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Shrinking Timber Supply Puts Squeeze On

March 5, 1989

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) _ E.P. ″Bud″ Johnson shakes his head when he looks at all the mature Douglas fir timber standing on federal lands in the Northwest and thinks about how little he can saw down.

″There have been years when we had fires or weather problems, but nothing that has the long-range effect this has,″ said Johnson, president of C&D Lumber Co. in Riddle, Ore., and the fourth generation of his family in the lumber business. ″There’s a tremendous resource out here. It’s a shame we aren’t using it more completely.″

Johnson likes to have two years’ worth of timber under contract, but can get only seven to eight months’ worth.

The people who run the lumber and plywood mills throughout the Northwest are facing a problem that just a few years ago seemed impossible: They are running out of trees to cut at a time when demand is high.

″Business will probably be reasonably decent for those who can get timber,″ said Eugene, Ore., timber consultant Paul F. Ehinger. ″What you are looking at is bankruptcies in the middle of prosperity, because there is a good demand.″

While a Portland State University study blames increased productivity for more than half the timber jobs lost from 1976 to 1986, Ehinger blames timber supply for the closure of 22 sawmills and 16 plywood mills in Oregon and Washington since the start of 1988.

″The simple fact is there is no timber around to run these mills,″ he said. ″There are a lot of them on shaky ground today.″

The squeeze is partly the result of an environmentalist battle to save the last of the old-growth forests, a lag in the reforestation of private lands and greater demand for raw logs overseas.

As a result, average prices bid for Douglas fir on national forests rose from $156.33 per thousand board feet in 1986 to $248.04 in 1988.

In the past, private forests owned by big timber companies accounted for the bulk of Northwest timber. They had first pick when the land was up for grabs in the early 1900s, and the leftovers went to the national forests.

The private lands largely have been cut over and reseeded, but the next generation of trees won’t be ready for 20 to 50 years. That focuses attention on public lands, particularly national forests, where the best of the mature timber now stands.

″There are big clouds on the horizon and it’s starting to rain,″ said Jay Goldstein, spokesman for the Washington Forest Protection Association in Olympia, Wash.

″As more and more federal lands are set aside for spotted owls and other types of wildlife and recreation areas, the land available for perpetual commercial timber management decreases.″

The national forests in Washington and Oregon turned out 31 percent of the region’s 15.2 billion board feet of raw timber in 1987.

They are about to release management plans for the next 10 years and the outlook is for less timber as they struggle to juggle the demands of their multiple-use mandate.

The 1980s management plan allowed the annual harvest of up to 5.5 billion board feet. The new plan will allow 4.7 billion board feet, said Ron Johnson, a senior Forest Service administrator for the Northwest.

With more land reserved for wilderness and scenery, and foresters getting a better idea of where trees grow best, the commercial timber lands have shrunk from 17 million acres in 1978 to 14.5 million acres under the latest plans.

″We always had this thing of ’Go west, young man,‴ said Johnson. ″Now we find there’s a Pacific Ocean and we fell into it.

″What you see is what you’ve got. And everybody is scrambling to get their piece of that.″

Oregon’s state forester, James Brown, predicts overall timber supply will decline 10 percent by the year 2010. Ehinger foresees a 20 percent drop.

From the environmentalists point of view, the shrinking timber harvest is good both for the forest and the Northwest economy.

″Our timber industry has been scaled back to the ability of the land to produce in the long term,″ said Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

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