. Increases in timber industry activity in the planning area could bring additional exposure to greater economic instability.

    Employment in wood products, besides being unstable in the short run as housing cycles and national economic fluctuations buffet it, is also in a long run decline. Wood products manufacturing is a mature industry serving a very specific market for building products. That housing market, at best, is likely to grow only as fast as the overall economy grows. As competition from non-wood building materials rises, the market may grow more slowly than the rest of the economy. In addition, as a mature industry, one can expect technological change to continue to boost worker productivity as capital and energy are substituted for labor. This has already been taking place on an impressive scale. Automated stud mills producing a small number of uniform products have replaced saw mills that produced a variety of different types of boards. Total output has risen while employment and labor income have declined. The harvest of the trees in the woods is shifting from workers with saws and axes in hand to large machines. Those machines hold, cut, delimb, and load logs in one step. A single machine can replace a half-dozen workers. The impact of this automation on employment can be seen in Figure 6-4. For example, wood products output in the Pacific Northwest was higher in 1988 than it was in 1978, yet the jobs associated with that output had fallen by 35,000 or 20 percent. Nation-wide during the 1980s lumber mill production rose by almost two percent per year while employment at those mills was declining by two percent per year . Clearly, even increased levels of harvest and production do not necessarily mean reliable employment. There is no reason to believe that this rising labor productivity in the wood products industry is at an end. Because of that, the long run employment projections in the wood products industry are downward. The wood products industry, even if it faced no raw material supply constraints, is likely to be a downward force on local economies in the future rather than a source of economic vitality. Analysis of the impact of the lumber industry on rural towns in the past confirms this expectation. One study of forest-dependent communities in the northeastern United States found that forestry communities had unstable populations and economies and high rates of divorce, poverty and ill-health. Communities tied to wood products fared worse than agricultural, mining, or tourist communities in terms of both economic and social health . This is not the path to local economic vitality.

    Thomas Power, The Economics of Wildland Preservation. 2000.

      • Huh, Larry? Anyone can see plenty about federal forest management in 2ndLaw’s post. Anyway, it’s so awesome that you’ve come back to police this blog. No, really, it’s totally awesome!

        • Comparing pre-NWFP volumes and private land logging practices to today’s realities in our National Forests is not a valid comparison.

          “Our forests are (economically, socially, and ecologically) much more valuable vertical than horizontal.” He implies that clearcutting is still rampant, and that the BLM favors cutting ALL trees, everywhere.

  8. FWIW, from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute:

    “According to 2013 data, forestry products and services employ more than 58,000 people in Oregon. These jobs are particularly critical to rural communities where wood product manufacturing can account for more than 50 percent of all manufacturing jobs.”

    Are any “timber towns” — those where timber is the main industry — faring well these days?

  9. Timber towns doing well? Here’s one answer, from an op-ed by a county commissioner in a Coos Bay newspaper:

    “Timber and wood products, long the driving force of our economy, are rebounding. Upward of $60 million has recently been invested in wood products manufacturing and shipping terminals in the county. Roseburg Forest Products is engaged in a major expansion and upgrade of their Coquille veneer and plywood plant. Northwest Hardwoods has purchased a local sawmill, upgraded it and is now processing alder logs into lumber here in Coos County instead of Eugene. Southport Lumber Co. has added a new production line, significantly increasing its output. Two privately owned ocean shipping terminals have been upgraded and we are enjoying regular ship calls as a result. Roseburg Forest Products will soon start shipping a new product, wood fuel chips, to Japan for energy production. This will add ship calls and jobs, and create a use for formerly unusable log species and grades.”


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