If there were any lingering hopes for a renaissance in the lumber industry in Northeast Oregon, they have now been laid to rest by a study of the Blue Mountains released last month by the U.S. Forest Service.
The study, compiled at the request of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in conjunction with the Blue Mountain Demonstration Area, quantifies what community and industry leaders have suspected all along - there isn't enough timber in the region to sustain a viable lumber industry.
That may be hard to believe when you look out over the more than 5 million acres that comprise the Blue Mountain region covered by the study. The landscape is covered with trees. However, 83 percent of those trees are off-limits because they live within wilderness areas, wild and scenic areas, parks, and other areas "protected" by federal land use regulations.
The restrictions are so tight on the remaining 17 percent of the land where logging is allowed that the supply of merchantable timber is a pittance at 167 million board feet. Sawmills in the region could easily consume that much timber in a year.
The study suggests that by implementing a couple of modest changes that the volume of merchantable timber could be more than quadrupled. First, the Forest Service would have to scuttle its moratorium on harvesting trees with a diameter in excess of 21 inches. Second, timber sale receipts need to be plowed back into the Forest Service for comprehensive management rather than absorbed into the U.S. Treasury.
Those seem to us reasonable propositions because not only would they some badly needed economic relief to the communities of Northeast Oregon, they would also reduce the threat of catastrophic fires in those areas. Now that the Blue Mountain study has provided the basis for these changes in forest policy the governor and others should move aggressively to see that they are implemented.
These measures will not make whole communities like Wallowa, John Day, and North Powder, which have suffered immeasurably by misguided forest policies but they will provide a modicum of economic stability while they pursue other options.
If the Blue Mountain study accomplishes nothing else, hopefully it will help to bring closure on a difficult time for the communities of Northeast Oregon. It's official - it's time to move on. R.S.