A timber harvest underway in Astoria’s Bear Creek watershed this summer is among the last of the city’s easy-to-access thinning projects.
Timber prices fluctuate from year to year and timber revenue is never something the city banks on. But going forward, operations in the watershed are expected to only become more complex, more involved and potentially more costly.
It’s been a good year for prices, said Jeff Harrington, the city’s public works director. But, as he told the budget committee in April, the city is vulnerable to market swings. Harrington and City Manager Brett Estes anticipate less revenue from harvests down the road.
Hampton Tree Farms is thinning a dense, spruce-dominated stand on approximately 50 acres of the Bear Creek watershed. The harvest is expected to result in gross revenue of $259,400. After paying for expenses like road improvements and replanting, the city estimates $199,500 will land in the capital improvement fund.
In the future, though, “some of the cuts we’ll need to do are in tougher areas,” Harrington said. And, the costs of doing business in the watershed — road improvements, maintenance, rock and labor expenses — are expected to go up.
The Bear Creek watershed, the source of Astoria’s water, is a protected area now but was logged heavily by commercial companies in the distant past. The city conducts small-scale harvests, though the trees are not cut to the full extent allowed.
Recent harvests have targeted clumped stands like the spruce Hampton is cutting now — a monoculture of trees that lacks the ecological diversity found in good wildlife habitat — or sites thick with Douglas fir introduced by timber companies in the past that have since been impacted by Swiss needle cast. The fungus attacks a tree’s crown and stunts the tree.
Astoria also agreed not to aggressively harvest timber for the next decade in exchange for carbon credits. The city partnered with The Climate Trust, a Portland nonprofit, to purchase the carbon credits, an arrangement that has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the city.
The money generated by carbon credits has had a substantial fiscal impact, said Susan Brooks, the city’s finance director. The sale of timber, less so. Although it is a nice, if hard to predict, revenue source to have available.
“We usually try to get a pretty good estimate from our forester during the end of the budget cycle, right before we bring it forward and that’s probably the best we can do,” Brooks said. But, she added, “We never really truly know until we get the bids.”
Hampton will continue work in the watershed for the next three to five weeks, depending on the weather. The areas the company is working in will be reforested. Hampton is thinning the site heavily and the city plans to mix in cedar seedlings. “The highest-value tree we can grow here,” said Ben Hayes, the city’s consulting forester.
The city has faced issues of low availability when it comes to finding seedlings to replant harvested areas. This year, Hayes sourced seedlings from Silvaseed Co., a conifer seed company and nursery that has sold young trees to Astoria for many years.
Right now, logging prices are up, said Mike Gerdes, who handles seed and seedling sales for Silvaseed. It’s good news for cities and companies looking to sell, but it also means demand for seedlings is high.
At the same time, Gerdes has seen a number of conifer nurseries go out of business, putting more pressure on the nursery spaces that remain even as there is a higher demand for space to rear seedlings.
The Christmas tree market has also rebounded after a long slump. Tree prices are up and people are getting back to planting Christmas tree farms in response. In some cases, large timber companies like Weyerhaeuser have taken on more land and nursery space they used to be able to spare for outside production.
On top of all of this, Gerdes said, “There hasn’t been the greatest cone crops the last eight or 10 years on a consistent basis.”
And: “We’ve had at least three above-average temperature summers, very dry, and so the seedlings that were planted the last three or four months, there’s been a significant amount of mortality out there whether it’s in the woods or on (tree farms),” he said.
Timber and tree farm businesses might have had to go back out and replant two or three times, another source of pressure on nurseries.
Astoria sources seedlings from a variety of companies, but the city’s requests to Silvaseed tend to be for 10,000 to 20,000 young trees at a time, Gerdes said. The request is small compared to the 8 to 9 million seedlings Gerdes will have in production each year.
“As a general rule, if they get in early enough, I can supply those things,” he said. “But you need to shop early.”