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March 28, 2004

Salvage logging from Biscuit Fire could clear the way for jobs boon

By Diane Dietz 
The Register-Guard

The trees charred in the 2002 Biscuit Fire look to Doug Robertson like jobs for the picking - but you've got to know where he's coming from.

He's a six-term county commissioner from Douglas County, a region with double-digit unemployment, the highest rate in Oregon.

He's flown over blackened hillsides with harvestable fire-killed trees as far as the eye can see. He instigated a study last year that found fire-killed trees deteriorate and lose economic value if they aren't logged right away.

He figures the bulk of any trees cut from the 500,000 acre fire in Curry and Josephine counties would be trucked to Douglas County for milling - a bonanza for his constituents.

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Rob Thomas and big logs

Rob Thomas, secretary- treasurer with Starfire Lumber Co. in Cottage Grove, walks by old growth Douglas fir waiting to be cut. The mill is one of four left that cut old growth Douglas fir almost exclusively.

more big logs

Mills may delay work on logs from other timber sales for years to saw Biscuit Fire salvage.

inside a mill

Tom Trammel operates the head rig, which makes primary cuts on logs, at Starfire Lumber Co. in Cottage Grove.

Photos: Kevin Clark / The Register-Guard


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"It gets you pretty charged up," he said.

But the promise of Biscuit Fire jobs for Southern Oregon may be as solid as ash skittering across the forest floor, largely because of the flexibility of the wood products industry.

Mills nowadays carefully stage their work for maximum profit. They could stop processing other logs in order to saw the Biscuit salvage logs for several years, without boosting their work force by a single job.

"They'll move loggers onto the salvage wood, and instead of running green wood in their mill, they'll run burned wood. They'll defer cutting other timber sales or private operations until that wood is gone," said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based trade group.

The uncertainty about whether the salvage work will create new jobs complicates the bitter dispute over the proposed Biscuit logging. Logging advocates and opponents already have locked horns over the environmental impacts of cutting burned Biscuit trees.

Bullish in bear country

Industry advocates in Southern Oregon tend toward a rosy view on jobs creation.

Bob Ragon, whose trade group Douglas Timber Operators represents 140 companies including mill owners around Roseburg, said his rule of thumb is this: eight jobs created for every million board feet cut and milled.

Forest Service officials are expected to announce by May how much scorched timber they want to sell. Previously, they have said they were leaning toward selling about 500 million board feet. Using Ragon's index, that's 4,000 jobs.

Ragon predicts some mills will expand hours and others will add a swing or a graveyard shift to cut the wood.

There will be logging jobs, truck driving jobs, mill jobs and loading jobs, Ragon said. Pay will range from $14 to $30 an hour, plus benefits, he said.

Plus, Ragon calculates the addition of two or three non-wood-products jobs for each million board feet. That's 1,000 to 1,500 jobs in restaurants, barbershops and other service establishments. "It'll be good news for everybody," Ragon said.

All this bounty would occur in the two to three years the Biscuit trees would be logged.

The Forest Service calculated the economic impact under the 500 million-board-feet proposal. The economist who did the analysis, Jeffrey Prestemon, didn't offer specific job estimates. But he assumed Southern Oregon's mills would increase operations from an average of 1.33 shifts a day to two shifts a day through the logging period.

Reached at the Forest Sciences Laboratory in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Prestemon initially told The Register-Guard he'd be willing to talk about his findings, but later said he couldn't get permission from agency leaders in Washington, D.C.

The Medford-based Oregon Timber Industries Association is also bullish, but only if the Forest Service sells the burned trees quickly, said Dave Hill, the group's executive vice president.

"A wild guess might be 500 employment opportunities - in a whole variety of activities - as a result of the Biscuit salvage and rehabilitation efforts over the next two years," he said. "It would be new employment. It might not be permanent employment, but it would be new employment for a period of time," he said.

Hoped-for stimulus

But other experts said it's nowhere near that simple or clear.

Some economists said the market is far too complex to predict accurately what job growth - if any - would come from the logging and milling.

Whatever market reaction the activity spurs will be temporary, noted Ernie Niemi, an economist with the Eugene-based consulting firm ECONorthwest.

He was commissioned by an environmental group, the Siskiyou Regional Education Project, to analyze how much the logging would cost the government.

Some people see burned trees as diamonds scattered on the ground, and all Oregonians need to do is pick them up, Niemi said.

"(But) markets are complicated," he said. "We have never found a place where there's been a fire and then you've seen these incremental increases in jobs and incomes just across the board."

In Niemi's view, the Biscuit salvage might produce some new jobs - he couldn't predict exactly how many - but nothing like the level suggested by salvage advocates.

That's because mills would delay working on logs from other timber sales that they otherwise would have processed, he said.

"We know there will be some offset. It won't be one-to-one, but there will be some," he said.

Robbie Robinson at Starfire Lumber Co. in Cottage Grove will have to puzzle through the production questions if he gets some of the Biscuit logs, and about one-quarter would suit him.

"It would take us probably three years to use that up. It would be nice," he said.

Hypothetically, if Robinson gets that much, he could consider adding 23 people to his 67-person work force and operate a second shift, he said.

But that would mean putting his key people on the evening shift so they could train and supervise new employees, and that would play hob with their family lives.

Also, it's hard to find skilled millworkers now, because so many have quit the industry or moved away as Oregon's wood products sector has retracted, he said.

So, Robinson said, he'd more likely add overtime rather than hire new millworkers.

"We would only even consider that if we had a lot of volume that needed to be moved very quickly," he said. "I would prefer to play with the hours of the crew we've got, if we can."

If Robinson bought Biscuit logs but opted not to boost production, he would easily store surplus logs in the big, sprinklered log piles that loom at the mill site just east of Interstate 5.

Jobless recovery

That mills could process more logs with less staff comes as no surprise to Brian Rooney, an economist who follows the industry for the Oregon Employment Department.

In the past two decades, mills have installed new technology, including computer-driven saws and mechanized wood handling.

"It takes less bodies, and there's more electronics and machinery to do the processing. It makes the mills more flexible, so when they get more raw material or the prices go up they don't necessarily have to add bodies to keep up," Rooney said.

That's why wood products employment continues to lag even though industry indicators such as prices for framing lumber have soared in recent months.

"Normally when prices are up, we see a little more employment," Rooney said. "We really haven't seen that here in Oregon."

Biscuit might even hurt some in the wood products industry. The Forest Service analysis found that prices that private forest owners could get for their logs in Southern Oregon would fall 14 percent when the Biscuit logs hit the market. That's because mills bidding for the Biscuit logs might temporarily forgo buying private logs.

"If the Forest Service dumps an awful lot of timber on the market, will that $500 price (per 1,000 board feet) stay where it has been?" economist Niemi asked. "The answer is no. The price will go down. It's the law of supply and demand."

The effect would likely be localized, because 500 million board feet is a fir needle's breadth in the 60 billion board feet consumed in the United States each year, experts said.

Still, the 2,400 members of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, who have much to lose from depressed timber prices, want the Biscuit burn logged as soon as possible.

The group figures the increased log supply could help small, independent mills that lack their own timberland and historically are strong customers for small-woodlot owners.

A fluid commodity

Log buyers think in terms of multistate areas in which logs flow freely by truck or rail. If one mill isn't buying, the one up the road may be. If one timberland owner isn't logging, another one in the next drainage might be.

Somewhere, the Biscuit logs will make a mark, said Dale Riddle, vice president of Eugene's Seneca Sawmill Co., offering this illustration:

"If you've got 10 mills and they all need 100 board feet, that means you have to have 1,000 board feet. If there's only 900 - they don't know it yet - but somebody in those 10 mills is going to go out of business, and it will be the weaker sister," he said.

"If you add 100 board feet to that mix, somebody - we don't know who it is - will still be in business at the end of the day where they wouldn't be before."

If Oregon mills are forgoing buying Canadian or Alaskan logs to instead buy the Biscuit logs, Oregon tree fallers and truckers will go to work.

Wilsonville-based Columbia Helicopter expects to get enough work from the Biscuit Fire salvage to add up to 250 workers to its 800-employee operation for a time.

Post-logging restoration could add several seasons of piecemeal tree-planting, though that work doesn't pay well.

Douglas County's Robertson takes a dim view of any naysayers. Fires in Oregon in recent years have damaged much government-owned timber, and the trees should have been logged, he said.

"You're talking about tens of thousands of jobs, if you aggregate those fires," Robertson said. "It could have an incredible impact."


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Biscuit Fire map

Map: STEPHANIE BARROW / The Register-Guard


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The U.S. Forest Service says that counties near the fire zone are the most likely to be affected by Biscuit logging, including job creation or depressed log prices. Here's wood products employment in adjacent Oregon counties:

Coos: 900

Curry: 470

Douglas: 4,440

Jackson: 2,370

Josephine: 670

Lane: 4,700

- Oregon Employment Department


Now: The U.S. Forest Service is rewriting draft plans for logging in the Biscuit Fire area based on new data about forest density, plus 23,000 public comments.

Next: Scott Conroy, supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, will announce his decision by early May.

Appeals: Groups will have 45 days to file administrative appeals of the decision. Losing parties can then sue in court.


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