Rough and ready Oregon logging mill revives 67 jobs, controversy

It was with mixed emotions that I learned earlier this month that the Rough and Ready logging mill in Josephine County was reopening after a nearly year-long closure ("With 67 jobs in tow, Cave Junction sawmill reopens").

On the one hand, it is generally good news for salmon, clean water, and wildlife when an old-growth logging mill retools to focus on processing the small logs that come from restoration-based forestry. It is this sort of sustainable approach that Oregon Wild, other conservation groups, and progressive timber mills have been supporting over the past two decades.

It doesn't hurt that 67 people are getting their jobs back in the process.

However, Rough and Ready isn't a "run of the mill" logging mill.

The mill is owned by the Phillippi/Krauss family whose members have consistently been some of the most extreme voices in Oregon when it comes to logging old-growth and opposing the concept of sustainable, restoration-based thinning in less sensitive areas. For decades, their business model required logging big old trees from public forest lands.

When it was announced that the mill was closing last year, owner Jennifer Phillippi told the Grants Pass Daily Courier, "…we can't justify the cost with an inadequate, unpredictable log supply supporting only one shift. It's like sitting in a grocery store not being able to eat while the produce rots around you."

The grocery store Phillippi references is America's system of federal public lands – lands that belong to all of us. Unfortunately, the old-growth clearcutting epidemic that ravaged Pacific Northwest forests in the 1970s and 1980s left the American people's "grocery store" in shambles. Some 90% of our old growth was logged and processed by mills like Rough and Ready, causing the store owners (the American people) to demand that clean water, recreation, salmon and wildlife get equal priority with logging.

When President Clinton enacted the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, the social license for logging old forests was permanently lost. Even as dozens of mills across the state shifted their business model to the new reality, Rough and Ready refused. Rather than retool, they spent more than a decade demanding a return to logging the big old trees, until economic reality caught up with them.

So, how is it that Rough and Ready can reopen? What changed in one year?

Perhaps more interesting is what didn't change – namely, the science-based federal forest policy of the last twenty years, with the restrictions on logging older trees that Rough and Ready found so intolerable. While other profitable logging mills across Oregon retooled their equipment to handle small-diameter logs on their own dime since 1994, it took $5 million in state and federal backed loans for Rough and Ready to make the switch.

So, while I am happy Rough and Ready has joined us in the 21st century, and 67 Oregonians got their jobs back, it is frustrating that it took so long, and so much taxpayer funding, to make it happen.

The political reaction to Rough and Ready reopening is also frustrating, because it demonstrates how little some politicians understand the structural changes that have occurred in Oregon's economy over the last 20 years.

Recent reports show Oregon ranking third in the nation in job growth last year, thanks to a thriving high tech industry, and to our tourism and outdoor recreation economy. Oregon's quality of life – our forests, rivers, and mountains – are a big part of that success, bringing new people and new investment to our state.

In response to the Rough and Ready mill reopening, Sen. Ron Wyden said, "…it is always good news when jobs are restored in economically hard-hit areas of the state, but it is especially good news when those jobs are in the timber industry." In light of the dominant economic trends in Oregon that show growth in many sectors but certainly not in logging, this statement is perplexing.

In fact, for every tree cut down today we see far fewer associated logging and milling jobs than we did a generation ago. Since 1995, one half of Oregon's large logging mills have closed and one half of the jobs have gone as well. However, the remaining mills can produce 25% more lumber volume than was possible in 1995.

Adding to the problem is the boom in raw log exports from private lands. In each of the last three years more private lands logs have been shipped to Asia than have been cut down on federal lands. The Oregon Department of Forestry reports that for every million board feet of logs shipped overseas we gain one port job but lose out on three milling jobs.

It is also important to note the history of employment in Josephine County – and other rural counties that we associate with the timber industry – before, during, and after reductions in federal lands logging that came with the Northwest Forest Plan. In 1982, the northern spotted owl was not yet on the Endangered Species list and logging still remained the top priority for federal forest managers. In Douglas County and Lane County, the two largest recipients of federal timber dollars in Oregon, unemployment was at 17.3% and 12.5% respectively (the state didn't keep numbers for Josephine County until 1990).

In 1994, the year the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted and four years after Judge Dwyer ruled that the timber sale program in the Northwest was violating federal law, Douglas and Lane Counties stood at 7.8% and 5.0% respectively. Josephine County stood at 8.0%. Throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, Josephine County unemployment never went above 9.5% and went as low as 6.2%. When the Great Recession hit, unemployment across the state shot up, reaching a high of 14.8% in Josephine County. Today, Douglas County sits at 10.0%, Lane County at 6.9%, and Josephine at 9.7%.

Hard data like this should drive Oregon’s economic and environmental decisions, not the kind of economic nostalgia underlying West Virgina’s obsession with coal or North Carolina’s with tobacco. The reality is that Oregon’s quality of life – and the old growth forests, rivers, and protected wilderness areas that help define it – is the engine that brings new people, investment, and jobs to our state. Let’s hope that the retooling of the Rough and Ready mill, and the taxpayer financing that made it possible, makes it easier for Oregon to protect our public forest lands.