The timber market on the North Coast has deteriorated to the point where industry experts say they don't even know how much a log is worth anymore.

How can you put a price on something nobody wants?

The depressed housing market has stunted demand for lumber, leaving just a trickle of business for local sawmills and little reason for loggers to harvest additional timber in Clatsop County.

Local sawmills have curtailed operations while the market slumps, sending workers home for weeks at a time while the industry waits for a recovery.

But aside from some hope for construction triggered by federal stimulus funds, there's no reprieve in sight.

"It's brutal," said Jay Browning, owner of J.M. Browning Logging in Knappa and a companion trucking business. "I really have to wonder about my company. Where will my company be a year from now?"

Browning said his payroll went from $1 million a month at its peak to $170,000 last month. He's had to lay off around 90 people.

"In the last four months, we've worked maybe four weeks," he said. "We bought a lot of equipment in the last year to clean up all the storm damage. Now, not all the storm damage is going to get cleaned up because the price of lumber is less than the manufacturing cost of the logs out there."

But as tough as it is to be a logger right now, Browning said, it's even tougher owning a sawmill.

"It's a very, very difficult market," said Steve Zika, chief executive officer of Hampton Affiliates, which owns a sawmill in Tillamook. "We have not experienced anything like this before."

Hampton is taking a lot of down time at its mills but hasn't announced any permanent closures.

Similarly, the Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Warrenton scheduled several weeks of "market-related down time" in late January, early February and the first week of March, sending 80 to 85 percent of the 120 employees home, according to Weyerhaeuser spokesman Greg Miller.

"We're balancing our supply against demand," he said. "The marketplace is significantly off. We'll continue to ship lumber orders and a small amount of the workforce will remain on hand for shipments."

The down time is temporary, he said, but he could not comment on the long-term viability of the mill. In recent months Weyerhaeuser has announced permanent closures of several mills in the region, including one in Aberdeen, Wash.

With so few mills buying logs at all, the value of trees in the ground is virtually nil.

"Right now I doubt you could get a price from anybody because very few mills are taking logs at this time," said Ty Williams, a unit forester for the Oregon Department of Forestry's Astoria District. "The markets are flooded. All the wholesalers, their warehouses are full. Mill yards are at capacity. They can't take any more logs in their yards. They're starting to stack up in the woods. It's real bleak."

The department is putting extra effort into marketing timber for utility poles, which could see a bump in demand as federal stimulus money funds more infrastructure and clean energy projects.

Utility pole timber has a much higher value than lumber, but it's also held to higher standards of size and shape. Only 15 percent of the available volume in the Clatsop State Forest will meet utility pole specifications, said Williams.

The Astoria District had planned to auction a timber stand in March.

"I don't know whether it will sell or not," Williams said.

Williams said Clatsop County, which receives a cut of all state forest timber sale profits, won't really feel the slump until the 2010-11 budget cycle.

The county and its school districts are scheduled to receive around $16 million in timber revenues this year and $11 million in 2010. But the projections change constantly, and it's not clear yet how low timber revenues could go in the next two years.


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