Four Years Since Trump's Pledge To Boost Timber, Little Has Changed

Feb 25, 2020

In May 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump told a Eugene rally that he would rejuvenate Oregon’s timber industry.

“Timber jobs have been cut in half since 1990. We’re gonna bring them up folks, we’re gonna do it real right, we’re gonna bring’em up, okay?” he said to cheers and applause.

Under President Trump, the state’s timber industry is still seeing a steady decline in jobs and active mills. As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, some industry officials still believe Trump can do good things for them.

President Donald Trump, June 2018.
Credit U.S. Dept of State / Flickr.com

For two decades, Jim Geisinger has been Executive Vice President of Associated Oregon Loggers.  He’s watched the timber industry transition and change, which includes a steady decline after the Northern Spotted Owl was put on the Endangered Species List in 1990.

“Y’know, before the owl got listed, we were harvesting 8 billion feet a year in Oregon," says Geisinger. "Year after year after year. And it was a sustainable number. 60 percent of our forests were owned by the federal government.

Logging truck.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

"And when the owl got listed, and the Clinton Administration came into power, we went from 8 billion feet to something less than 4 billion feet.”

Timber jobs and mills were the lifeblood for many rural communities, and their decline caused resentment against environmentalists and successive administrations.  Which is why Geisinger is excited for President Trump.

A Northern Spotted Owl in the Mackenzie River Basin in Oregon.
Credit USFWS-Pacific Region / Flickr.com

“I don’t think anyone in our industry expected mills to reopen.  Once they’re closed, they’re closed.  Our objective is to keep the ones that are operating now, continuing to operate.”

As far as the state of Oregon's timber jobs and mills remaining generally flat under a Trump tenure, Geisinger says "Don't expect an aircraft carrier to turn on a dime."  He says the White House is streamlining the consultation process between land management agencies and regulators, and looking to further revise the Endangered Species Act.

“And of course, this is the one that the environmentalists are nuts over, is gee…we might have to consider economic impacts when we decide to list or delist a species.”

“That may make Republican donors who happen to own timber mills excited, and get the base riled up because they feel like they’re sticking it to those environmentalists in the big city," says Steve Pedery, Conservation Director for Oregon Wild. "But it’s not actually resulting in a better outcome, either for the environment or for jobs in rural communities.”

Forest, early morning.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Pedery says in the past, timber interests and conservationists in Oregon actually worked together for mutual benefit. But in these polarized times, he worries that finding common ground will be shirked for unattainable promises on the campaign trail.

“We’ve certainly had the Trump Administration going after the laws that protect clean water and wildlife," continues Pedery. 

"But the reality is, the free market is not going to bring back the economy of the 1970s.  That’s just reality, it’s reality in Oregon on timber, it’s the reality in West Virginia on coal.”

Job classification systems since the 1990s have changed, making it hard to make precise comparisons. But looking at Oregon’s overall wood product manufacturing from 1990 to 2018, yearly average employment has fallen. 

“Going back at 2001, annual average employment was about 12,900 jobs.  In 2018, annual average employment was about 9000 jobs," says Gail Krumenauer, an economist with the state employment department.  "So we’ve certainly seen a decline over time, it looks like really that most recent decline did happen along the Great Recession.”

Unloading logs at the 2017 Oregon Logging Conference, Eugene, OR.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

Timber has remained a contentious policy issue. In the state legislature, Republican lawmakers are again a no-show for a cap-and-trade bill they say will hobble the industry. Last year, Stimson Lumber cut 60 employees, blaming Oregon’s business model. And critics say the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 is outdated and limiting.  It’s a lingering resentment that then-candidate Trump tapped into on the campaign trail back in May 2016.

“Timber is a crucial industry in Oregon, but it has been hammered by…why are we surprised? By federal regulations, right?”

James Johnston is a research associate at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.  He says the president’s actual influence over Oregon timber is modest.

“Only 9 percent of timber harvest in Oregon is from federal lands that the Trump Administration has direct control over. Private land logging levels are largely a function of market forces.”

And Mindy Crandall, an OSU Professor of Forestry, says even before the spotted owl controversy, the timber industry was in flux, even ahead of the Great Recession. Furthermore, she says the nature of timber work has changed since its hey-days in the 1970s and 80s.

“So when we talk about bringing back an industry…for starters, I’m never really clear to what people are referring to," she tells KLCC. "Are they referring to the amount harvested or are they referring to the people employed in the industry? 

"Because we’ve consistently seen over the last 40 years even if our harvest stays the same, there’s fewer people employed in the industry because our technology is improving.”

One startling example comes from the Western Wood Products Association on sawmills operating in the Western United States. While the number of sawmills has gone from 600 to roughly 120 since 1990, their average production has nearly tripled.

Again, state economist Gail Krumenauer.

"And you can see that the employment trend has continued to decline particularly at saw mills where they are processing it.  That’s not necessarily the timber jobs that are out in the woods, but you can see this clear increase in production over time, with a little bit of a dip for the business cycle, and just a continuing decline in number of jobs that it takes to process those products.”

It’s unclear how many of President Trump’s supporters buy into the idea of a fully restored timber industry. Like coal, technology, competing interests and market forces have all taken their collective toll.  And recent trade wars and tariffs have also concerned many domestic producers, including those tied to forestry and logging. But with strong, widespread support among registered Republicans headed into November, the president may not need to sway many on timber prospects to begin with.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.