The State That Timber Built—2012

What does Oregon owe the struggling timber communities that helped shape the state’s identity?

Saw filer Ralph Kundert working at the Hull-Oakes Mill near Monroe, Oregon, in 1991. Kundert worked at the mill for forty-nine years. The mill is the last industrial steam-powered sawmill in operation in the United States.

This feature in the “Here” issue again brought together personal experience and research to explore a larger idea and, in this case, a concrete and locally relevant story. Though the data need to be updated, the history—particularly that of the Oregon and California Railroad lands—is still important context for current questions of how the state’s rural counties can shape their own futures. Tara’s personal connection to her hometown of Roseburg—a community directly grappling with the timber industry’s boom and bust last century—and her interviews with community members, along with photographer John Bauguess’s photos of small-town Oregon, helped tell the human story of a complex economic and political issue.

 –Kathleen Holt


“Every state has a legacy of ‘truths,’” write Ethan Seltzer, Michael Hibbard, Bruce Weber, and Beth Emshoff in Toward One Oregon, “those stories we tell each other to explain why the world is organized the way it is—and every successive generation has to live with this legacy.” Though Oregon’s truths are as complex as any other state’s, there is no doubt that logging the great forests of the Pacific Northwest is a central thread in the narrative. This history is, for some, that of enterprising pioneers settling an untamed wilderness. For others it’s corrupt railroad barons grabbing up free federal land and selling it to the highest bidder. It’s the story of hard-nosed and hardworking gyppo loggers—like Ken Kesey’s patriarch Hank Stamper in the Northwest classic Sometimes a Great Notion. It’s the story of massive clear-cutting by corporations with profit as the only bottom line. These stories help us understand our place and define who we are. They are why even metropolitan Portland has a soccer team called the Timbers, and why Portland itself is still known as Stumptown. 

The timber industry was “the wheel which sets all other wheels in motion” by the late nineteenth century, according to the Oregonian. Seventy-five to one hundred million board feet of lumber a year was sent overseas by seven large sawmills on the lower Columbia. Once the vast Midwestern forests were depleted, large timber interests quickly shifted to the pine and fir of Oregon. Most of the easy-to-reach timber was already gone from forests near tidewater and streams, but new railroads climbed the ravines and punched through the gullies of the Cascades and Coast Range, giving access to more trees. Oregon ranked second in timber production, behind Washington, by 1905. Between 1900 and 1910, the Northwest’s national share jumped from 8 to 20 percent.

This share continued to expand, at times sporadically, until the national demand for lumber after World War II changed everything. Three decades of booming construction ushered in an era of full-time employment and regular paydays for timber communities. Coos County’s population grew more than 30 percent in the 1940s and ’50s, a rate comparable to California. Coos Bay was deemed the “Lumber Capital of the World” by the Oregonian in 1947. Shared receipts from federal timber sales provided for county services, kept taxes low, built roads and good schools. Oregon became the most timber-dependent state in the nation, with more than two thousand logging operations boasting a combined payroll exceeding all other employment sectors. The state increased its cut from 5.2 billion board feet in 1940 to 9.1 billion board feet in 1955. 

As in any boom, there was an inevitable bust. Private timberland owners chewed through their forests fast, unable to keep up with demand. Federal land managers filled the gap, becoming active participants in the region’s economy. Between 1957 and 1965, timber harvest on federal land grew from 2.3 billion board feet to 5. Pressure on the national forests accelerated backcountry road building, clear-cuts, herbicide and insecticide treatments, slash burning, and conifer plantations. A once vast and seemingly limitless resource became obviously finite. The 1960s and ’70s brought a bevy of federal laws that complicated timber sales and were used by environmental groups to preserve what intact forest was left. 

The listing of the spotted owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 felt like a death knell to timber-dependent communities, but much had preceded it that led to the decline of logging. Some say the owl was merely a smokescreen for these larger problems. The recession of the early 1980s hit the wood-products market especially hard. Housing construction floundered under high interest rates; Canadian lumber and Southern pine became a competitive threat; Japan developed a market for Douglas fir logs, making it more profitable to export than mill at home; and older mills required expensive mechanical upgrades in order to stay competitive—those that survived needed far fewer workers. The price of lumber dropped more than 48 percent, and one mill closure after another led to staggering unemployment rates. In December 1984, four out of the five counties with the highest unemployment were timber dependent—with Curry at 20.7 percent, Coos at 15.4, Baker at 14.2, and Douglas at 13.7. Like today, local tax revenues were slashed and communities couldn’t provide essential services. At the end of the recession in the mid-eighties, forty-eight thousand jobs were lost in the lumber industry. Most of them would not return. 

Downtown Roseburg, 2012. The City of Roseburg is studying how to draw more people into its historic downtown area.

At dusk in late December, Roseburg’s Douglas County Courthouse, a neoclassical marble building fronted with six broad columns, can seem ghostly, even its brightly lit Christmas tree dimmed by drizzle. A visitor to the county commissioners’ office here will first walk through a long, echoing hall and encounter two blown-up black-and-white photographs. One is titled “Skid Roads” and shows a team of massive oxen pulling logs that look as wide as the men are tall. It is a compelling picture by virtue of the scale of its subjects: even the crosscut saws seem larger than life. But the second photograph, “Life in Camp,” is the more powerful of the two. A group of loggers eat at a makeshift table under a tarp in the woods. Young for the most part, some are smiling, and all look straight at the camera with the directness of their era. They wear hats and spiked shoes, hold tin cups. A bearded old cook offers coffee from a percolator. They look as though they wouldn’t trade being there for anything in the world.

County Commissioner Doug Robertson says, “We can’t change our geography. We are who we are. We are in the middle of some of the richest timber-growing country in the world.” Robertson has held his position for thirty years, making him Oregon’s longest-serving commissioner. Historically, revenue for law enforcement, libraries, schools, and other social services in the county has been derived from the cutting of trees, he says. With over half of Douglas County made up of federal lands that cannot be taxed or developed, Robertson sees no lasting solution for his and other beleaguered timber-dependent counties across the state besides an increase in logging on federal forests. 

His argument is not surprising, at least to me. I grew up in Roseburg. The spotted owl was listed as endangered the summer before my junior year in high school, and the yellow-ribbon-flying anger and frustration of my community manifested itself in more than just front-page newspaper stories of timber parades and environmentalists burned in effigy. It was there in classroom and locker conversations, 4-H meetings and Sunday school lessons. That anger may have softened in the two decades since I left, but it was not gone, nor was the memory of what locals considered better days. 

Umpqua Training and Employment Inc. has a long history of working with dislocated timber workers. Alex Campbell likes to share an anecdote from its former president, Norm Gershon: “Norm told me that there were so many decades when a young man could drop out of high school, walk into a mill, and start making more money than his high school teachers.” That young man could then buy a home, a truck, and support his family. Campbell is executive director of the Partnership for Economic Development in Douglas County, which works to diversify the area’s economy and help replace the family-wage jobs lost by the decline of the timber industry. This is no small task. In November 2011, Douglas County’s unemployment rate was 12.8 percent and those of other timber counties like Curry and Coos were at 11.6 and 11.2 percent, respectively—these were among the highest rates in the state and well above the national average of 8.6 percent.

There was a grand attempt to help communities like Roseburg survive these economic changes. By 2000, timber counties were reeling from a decade of lost jobs and diminished federal timber receipts. They had been accustomed to receiving 25 percent of the money from timber sales off national forests since 1908. But the cut had fallen from a 1983–1989 average of 2.9 billion board feet in western Oregon to less than 0.5 billion board feet in 1996. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act presented a new formula. In lieu of timber receipts, it allowed states or counties to choose to receive the average of the three highest payments between fiscal years 1986 and 1999. Senator Ron Wyden told the Roseburg News Review editorial board that it was the most important piece of legislation that he wrote during his thirty-one years in Congress. 

The money, according to some, was meant to help these counties transition and diversify their economies, and though attempts were made, some with success, this largely did not happen. Others say it was meant to make up for the fact that, in some of those counties, over half the land is public and cannot be taxed or developed. (Though it should be noted that metropolitan counties in Oregon also have significant amounts of public land, an average of 49 percent. They are just less dependent on that land for revenue.) Still others called it welfare. The act was set to end in six years, but payments were renewed and extended in 2007, and then in 2008 at increasingly reduced amounts. On September 30, 2011, the last extension expired. And though a bill was passed by the Senate this March to renew the act for one more year, its fate at the time of this writing is uncertain. 

Though seven hundred counties nationwide have received funds from the Secure Rural Schools Act, thirty-three of Oregon’s thirty-six counties drew in the lion’s share, about $2 billion over the past ten years. The funds paid for roads and emergency services, libraries, parks, the museum, health programs, schools, and law enforcement, sometimes accounting for 70 percent of counties’ entire budgets. A recent Oregon State University study found that without these payments, Oregon’s rural counties will lose between three and four thousand jobs and up to $300 million in revenue. Some counties—Curry, Coos, Josephine, Klamath, Lane—face, according to the Association of Oregon Counties, “severe general fund shortfalls.” Curry and Josephine may become insolvent. What happens to a community when there is no government to run it? No one wants to find out. In a state famous for its opposition to a sales tax, conservative Curry County is considering placing the option on the ballot. The Oregon legislature recently voted to set aside state law and allow the hardest-hit timber counties to tap into road reserve funds in order to pay for law enforcement. But these stopgap measures offer little in the way of lasting solutions.

A family touring the Oregon Logging Conference in 2012 in Eugene. Some officials at that year's conference said there was more interest in buying the $500,000 to $750,000 equipment than there was in 2011.

Just off Highway 138 in the small town of Glideis the Colliding Rivers viewpoint. Here the North Umpqua and Little River crash head on into one another, forming monstrous chocolatey waves in the high flows of winter. Alan Bauman lives and has worked in the Forest Service’s North Umpqua Ranger District for over thirty years. The geology here, which channels two powerful bodies of water directly toward each other, creating spectacular turmoil before easing back into a single river’s flow—the only place in the world where this happens—is an apt metaphor for Bauman’s belief that in order to get beyond the decades of conflict surrounding the management of Oregon’s forests, people need to see beyond their differences. 

“You can point to rules, you can point to markets that may or may not be there, you can point to exports,” he says, “but it’s really our inability to work together in a social contract for the good of our community. We don’t allow ourselves the gift of trust.”

The ranger district office sits across a parking lot from where the two rivers meet. In a small conference room cluttered with binders and maps, Bauman speaks enthusiastically, moving his fingers across the table as if it were a map of his own ideas. His experience with the Forest Service, and consequently the land, is vast, and though now retired from the agency he is still a forester by trade, with a strong belief in science and the ability to manage a forest well. He sees the communities of the Umpqua (Douglas County holds the entire watershed within its borders) as full of innovative people, artists and woodworkers, loggers and craftsman, carpenters and gunsmiths. “No matter what political bent we come from, all of our families here in Douglas County are afflicted with the problem that our young people are emigrating away,” Bauman says. His own children have grown and left. 

Yet Bauman is an optimist. He is brimming with ideas that might revitalize his community, but the one that most excites him is what he calls “breaking bread and playing bocce ball”: sitting down with neighbors, having more potlucks, and letting everyone speak their mind. Bauman is a part of the Hammerhead Forestry Initiative, so named because a group of environmentalists, industrial foresters, and former Forest Service supervisors met in a tavern and drank McMenamins Hammerhead beer as they discussed concerns about the surrounding forests’ lack of resiliency to high-intensity fires. From informal social gatherings like this one Bauman sees the potential to form community forestry groups that would do actual forest management on the ground. The Forest Service, he explains, has long-term stewardship contracts that would allow such groups to come together and figure out how to meet goals. In the process, environmental advocates, monitors, practitioners, planners, botanists, and foresters would get to know each other as neighbors who all have a stake in the health of their forests. 

These projects would not generate revenue to match the days of widespread clear-cutting, but Bauman believes that through adaptive management and thinning, communities could achieve a sustainable level of timber production—perhaps even half as much as it once was. He points to a map of federal land in the county: any timber produced through these efforts on Forest Service land would result in 25 percent of the revenue going directly back to the community. But Oregon and California (O&C) lands, 2.4 million acres primarily managed by the Bureau of Land Management, would give 50 percent back. The land is scattered in a checkerboard of parcels across eighteen western Oregon counties. One of its multiple mandates is to provide timber production and economic stability to local communities. It is only a piece of the puzzle for Bauman, but others see it as the best opportunity to pull timber communities back from the brink.

Oregon and California Railroad lands stipple western Oregon up and down the I-5 corridor. They are found in the foothills of the Cascades and Coast Range and in the low elevation forests around Eugene, Cottage Grove, Roseburg, Medford, and Ashland. Douglas County claims the most, at more than 700,000 acres. Though they make up only a little over 3 percent of the 52 percent of land in Oregon that is public, they are, says Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, vitally important to rural counties. While revenue from logging on Forest Service lands must go to roads and schools, O&C revenue can be used for whatever purpose counties deem necessary: law enforcement, veterans’ services, libraries. 

Oregon’s story of settlement and expansion is tied to the history of these lands. In 1866, the federal government granted the state every other square mile in a forty-mile swath stretching from Portland to the California border. The state then awarded a railroad company, what would become the Oregon and California Railroad, the right to sell land in order to finance the costs of constructing a line. There was a stipulation—that the land be sold to actual settlers in no more than 160-acre blocks at no more than $2.50 an acre—which the railroad summarily broke. In one story, the company rounded up patrons of Portland’s waterfront district saloons, paid or gave them a bottle of whiskey to sign applications for purchase, then sold that land in large blocks through middlemen to corporate interests. All told, an estimated 75 percent of the railroad’s sales violated state law. 

By 1902, land prices were soaring, and the Southern Pacific Railroad, the O&C’s successor, decided to keep the land it had left as its own private timber reserve. Legal battles dragged on for years, and the Supreme Court finally ordered the lands returned, leaving it to Congress to decide their fate. The 1916 Chamberlain-Ferris Act ruled that 2.8 of the original 4 million acres granted to the railroad were revested to the United States, which should dispose of the land through timber and auction sales. Later, Congress passed the 1937 O&C Act, which stated that the federal government would keep the land and instead supply counties with timber receipts. To county commissioners, there is an expectation surrounding these lands that once had been private and taxable and later provided revenue. They were almost an entitlement and soon became a necessity.

In late 2011, Oregon Representatives DeFazio, Schrader, and Walden announced they had a plan for O&C lands that would offer something for everyone. The representatives described in an Oregonian editorial how this plan would create 12,000 new jobs in Oregon, set aside old-growth forests, and designate new wilderness. It would allow “sustainable” timber harvest on already logged lands. These lands would be managed by a “diverse, public board in trust for the counties to ensure sustained yield”—thus giving these counties a predictable level of income for social services, reducing their dependence on unpredictable federal payments, and returning them to “the tradition of self-reliance that embodies the best traditions of our state.” 

The lofty goals described by this bipartisan team have already been scrutinized. Some in the conservation community are openly opposed to it. Any plan that mandates a level of logging, further ties logging revenues to benefit counties, and puts management in an unpredictable “trust” where it is unclear how national environmental laws will be implemented, will come under attack, and perhaps rightly so. Doug Robertson, who was involved in crafting the plan, is still optimistic—it was written with something for everyone, he said, from environmentalists to industry, even to the federal government, which would save $100 million a year by shifting the management of O&C lands to the trust. “If you view this issue as a piece of fabric, and everyone pulling on their end of it,” he says, “we’re never going to get anywhere.” 

North of downtown Roseburg, Costco opened a new 15,000-square-foot store in 2010. Riprap holds a hillside that was excavated for the development.

I made my local newspaper twice when I was a teenager: the first time when I qualified for Oregon’s state 4-H horse judging team and traveled to the national competition, the second when an article was written about my high school’s environmental group, of which I was a part. “When members of the Shades of Green club look across the Roseburg High School parking lot,” began the article, “they’re not blind to the yellow ribbons on car antennae or the ‘Save a logger, eat an owl’ bumper stickers on some rigs.” In 4-H I belonged to a social organization that was deeply embedded in the values of my rural community. But to my community, Shades of Green represented the ideas of well-off urbanites that brought the listing of the spotted owl, the marbled murrelet, and numerous species of salmon, and subsequently high unemployment and the exodus of young people that have continued until this day. 

“A resident of rural Oregon can always catch a Greyhound to a place with a future,” wrote one Internet commenter in response to an editorial on the impending loss of county payments. Another wrote, “Those living in Portland can’t make it in rural areas. They would not be able to provide for themselves if they can’t get it from a store a block away.”

Today more than 65 percent of Oregonians live in urban areas, a fact which has solidified political power in the cities. And yet, politically at least, there are few who suggest that rural timber communities should be allowed to go bankrupt. The extension of county payments from the Secure Rural Schools Act is supported by Oregon’s federal lawmakers and the governor, with words like “owe” and “historic obligation” appearing again and again in newspaper editorials. In a 2011 press release, Senator Jeff Merkley stated, “I will pursue all available avenues to ensure that the federal government honors this vital contract with Oregon’s communities.” Should this contract be honored because the failure of these communities would have a devastating economic and social effect on the entire state? Or do we owe these places something much deeper? 

Historically, many of Oregon’s towns and cities can claim a timber lineage: coastal towns were mill towns; Willamette Valley cities including Eugene, Albany, Sweet Home, Corvallis, and Philomath were variously dependent on logging; timber reigned in Grants Pass, Medford, Roseburg, and smaller places in between; eastern and central Oregon hubs, from Bend to Baker City, had their millworkers and loggers—a U.S. Forest Service report in the mid-1930s proclaimed: “The history of the economic development of Deschutes County is largely the history of the lumber industry.” Even Portland, a city built on trade, facilitated trade of the region’s natural resources, from agriculture to minerals to trees. The O&C Railroad helped make this trade possible in the western part of the state. Some cities have moved on, diversifying their economies with technology, tourism, health care, and other industries. But what do we owe the places that haven’t? Should we be “subsidizing” their lifestyles, as a web commenter put it, “which we all would love to live, but if the jobs aren’t there, they just aren’t”? Are the federal and state dollars (Portlanders by far pay more in state taxes and fees than they receive in state services) doled out to these communities a form of welfare? Or, as Wendell Berry so eloquently describes in The Long-Legged House, are these dependencies and restrictions simply a part of what it means to share a communal relationship? Berry writes, “a community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.” 

Rose Peda doesn’t think people in urban areas should be paying for people in rural areas, “but they shouldn’t put so many limitations on them that they can’t make a living.” 

Peda is the new library director for the town of Sweet Home. After years of cuts to library and staff hours and constantly living with the “uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to our positions,” Peda, who has a master’s degree in information and library science, left her job as Douglas County’s extension services librarian. The library system there receives 90 percent of its funding from threatened county payments. Like in other rural counties, property taxes are extremely low and levies to raise taxes for even the most important services have failed. (Curry County, for example, has the second lowest rate in the state—at sixty cents per a thousand dollars of assessed property value. The last levy to raise taxes failed by 72 percent.) Peda describes the challenge of getting people to tax themselves for these services: “I want them to see that libraries, like education, are good for the community, good for everyone.” 

Though Peda’s friends and family in southern Oregon are now hours away, she has grown accustomed to the drive on I-5. The freeway is western Oregon’s central artery, connecting residents and carrying commerce between rural and urban places alike, just like the railroad before it. Today the Southern Pacific line is visible from parts of I-5; when it reached Roseburg in 1872, it was the O&C line. You can still see freight cars loaded with plastic-wrapped lumber that’s stamped with Roseburg Forest Products and Douglas County Forest Products logos. It is perhaps a small measure of success for the county that more than a hundred years later products are still shipped out on these tracks. Residents of Glide have another gauge: an abandoned mill site. It was once a local stud mill that employed a hundred people. Swanson Group purchased it in 2005 and subsequently closed it in 2007 because of market forces and unfair Canadian competition, the company said. Some locals claim it was shuttered so it wouldn’t compete with the company’s headquarter mill in Glendale. Either way, its building and machinery are gone. Now the site is a field of invasive blackberries next to the elementary school, where the children attend school four days a week.       


Community, Economics, Environment, Place, Politics, Work, Resources


3 comments have been posted.

How interesting that you talk about how the timber industry was very important in the early days. My husband and I are thinking of starting a business where we would need help with timber harvest. We will find a great service to help us with timber harvest in our area.

Ella Starr | June 2021 |

Tami | December 2019 |

There's no reason why lumber can't make a comeback: it's economical, sturdy, environmentally sourced, renewable, and timber workers are conservationists in their own right. Proper forest management is environmentally feasible; co2 emissions are being prevented from entering the ecosystem with the diligent fire prevention which is a bonus of logging. That's what Oregonians owe the struggling timber communities: a chance to practice their sustainable, fire-preventing, tax-revenue creating professions.

Tami | December 2019 |

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From the director: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In Brief

Editor's Note: Eighteen Years

Consider the Wedding—2004

On Paper Wings—2008

Resume of Failures—2011

The State That Timber Built—2012

The Air I Breathe—2014

Making Men—2016

Good Hair—2017