Timber's decline hurts public, private employment

July 02, 2003 12:00 am

No one could miss the impact of timber's decline on logging and mill jobs. As the harvests have dwindled, Oregon's lumber industry has all but died.

Less perceptible than idle mills and an absence of log trucks, however, has been the impact of declining forest harvests on the U.S. Forest Service. Over a 10-year span, as timber harvests fell to historic lows, almost half the jobs on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest disappeared.

There are a number of reasons the hardship for the federal agency is not one immediately recognized in talk of timber's decade-long death spiral.

When Ellingson Lumber shut down, the tragedy was both personal and public. Every mill worker who ever pulled green chain en route to his or her place in the mill was a neighbor, often with deep roots in the community. When their jobs disappeared, the community felt hurt for the families — and for the town's economy.

Forest Service workers are our neighbors, too. But when the Forest Service cut back in the face of declining timber harvests and revenues, existing forest employees were retrained into new jobs or relocated.

While certainly an inconvenience and sometimes a heartbreaking departure from an easily beloved town, the gradual loss of positions at the Wallowa-Whitman didn't stamp itself on the public consciousness with the same force as shuttering the mill.

The federal building is still open, and the Baker Ranger District is still on 10th Street. Forest Service-green trucks still head out every day, driven by people whose job it is to manage the public lands.

There just aren't as many people doing the work (at a time when there is arguably more work to be done).

The loss of those jobs, however, has been part of the tragedy of rural, timber-dependent communities. Sometimes earning pay rates that are 150 to 300 percent the average wage in Baker County, Wallowa-Whitman employees are also often homeowners, parents, business patrons and leaders.

Congress recognized the plight of rural communities and directed direct payments from the treasury for six years to county road departments and school districts to replace lost timber receipts.

Those payments dry up in four years, and renewal is uncertain. The loss of Ellingson Lumber and 200 Wallowa-Whitman jobs illustrates the inability of Congress to simply sign a check and make things right.

We're a lot bit lucky in Baker City that community leaders recognized the need to diversify the economy and started early building a tourism infrastructure and attracting light manufacturing to our community.

But for every Baker Citys, there are 10 John Days or Burns in the West, communities in collapse with even less hope than we have here.

It's a sad story to tell, but it sharpens the edges on the suffering of the West. Communities built near the public lands in centuries past extracted wealth and helped build this nation.

The resources are still there. But the past decade has destroyed both the public and private infrastructure to capitalize public lands and generate wealth.