Collaboration Keeps Eastern Oregon Sawmill Open

Posted by Renee Magyar on September 13, 2013

Forest Service announces a 10 year stewardship contract for logging on the Malheur National Forest

Representatives from the Obama Administration visited Malheur Lumber last summer to see the results of collaboration at work

Last week the US Forest Service announced that it awarded a 10-year stewardship contract to a company to perform logging on the Malheur National Forest, and it was applauded by conservation groups and the timber industry alike. This is great news for those who have been working hard to find solutions to the timber wars in eastern Oregon. And it couldn't have come too soon.

Last fall I was more depressed about my work than I ever had been before. The Malheur Lumber Company in John Day announced it would be closing its sawmill, the last operating mill in Grant County. I heard the news when I was in John Day and so I met up with Mike Billman, the timber manager for Malheur Lumber Company, and Tim Lillebo from the conservation group Oregon Wild. They were on the Middle Fork of the John Day River and we drank some whiskey as we contemplated this horrible news.

To say that I was drinking whiskey by a river with an environmentalist and a timber company worker sounds like the start to a bad joke, but it's actually an amazing story of how the two have become friends by collaborating for the past seven years to find agreement on forest management for the Malheur National Forest.

In 2006, Sustainable Northwest was invited to help start the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, a collaborative made up of people with very different views on how to manage the Malheur National Forest. The Partners' goal is to increase forest health while creating economic opportunity for Grant County, where John Day is located. For many years, Sustainable Northwest has facilitated difficult conversations over controversial issues of forest management, from saving old growth ponderosa pines to salvage logging after a fire. It is hard but rewarding work. So much agreement has been found and trusting relationships have been built.

But all the hard work would have fallen short if Malheur Lumber Company had closed. Seventy workers would have been laid off - a huge number in a county with only 7,445 people. According to state economic numbers, one job in Grant County is equal to about 180 jobs in Multnomah County, so the closure would have been equivalent to losing 12,600 jobs in Portland. Devastating, right?

Employees at Malheur Lumber process logs
Employees at Malheur Lumber process logs

And it would have been more expensive to restore the Malheur National Forest because logs from thinning projects in the forest would have had to travel much farther to the nearest mill, making restoration impractical. The result would have been a severely depressed community surrounded by a fire-prone forest.

Luckily, the members of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners didn't want to see that happen. In a show of support, many different people gathered together to see what might be done to increase logging on the Malheur National Forest to keep a steady consistent supply of logs coming from the forest - all with the support of conservation groups.

The result was the Forest Service's 10-year contract awarded to Iron Triangle, a John Day-based logging company. The hope is that the new contract will supply logs to Malheur Lumber Company to keep the mill open for the foreseeable future. This gives me hope that our time, energy, and great effort spent in finding agreement on forest restoration has been worth it, and John Day, Oregon will not be written off the map.

Patrick Shannon is Director of Sustainable Northwest's Forest Program.