It was a joyful day in Omak. On Monday the long-shuttered Colville tribal veneer mill was officially reopened, with due pomp and ceremony and the official blessing of Gov. Jay Inslee. It is leased to Wood Resources LLC, which has hired 87 people and expects to hire over 100 more. The mill where hundreds once earned their livelihood, that went dark in the dark days of recession, is now revived. The natural fibrous growth of the Colville tribal forests will be processed there to produce the raw material of plywood, which is the raw material of the houses, which is where we live. The value added will produce profit, which produces wages, which will enrich a community. Not a bad deal.
Wood is a natural resource. Managed by human beings, it is also an agricultural product. It grows. There is more and more of it every day. With care it can be harvested and transformed into the products we all need and use. Demand is rising. The Puget Sound Business Journal reports that West Coast structural lumber production climbed 11.8 percent just in the first two months of this year. Weyerhaeuser Corp., reported net earnings of $144 million in the first quarter and its lumber operations are running at 90 percent of capacity. They make use of the harvest, and the beauty is, trees grow back.
People forget that trees grow. Cut down a tree to support the human economy and you are not causing a permanent affliction, but imposing a temporary change. You can do it badly, and cause harm, or do it well, and bring benefit. Mismanaged, the forest will choke itself to death. Trees grow.
Sometime back in the 1970s or ’80s, the enlightened set became devoted to the notion that harvesting timber was wrong, almost always. They were reacting in part to extremes, overharvest and ugliness. Since most timber in the Western United States is owned by the public, mostly managed by the Department of Agriculture, the harvest could be affected by political means, and so it was. By the mid-1990s harvest on federal land was all but stopped. Federal forests that produced 12 billion board feet of timber in the 1980s produce 2 billion board feet today, and only after agonizing and expensive bureaucratic hoop jumping, often followed by litigation. That’s from 193 million acres of public forest, where trees still grow.
Propose cutting more trees and the Timber Wars start anew. The House of Representatives did just that, passing a bill written by our own Rep. Doc Hastings called the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. The bill, H.R. 1526, passed in September with bipartisan support, 244-173. It would require the Forest Service to triple its timber harvest to 6 billion board feet annually on land already designated as suitable for logging. It would send 25 percent of receipts to counties where the timber was cut. It would bypass some environmental laws. It would turn over a small segment of Idaho forest to the state and counties to manage as trust land. It includes a section written by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., for the Oregon & California Railroad grant lands, known as the O&C lands in Oregon, turning over parts to a state trust managed for timber production.
Environmentalists are furious, of course. All the old Timber Wars metaphors were revived. “Forest Destruction Act slashes its way through the House,” said the Defenders of Wildlife. “Beware the clear-cutters,” said the Los Angeles Times editorial board. The White House vowed a veto, saying it will not tolerate removal of land from federal control or the weakening of environmental protections. “Obama to timber counties: Drop dead,” was the headline in Oregon’s Capital Press.
The bill is now in the Senate, where Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is working on his own timber harvest bill. Between Senate, House and White House there eventually could be something rare — a compromise. It could result in greater harvest, healthier forests, and dare we say profit, while improving the human condition and the forest environment simultaneously. That is possible, believe it or not. Trees grow.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.