Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
PORTLAND – When it looked like Ochoco Lumber Co. sawmill would close this year, President Bruce Daucsavage found the silver lining in a government bailout that kept mills like his working.
The irony: It was government that pushed the mills toward extinction in the first place, with strict 1990s-era regulations, including a cap on harvests that was designed to protect the Northern Spotted Owl. The owl’s populations continue to dwindle. Mill production is grinding to a halt. And the forests are overgrown, creating a fire danger that some observers describe in apocalyptic terms.
Now, government is trying to fix a problem it helped create by spending millions in taxpayer dollars to get the industry working again. It’s proposing bailout dollars to keep the mills open and create jobs cutting trees in places where you quite literally can’t see the forest for the trees. Environmentalists are delighted that the move will protect old-growth trees now threatened by chaotic growth.
The collaboration has earned almost universal approval, even from self-declared conservatives.
“I just want to say thank you on behalf of the highly unemployed,” state Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said during the Oregon Leadership summit on Monday.
In Grant County, where the unemployment rate is 13.6 percent, the feds promised $5 million in forest restoration that would produce more lumber for the mill. The promise of more lumber meant the Ochoco Lumber Co. could keep its doors open at least through the spring in hopes that more money for restoration will be coming from Washington.
The federal government already spends $40.8 million per year on 129,000 acres on the dry side. And now Gov. John Kitzhaber wants to spend $6.6 million in state funds to help boost the mills, also in the name of jobs and conservation.
McLane, though not keen on spending state money to deal with what he believes is a problem, created an “absentee landlord” — the federal government owns 53 percent of the land — is hungry for money in his district and has jumped on board with a plan to put the mills back to work.
“I’ve learned to call it ‘treatment,’” McLane said. “I’ll call it pepperoni pizza if you guys will shell out millions into my district. In the end, we’re going to pay. This plan, I’m excited about because it puts money in my district and it makes healthier forests.”
The goal is to double the number of treated acres on the east and central sides from 129,000 to 250,000 — at a cost of to federal taxpayers of $82 million annually, according to an economic analysis commissioned by the governor’s office and conducted by Portland State University.
The state money will fund a lobbyist — state officials call the position a liaison — to push the feds for more federal cash, to collect data to prove that cash is working, and to offer grants to local projects.
“It can be very helpful to get the area back in a place where it can handle a natural fire,” Oregon Wild conservation activist Tim Lillebo said.
Part of the state funding — $1.6 million — is geared toward increasing the timber supply for federal Oregon California Revested Grantlands.
Local officials are pleased with the deal. Since 1937, 18 counties on the western side of the state have shared timber proceeds with the federal government. But production declines have cut revenue, and now some counties are nearly insolvent.
The program has made counties dependent on big government instead of balancing budgets on their own, said Jerry Rust, a former Lane County commissioner from 1977 to 1997, in an essay in the Eugene Register-Guard.
“Congress should cut the counties off cold turkey. Congressmen and the governor should stop pandering to and coddling the counties,” he said in the editorial. “It only makes things worse. “
Though the west side took a major hit from the spotted owl protection, Rust says excessive cutting also contributed to the downfall.
“The reason the counties are in this pickle is because they got used to a really abnormal cycle of harvesting old growth and being paid for it,” he said.
Rust told Northwest Watchdog the O&C counties got a decades-long extension on the payouts even after harvesting took a nose dive.
McLane said something has to be done, not only for fire prevention but to keep the rural communities working.
“Our children are leaving the state because they can’t find jobs here,” he said.