Clearcut Choices

Timber as a lens for the problems plaguing Oregon

Let’s talk wood! Logging is a huge part of Oregon’s history. The stumps in Stumptown were from trees quickly zipped out of the city as it grew. Ted Wheeler, Portland’s Mayor, is somewhat gleefully described as a “sixth-generation timber scion” when he’s mentioned in the press. Trees and axes and beavers festoon many of the state seals, statues, and buildings. I’m saying: we’ve got wood. Some of it is also currently on fire. All that soft pine, fast-growing and perfect for making utility poles, also burns five to ten times as fast as leafy trees.

The timber industry in Oregon is the third largest in the state, generating $18 billion and 70,000 jobs in 2016. Just under 50 percent of the state itself is forest. Logging trucks are as ubiquitous on the highways here as Subarus.  

It’s a complex topic, but in short, after federal regulations in the ‘90s (remember the spotted owl?) moved logging off of federal lands, private landowners stepped in to fill the void. Now, three-quarters of the logging in the state is on private land. The state, eager to help bridge the financial gap from the ban on federal logging, kept taxes low for the private timberland owners. As a result, many of the towns now being hard hit by wildfires have suffered from a lack of logging tax revenue for years now. Reporters at ProPublica estimate that timber-dependent towns in Oregon missed out on about $2.2 billion in tax dollars from logging since 1991. 

The large, private companies logging the forests of Oregon are not good stewards of the land, either. They log on a faster cycle and plant tree farms rather than managing existing forests. They organized themselves to take every advantage of the tax structures around private land ownership in the state, gobbling up 40 percent of the privately owned timberlands in Oregon.    

Monied interests have always manipulated the government and the land itself. The history of Oregon doesn’t prove otherwise. In 1905, Oregon’s Land Fraud trials zeroed in on a scheme wherein land meant to be sold to settlers by the federal government to encourage development along the railroad was instead routed to private timber companies. Barflies in Portland saloons were enlisted as proxies to buy the land at a cheap price and flip it to timber interests; the scandal eventually engulfed one of Oregon’s U.S. Senators. 

[This is where the Economist would be put a photo with a caption like “Choppy roads ahead” or “Needling a solution”] 

All of which is to say, the problems that Oregon has as a state, the U.S. has as a country and that capitalism has as a system are not new, but they’re just as frustrating now as 120 years ago. The Robber Barons of this gilded age look a little different—the vests are fleece and don’t have room for pocketwatch fobs—but the song remains the same. Extract, extract, extract. When there’s no incentive to invest back in local communities, we’re left with towns that are effectively hollowed out, unable to fund new roads or libraries and powerless to claim the money that should have been theirs in the first place. 

The timber industry is top of mind again because of the wildfires responsible for the poisonous fog blanketing much of the Willamette Valley. Clearcutting and tree farming, practiced by those private timber companies, seem to make forest fires worse. Earlier this year, Oregon Republicans in the state legislature walked out to deny Democrats a quorum on a sure-to-pass cap-and-trade bill, which thereby killed a bill specifically addressing wildfire management issues. One of the Republican senators who walked out lost his home to the fires this week. Yeah, I really do think.    

We like to say that the forests are the lungs of the earth. One of the things that I love about this state is the air, fresh and clear in the mountains, salty by the sea and always alive. Now, when I can see it better than I can breathe it, I wish that we had treated our lungs better all along. We may never be able to breathe easy again.