FS will increase timber supply off Malheur Forest

<p>Workers pull lumber during a recent shift at Malheur Lumber, which is getting a reprieve from closure thanks to a Forest Service commitment anounced last Friday.</p>

JOHN DAY – A pledge by Regional Forester Kent Connaughton to ramp up the timber supply from the Malheur National Forest will stave off closure of the last operating sawmill in Grant County – for now.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced Tuesday that Malheur Lumber will keep its sawmill going past its announced November shutdown, thanks to Connaughton’s commitment.

Connaughton outlined his plans to boost timber supply and accelerate the pace of restoration work in a Sept. 7 letter to Wyden and Merkley.

“The presence of the wood products industry enables the urgent work of forest restoration to proceed at reasonable cost, as you and others have recognized,” Connaughton said in his letter. “I believe we all also recognize that the effect of keeping a mill in the community goes beyond the work they do, as they support schools, hospitals, and other businesses in rural communities.”

“We intend to move swiftly to increase our restoration work, which will increase timber supply in eastern Oregon,” he wrote.

John Shelk, managing director of Malheur Lumber's parent firm, Ochoco Lumber Co., said he would put the closure on hold, at least for the next few months, in light of the letter and the outpouring of support the company has seen from the delegation, the governor, county officials, the Blue Mountain Forest Partners collaborative, and the John Day community.

Shelk called the Forest Service’s commitment “a good first step” and said the company has authorized its foresters to buy enough public and private timber to keep the mill running past the intended closure.

Connaughton’s letter was the latest development since Ochoco Lumber Co.’s Aug. 17 announcement that it would mothball the John Day mill. The news triggered an Aug. 24 summit meeting of federal, state and county officials in Portland, where the focus was on forestalling a crisis for the mill, community and the forest.

Connaughton described the meeting as “one where there was agreement to maintain jobs and an important mill in John Day, as well as to capitalize on the gains the community has made through the Blue Mountains Forest Partners and the Harney County Restoration Collaborative.”

In his letter, he confirmed the allocation of $2.5 million in Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration funds for the Malheur National Forest, which he said would boost the forest’s restoration work from 12,000 acres a year to about 20,000 acres a year.

“We estimate that the additional treatments will produce about 40 million board feet of timber annually,” he said.

He also laid out a plan to move up and increase timber sales on the Malheur over the next three years, including:

• 11 million board feet of timber in already prepared sales this month, the final month of the federal fiscal year.

• 8 million board feet in sales for the first quarter of the new fiscal year.

• 3 million board feet in the second quarter.

• A total of 50-60 million board feet during the entire fiscal 2013, using all the projects on the forest that have completed environmental reviews. “This will produce various size materials, which are enough to keep a mill, such as Malheur Lumber Company, running year round,” he said.

• Another 50-65 million board feet of timber in fiscal 2014, taking advantage of National Environmental Policy Act decisions initiated in 2013. He based that projection on maintaining continued support of the collaborative partners, continued appropriations for restoration work and reauthorization of stewardship authority.

However, saying it’s not “prudent to wait” to secure a new funding source for restoration, Connaughton said the Malheur Forest will move ahead to initiate a new 10-year stewardship contract to increase acres treated and volume of timber. That is expected to ramp up the planning for fiscal 2015 and beyond.

Connaughton estimates that for fiscal 2015 and beyond, the Malheur Forest will need $3.785 million a year – in addition to the expected Collaborative Forest Restoration Act funding – to sustain a 10-year program of 30,000 acres and about 75 million board feet of timber.

The $3.785 million includes funding for two interdisciplinary planning teams, a key to getting projects off the drawing boards and into the woods.

Connaughton cited the willingness of partners at the local and state levels, as well as in Congress, “to imaginatively identify funds that would make additional work possible.” He noted that Grant and Harney counties are recommending some $600,000 in Resource Advisory Committee Title II funds for planning, implementation and crew work in the coming year.

He specifically addressed the proposal advanced by Grant County Judge Mark Webb to allow the county to invest road money in management on the Malheur Forest. The county is willing to consider that investment, he noted, as long as the principal can be repaid and there is a reasonable rate of return.

Connaughton and others said legislative action will be needed to make that arrangement possible.

Webb said there are good reasons for federal officials to consider outside funding. He said it’s clear that Congress won’t fund natural resource work at the scale required, and two pending legislative efforts to produce more funding aren’t likely to move forward in the near future.

He said a mechanism that allows nonfederal entities, like the county, to fund the forest work on federal lands – subject to the two conditions – may be the best hope for action now.

Webb said it’s important to note this wouldn’t be a remedy for the Malheur Forest alone, but also could provide a significant partial solution for all the eastside forests and other public lands agencies that lack funding for adequate management.

The next step, he said, is for federal officials in Washington, D.C. to get behind the idea and come up with the legislative language to allow such investment.

Webb noted that the timber output envisioned by Connaughton isn’t all sawtimber, but it still could more than double the volume coming off the forest now.

“It could make a world of difference to the community, to the mill – and to forest health,” Webb said.

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