A trade war with China, immigration at the Mexican border and President Donald Trump’s pick for a vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat were on many people’s minds when Sen. Jeff Merkley traveled to John Day on July 6, but his big announcements had more to do with rural development and the timber industry.
Merkley toured the Malheur Lumber Co. mill and led a well-attended town hall meeting in the John Day Senior Center. He has attended a town hall meeting in each of Oregon’s 36 counties every year since 2009, he said.
The ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development, Merkley also sits on the Senate’s Budget, Foreign Relations, and Environment and Public Works committees.
Improving the nation’s infrastructure is high on Merkley’s to-do list. Infrastructure funding could be key to completing several critical projects in John Day.
“John Day is doing exciting new stuff,” Merkley told the Eagle, such as using reclaimed water to create a tourist attraction. “This is not just pie in the sky. This is real action.”
In March, Merkley announced that the proposed Farm Bill includes $667 million in budget authority for grants and loans to expand broadband in rural areas — a $600 million increase over the previous fiscal year.
“It is anticipated that the funding level in the spending bill will leverage more than $1.8 billion in grants and loans,” he said.
As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Merkley said he’s been trying to find ways to include grants for infrastructure. Included in the proposed Interior Department’s appropriations bill is $63 million for the Water Infrastructure Financing Innovation Authority Act, which Merkley wrote in 2012 to ensure funding for public drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects.
“Combined with previous appropriations, WIFIA can now issue over $6 billion in low-interest loans for critical water infrastructure projects,” Merkley said.
Also included in the Interior bill is $500 million for Payment in Lieu of Taxes funding for rural counties with significant federal land holdings, along with increased funding for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to support forest health restoration and collaboration programs that reduce forest fuels.
This additional money would maintain funding for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which includes the stewardship project on the Malheur National Forest. Provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill would double funding for the collaborative program to $80 million and extend it through 2023.
“Collaborative forest management strategies have proven successful on many levels: thinning overgrown forests and creating better timber stands, improving ecosystems, building better fire resistance, and creating more jobs and more saw logs for mills,” Merkley said.
Merkley told the Eagle that, during a visit to John Day in 2011, he told timber workers he would look for a way to provide logs to mills with a long-term contract.
“The stewardship program provided the best solution,” he said.
Noting that the Farm Bill has yet to go to the White House, Merkley said this year’s Farm Bill moved forward much faster than last year’s, which involved significant changes and negotiations. This year’s bill is more of a continuation of previous programs, he said.
Lumber mill tour
Merkley toured the Malheur Lumber Co. mill in John Day with Managing Director John Shelk and General Manager Rich Fulton.
“It’s a pleasure to see the mill running and providing a market for all the fiber coming out of the forest,” Merkley said.
The various parts of the plant have been working single shifts with about 150 employees altogether, Shelk said.
“We could use seven to 10 more workers but can’t find them locally,” he said.
The mill takes in pine logs and produces dimensional lumber for companies that produce millwork, such as door and window framing. Wood chips are turned into pellets or bricks for wood-fired stoves and furnaces, as well as shavings for animals.
Some material is shipped to Boise Cascade in Idaho to make paper, Shelk said, noting that a boom in internet shopping has increased demand for cardboard to make shipping boxes.
Bark from the mill and other woody debris is burned in the boiler, which provides steam to heat the drying kiln. Shelk said the current boiler might be replaced with a larger one that would serve both the sawmill and a new torrefaction plant.
The Forest Service’s stewardship contract with Iron Triangle has been good for the forests, Shelk said — cleaning out forest fuels and improving forest health — but the small-diameter logs coming out of that work don’t meet the needs of the sawmill.
“We need larger-diameter, merchantable logs,” Shelk said. “Logs end up being about two-thirds of our cost.”
Merkley expressed interest in the juniper market and was shown two pallets loaded with juniper wood milled for fence posts or landscaping timbers. Shelk explained that sand gets into the juniper trunks as they grow and damages saw blades.
“Loggers don’t want to cut juniper,” he said.
He noted that the mill was expecting six truckloads of juniper logs every week this spring but only saw six for the whole month of June.