China’s Building Boom Revives Northwest Log Export Debate

Nov 20, 2013

Over the last five years, shipping logs from the Northwest to China has grown into a 4 billion dollar business. Ports along the Oregon and Washington coast are looking to reopen log yards that shut down years ago and provide the raw material to feed China’s construction boom. But some residents in Newport Oregon say a proposal to export logs there isn’t good for the community, and will hurt Northwest mills.

A log stacker
Credit Amelia Templeton

At the Teevin Brothers log yard in Rainier, Oregon, the air smells like sap and bark dust. Workers are preparing logs for towering ships that are docked across the Columbia River. Scalers inspect each log and staple it with a barcode.

Oien: “You got a pretty good sample of Northwest logs.”

That’s Eric Oien, a manager at Teevin Brothers.

Oien: “The direction we’re looking now, you have Western hemlock, beyond that there is some Noble fir, and I even see a bit of Doug fir mixed in.”

Nearby, a machine chips bark of the logs to ensure that Northwest insects won’t hitch a ride in a ship’s hull. There are about a half a million logs here, most destined for China. Oien says his company has benefited from China’s construction boom.

Oien: “This facility started out just 12 years ago with only 10 employees. And now Teevin Brothers employs over 120 people.”

Hakan Ekstrom is a timber industry analyst. He says up until a few years ago, the Northwest was mostly selling logs to Japan and South Korea. Now China has taken over as the top customer. Ekstrom says Chinese buyers tend to prefer logs to milled lumber. Because builders there don’t use 2 by 4 studs or any standard dimension of lumber.

Ekstrom: “They can decide how they turn and twist that log to get as much lumber out of it as possible.”

Ekstrom says many smaller ports on the Oregon and Washington coast are trying find land and strike deals to get back into the log exporting business. Ports like Newport, on Oregon’s central coast.

Teevin brothers has proposed building a new log export facility there. The logs would come from forests in the coast range owned by Hancock Timber Resource group.The project has divided the town. It would send at least 50 log trucks a day on a round-trip journey through what is now a quiet residential neighborhood.

Brant: “Would you want to move to where you sit on your deck and looking out at a beautiful view and all you hear is the noise from a log truck?”

Ken Brant thinks log exports will disrupt his neighborhood.
Credit Amelia Templeton

That’s Ken Brant, a retired teacher. Brant lives with a pair of black Chiuhauas in a house that overlooks the bay. He bought it 13 years ago, after the international terminal had shut down. Brant thinks the log export proposal will undermine Newport’s efforts to build an economy around tourism, marine science, and art.

Brant: “We’re worried about our crabbing. We’re worried about our shrimping. This is a tourist town. And the people that are for this say, well this used to be a logging town 30 years ago. Well, thirty years is a long time ago.”

Barton: “I believe that a diverse economy and one that doesn’t rely solely on tourism and entertainment is much healthier.”

That’s JoAnn Barton, a Port Commissioner. Barton says the log yard would employ about 40 people -- and generate revenue to repair docks like the one we’re standing on.

It’s heaped with sea lions today. But it normally provides berths for the town’s tourist’s yachts and commercial fishing boats.

Barton: “Much of what you see out here needs a lot of attention a lot of investment.”

The log export proposal also has the support of the local longshoreman’s union. There are just 10 longshoremen left in Newport. Yale Forgarty is the President of his union’s local. He says he has to go to other ports to find work.

Fogarty: “We have no work here until the terminal opens backs up. “
Templeton: “Do you remember the last ship you unloaded or unloaded in Newport?”
“I believe it was 1999.”
Templeton: “And what was it?
“It was logs.”

But many people in Newport don’t see log exports as a job creator. Dozens of mills have shut down in this county in the recent past. Ken Brant says its galling to see logs going overseas instead of being milled locally.

Brant: “It’s taken logs away from lumber mills in Oregon. And lots of people who work at them. Or worked at them.”

That concern is borne out by research. Exports can drive up the price of logs, making it harder for local mills to buy them.
And the chief economist with Oregon’s Department of Forestry found that mills create about 3 jobs for every million board feet of logs they cut. Exporting that same amount of logs creates less than 1 port job by comparison.

Even some supporters of the log yard in Newport think log exports are a poor economic development strategy for the Northwest. Here’s JoAnn Barton, the Port Commissioner met from earlier.

Barton: “I don’t just dislike it, I hate it. It goes back to that, natural resources colony. Is that what Oregon wants to be. I hope not.”

But, she says, if logs from the Northwest are going to be exported to China, she’d rather see that benefit her port. Timber industry analyst Hakan Ekstrom says people shouldn’t focus too much on the logs being shipped away.

“If we look ahead 5-10 years, Chinese buyers will not only be interested in buying logs, but also more lumber.”

Ekstrom says upper class Chinese and foreigners in China are increasingly interested in living in western-style single family homes. And that could create lots of new export business for sawmills in the Northwest.

More info and a slideshow available at the Earthfix website.