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Jim LeTourneux: Oregon could sustain twice today’s timber cut

Chances are most of you know little about today’s timber industry, beyond impressions left from viewing loaded log trucks headed through town or finished lumber delivered to lumber yards or construction sites.

Trees have always been used for shelter, but our modern timber industry began with the Europeans. In fact, the word “timber” is derived from old English as a term for lengths of wood suitable for building structures.

I’d define the timber industry as the pathway for trees destined to work their way from stump to wood-framed houses. When you pound a nail into a board, that definition makes you, at least indirectly, part of the timber industry.

Guest Writer

Jim LeTourneux owns the Tripletree Timber farm, at the upper end of Gopher Valley, north of Sheridan. A fourth-generation Oregonian, he is the immediate past chair of the Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation Board, which has named him a director emeritus. He has been honored with the Wildlife Society’s Private Landowner Stewardship Award for Oregon, ODFW and ODF Stewardship Award for Northwest Oregon and Outstanding Conservation District Cooperator Award for Yamhill County.

My wife and I are in the timber industry by virtue of growing trees, felling them at maturity and selling them to mills. The technical name for a tree farmer is silviculturist, characterized as “someone who artfully and scientifically grows, manages and harvests trees.”

Think of the timber industry in its entirety as a spoked wheel. The hub would represent all the various mills — sawmills, peeler mills, fiber or chip mills and utility pole plants. Spokes radiating from the hub represent industry sectors facilitating the flow of raw materials one direction and finished products the other.
Northwestern Oregon contains some of the world’s most productive timberlands.

Professional foresters here grow and manage timber stands of predominately Douglas fir, our state tree, which is arguably the best and most sustainable building material in the world. Nowhere do soil, moisture and climate combine more perfectly.

Today, the majority of Oregon land devoted to production forestry is privately owned.

Tracts of 5,000 acres or more are considered industrial. They are variously owned by companies, families, tribes or real estate trusts, the roster including Weyerhauser, Stimson, Hampton, Miami, Hancock and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Our family farm, Tripletree, falls in the non-industrial, under-5,000 category.

Approximately 4 billion board feet of timber is harvested annually in Oregon. Private lands managed for timber production account for 3.6 billion of that total.
Prior to the listing of the northern spotted owl as an endangered species, which was followed by the more recent listing of the marbled murrelet, the annual harvest was 8 billion board fee — double that of today. And that was a sustainable level, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The lost opportunity to manage and harvest federal and state forestlands devastated rural communities dependent on a reliable wood supply. When shuttered mills displaced loggers and millworkers, who were advised to retrain, local schools and businesses felt the impact keenly. Communities in Central and Northeastern Oregon were particularly affected.

The price of logs, of course, went through the roof. That affected homebuilding and other elements of the economy.

As long as area mills were able to acquire enough inventory to keep running profitably, the local industry remained strong. And yet today, we are blessed with modern mills surrounded by millions of acres of productive private timberland.

Stimson Lumber operates a major sawmill just across the county line near Gaston. The region is also home to Boise Cascade and Willamina Lumber, softwood mills ranking among the largest in the country. The companies have invested millions of dollars maintaining a highly skilled work force deployed in modern, efficient mills.

But what about Oregon’s state and federal timberlands, which you co-own as an Oregonian and American? 

Unfortunately, it appears potential harvest from federal lands will continue to be stifled by litigation resulting in unhealthy and overcrowded forests prone to ravaging forest fires. That’s really a shame for local communities.

But on the state level, the 364,000 acre Tillamook State Forest and 154,000-acre Clatsop State Forest, featuring magnificent 80-year-old stands of predominantly Douglas fir, are beginning to reappear. This could provide a major economic boost to counties in close proximity, including Yamhill.
The great Tillamook Burn, a series of catastrophic forest fires, began denuding the northern end of the Coast Range in 1933. It charred 554 square miles of timberland in all.

Replanted in the wake of the blazes, these lands are being managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry, overseen by the State Forester and Board of Forestry.

Before the fires, these lands were owned by the counties and private individuals and companies. Afterward, first during the Depression, the owners typically lacked the resources to replant and stay the course.

When taxes went unpaid on privately held tracts, ownership reverted to the state. The counties also turned their tracts over to the state, on the assumption the Department of Forestry would be better able to replant and manage them for future timber production, to the benefit of local communities.

To date, that has not happened. In response, 15 Western Oregon counties have filed a $1.4 billion lawsuit against the State Forester, seeking authorization for more extensive harvesting.

The counties have a point.

An estimated 10 billion board feet of timber burned in Tillamook County alone. Today, they support at least that much volume again, and probably more.

With stumpage prices running $400 to $500 per thousand net board feet — if not more — increased harvest would have a very favorable economic impact in Clatsop and Tillamook counties. That’s also true for Yamhill County, thanks to its milling capacity.

I got my own start 44 years ago, following periods spent in the Army, in college and in banking by turns.

I was initially hired as a knot bumper by a logging company operating in Wallowa, in Oregon’s northeastern corner. I learned fast and left company employment as a seasoned “timber faller.”

My wife, Sandy, and I have been raising and harvesting our own timber in Yamhill County, on Tripletree Farm, since the mid-1970s. Today, I hire most of my logging done by some of the most high-skill, high-tech outfits available anywhere, and they are based locally.

Logging is still ranked as the world’s most dangerous profession by People and Politics — even more dangerous than deep-sea fishing and land-mine defusal. But large, modern harvesting equipment has improved both efficiency and safety.

We now rely on machines known as “hot saws,” “shovels,” “strokers,” “dangle-heads,” “towers” and “carriages,” just to name a few. They are a marvel to witness in operation.

The timber industry is truly amazing. I’m very proud to be part of it, enabling me to know I’m helping shelter the world.

But it’s dependent on a fully sustainable timber supply. We have to ensure that first and foremost.


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