Wildfire and mill closings are not new to rural Oregon. But, as we continue to dig ourselves out of recession and wildfires rage at great intensity, the news that the last remaining sawmill in Grant County will close its doors is a huge punch in the gut to a community that has been an exemplary model for rural innovation and collaboration.

Malheur Lumber Co., Ochoco Lumber Co.’s sawmill in John Day, has been operating for more than 30 years and employs about 90 people. Recently, the company announced its intention to close its doors Nov. 1. This is the rough equivalent of Intel closing up shop in the Portland metro area. If that happened here, the clamor would be deafening.

Many groups, including Sustainable Northwest, have spent most of the past decade working with local business owners (including Malheur Lumber), community leaders, U.S. Forest Service employees and environmental groups to find agreement on forest management. This has been critical so that jobs can remain in Grant County and our federal forestland can be restored to health. Through collaboration, we have helped build the social license for the active management that has made the Malheur National Forest one of the most productive timber-producing forests in Eastern Oregon.

There have been no divisive forest-related lawsuits on this national forest over the past six years. More important, the forest and its partners have been awarded $2.5 million from the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program to treat and restore more than 271,000 acres of forested land during the next 10 years. Even with all this, the volumes necessary to keep the mill open fall short of the required supply.

The shift from the timber wars of decades past to the current era of productive collaboration has been an incredible transformation to witness. Closing this (or any other) mill would be a fatal blow to local leaders and all the groups they have reached out to — urban and rural — to build trust, problem-solve and innovate.

But we believe that this news presents an opportunity for a community and region that knows how to pick itself up with grit and determination to find new models that can create vibrant rural communities and strong economies to steward our landscapes and the natural resources we all depend on.

Like any business, Malheur Lumber needs a predictable supply of “restoration lumber.” No old-growth trees are involved. This requires all of us to pull together and act quickly. Our senators and representatives need to work to reinstate the kind of core federal budget levels that reward and build upon recent success. The Forest Service must direct funds and accelerate planning to ensure that restoration forestry happens in larger tracts and more consistently. Grant County and the state of Oregon must explore the possibility of using county road funds, to be lent for the planning of restoration projects while the feds respond. Nonprofit organizations must help advocate and organize short- and mid-term solutions. And, if all these players engage, Malheur Lumber must continue to commit to right-sizing and retooling its mill to make long-term forest stewardship priority one.

Hardship breeds innovation and creativity. As we continue to face challenges in our communities and strive to build our economy as a whole, we must remember that we are all inextricably linked. We must stand behind the people of Grant County. The long road to Oregon’s strong creative culture was built by hardworking communities and our great natural resources. Oregon’s future will be paved with innovation, collaboration and our ability to turn a great crisis into a great opportunity.

Martin Goebel is president and Patrick Shannon is the communities program officer of Sustainable Northwest in Portland.

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