A worker at Hampton Lumber in Warrenton uses a chainsaw to cut a large log into smaller chunks.

Even amid the economic recovery from the Great Recession, Clatsop County’s timber industry has declined.

Jobs in forestry and logging are off by nearly 40% from 2008 — 280 to 169 in 2018 — while wood and paper manufacturing fell by more than a quarter, or 1,294 to 948.

The loss of traditional, higher-paying timber jobs has sparked a political backlash, from a $1 billion lawsuit by rural counties claiming Oregon is not maximizing timber harvests, to the #TimberUnity movement lobbying against climate-friendly policies in Salem they fear will further hobble the industry.

Lots of lumber

A worker adjusts boards to ensure quick, efficient production at Hampton Lumber.

A closer look at the decline of timber-related employment shows an interplay of factors. The demand for wood products was kneecapped by the recession. The industry is growing more consolidated and automated. There is increased global competition and worries about government regulation.

The Oregon Forest Resources Institute estimates that each 1 million board feet of timber harvested translates to 11 jobs in logging, millwork, pulp mills and other areas of the forestry pipeline.

Timber harvests on Oregon’s federal lands plummeted from more than 4 billion board feet in 1985 to less than 1 billion by 1995 because of environmental concerns. The precipitous drop cost the state around 44,000 jobs, said Mike Cloughesy, the institute’s director of forestry.

Timber harvests from all land ownership, including the state and private forests that predominate west of the Cascades, took a smaller hit after the adoption of new environmental protections in the mid- and late-1990s. But harvests stabilized in the early to mid-2000s.

That was until housing starts began to fall in 2005 and the Great Recession hit in 2007. Harvests went more than 4.5 billion board feet of timber in 2005 to 2.5 billion board feet in 2010, Cloughesy said.

“Almost all the timber in Oregon goes to lumber, so when housing starts went from 2 million a year to 500,000 (nationally), that affected lumber greatly,” Cloughesy said. “The wood we grow, that’s what it’s best for, is building.”

Cutting back

Steve Zika, CEO of Hampton Lumber, which operates several mills in the region, said the recession led to significant cuts in production.

Clatsop State Forest

Logging and forestry jobs in Clatsop County have declined since 2008.

“Most of our mills today run two shifts, 40-hour shifts,” he said. “We responded by cutting back — instead of 80 hours a week, more like 40 or 50 hours a week — for a couple years before it went back to two shifts.”

The move was tough on some employees, but the company avoided shutting down any mills, unlike others that lacked the financial reserves or carried too much debt, he said.

Weyerhaeuser Co. slowed down production at the Warrenton mill as the housing crisis hit in 2008. It eventually sold the mill in 2009 to Hampton Lumber, which closed it for 20 months and temporarily put 140 people out of work before reopening in 2011 with a scaled-back workforce.

Zika estimates the lumber production out of Oregon is back to levels in the mid-2000s. Construction activity and employment has reached the highest marks since 2008, as has employment in seafood processing, the county’s other large manufacturing sector.

But employment in logging has gone down every year since 2011, while lumber manufacturing has barely recovered from its low of below 250 jobs in the trough of the recession. The number of wood products facilities statewide has also declined by 30% since 2008.

State economists have pointed to automation and consolidation as the primary drivers of job losses, with smaller mills shuttered and production shifted to larger, more technologically advanced and efficient mills.

Zika argued that innovation has mostly taken away more dangerous, lower-level positions in mills. The mills could run more shifts and operate at higher capacity if there were more logs available, he said.

“Of the decrease in sawmill employment, probably 10 to 20% relates to innovations over the years, over the last 20, 30 years,” he said. “And the rest of it just relates to the federal forests being off limits.”

Paper manufacturing, the county’s largest and highest-paying forestry sector, dropped from 990 jobs in 2008 to 690 last year, according to state figures. Almost all of that relates to Georgia-Pacific’s Wauna Mill, the county’s largest single employer.

Kristi Ward, a spokeswoman for Wauna Mill, attributes the decline to several factors, from the rising cost of wood chips, energy and transportation to increasing government regulations.

“Competition has increased immensely in the paper industry, including both foreign competition and new domestic competitors, which has led to the removal of less competitive equipment over the years at our mill,” Ward said in an email.

Paper mills are considered an energy intensive, trade-exposed industry. Nearly 20 have closed in Oregon and Washington state since 1993. Paper is still a growing global commodity, but much of the industry’s growth is expected to happen in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Cap and trade

Representatives of the United Steelworkers, the trade union for papermakers at the Wauna Mill, sounded alarm bells when the state Legislature proposed a carbon cap-and-trade program earlier this year to limit greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial polluters like the mill. They feared the bill would cause Georgia-Pacific to close the mill and shift production elsewhere.

Wauna Mill

Job losses at Georgia-Pacific’s Wauna Mill, Clatsop County’s largest single employer, have been driven by competition, rising costs and government regulations.

The bill, which passed the state House but stalled in the Senate, included free temporary pollution allowances for trade-exposed industries, while emissions from lumber mills were exempted.

“Our position was and is that we have to be flat-out exempt to remain competitive,” said Chris McCabe, the executive director of the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association. “We’re competing against other states and countries that don’t have these regulations.”

Timber could have its greatest opportunity to claw back in a class-action lawsuit brought by Linn County on behalf of 14 western counties and hundreds of taxing districts. The lawsuit claims the state broke a contract from 1941 to maximize sustainable timber harvests on 600,000 acres of deeded land. The trial started in late October.

The plaintiffs claim the state broke the contract in 1998 when the Board of Forestry passed new rules emphasizing habitat protection and recreation along with sustainable timber harvests. The lawsuit seeks around $1 billion in alleged lost revenue and could lead to a settlement changing timber management policies.

Clatsop County is the largest recipient of state timber taxes from the highly productive Clatsop State Forest. But the county Board of Commissioners in 2017 opted out of the lawsuit, calling for more balanced forest management. All other eligible counties stayed in, along with approximately 140 separate taxing districts throughout the state, including local school districts, the Port of Astoria and Clatsop Community College.

Zika said the counties have a good case that they have been harmed through a breach of contract by the state.

“It deserves a hearing in court,” he said. “And also beyond the courtroom, in society, are we going to have working forests with multiuse … or are we just going to have parks? Do like they do in the federal forests?”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or