By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
A decade ago, if you picked at random any log from any deck in any lumber mill in Northeastern Oregon, the odds were high that the log came from a tree that grew on a publicly owned national forest.
Choose a log today and it's almost certain that it was cut on private property.
The dramatic decline in logging on the three national forests in Northeastern Oregon over the past 10 years has contributed to the closure of several mills, including the last ones in Baker City and North Powder.
Ellingson Lumber Co. closed its mill here late in 1995. North Powder Lumber ceased operations late in 2000.
The mills that survived have shifted from relying primarily on the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests for their raw logs, to cutting almost exclusively on private lands.
But for some companies that trend can't continue indefinitely.
andquot;There is not enough private timber in Eastern Oregon to run our sawmills we have to get timber from the national forests,andquot; said Dan Bishop, timber manager for D.R. Johnson Lumber Co.
The firm owns three sawmills in the region one in Prairie City, one in John Day and one in Wallowa.
In the late 1980s those three mills acquired about 80 percent of their logs from U.S. Forest Service timber sales, Bishop said.
At that time, the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur forests combined to sell more than 500 million board-feet of timber every year.
Last fiscal year the three forests combined to sell 75 million board-feet.
With that drastic decline, Bishop said D.R. Johnson's trio of mills is fortunate to supply 10 percent of its raw material from national forests.
Bishop said the company has had to buy private timber in Washington, Idaho and even Canada to offset the loss of logs from public lands.
The region's largest lumber company, Boise Cascade, has faced a similar predicament since national forest logging plummeted in the early 1990s, said Buck Fullerton, the company's regional logging superintendent.
andquot;The Forest Service's process is essentially broken,andquot; Fullerton said. andquot;They can't have any type of consistent timber sale program.andquot;
Boise Cascade has weathered the Forest Service's dwindling logging levels better than some companies, primarily because it owns hundreds of thousands of acres of forest.
Boise Cascade's three mill complexes in Northeastern Oregon process about 160 million board-feet of logs per year, Fullerton said.
The company obtains less than 10 percent of that volume from national forests in Eastern Oregon, he said.
The bulk of Boise Cascade's timber supply comes from its lands, from other private forests, or from national forests in Idaho, Fullerton said.
Ten years ago Boise Cascade bought 60 percent to 70 percent of its timber from Forest Service sales, Fullerton said and most of those were in Northeastern Oregon.
Although the Forest Service's contribution to Boise Cascade's supply is a mere vestige of what it once was, Fullerton believes national forests remain a potentially important source of timber.
andquot;It's not that the volume's not out there, it's that the Forest Service doesn't cut it,andquot; he said.
He lauds the agency for trying to thin overcrowded forests, but wishes officials were or could be more aggressive.
Fullerton said he understands the Forest Service is limited by the threat of lawsuits and by agreements officials have made to avoid legal battles, among them the decision almost 10 years ago to stop cutting live trees larger than 21 inches in diameter.
The problem, as Fullerton sees it, is that sometimes trees that large need to be removed to achieve the Forest Service's goal of reducing the threat of massive wildfires.
andquot;Just because a tree's 21 inches doesn't mean it's fire-resistant,andquot; he said. andquot;(The Forest Service) is hamstrung by every environmental regulation you can think of.andquot;
Neither Fullerton nor Bishop expects dramatic changes in Forest Service logging policy.
andquot;Our eggs are definitely not in that basket,andquot; Fullerton said. andquot;It's volume we don't count on.andquot;
Bishop said he felt a twinge of optimism after a recent meeting with Karyn Wood, supervisor of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.
He said he's pleased that the forest is trying to prepare a salvage sale for trees burned in the Monument fire this summer.
andquot;They're trying to do everything they can,andquot; Bishop said.
But he's not counting on a rapid reversal of the trend that started in the early 1990s.
andquot;Do I see I change? No, I don't,andquot; Bishop said. andquot;Would I like to see a change? Yes.andquot;