The decline of employment in the timber industry — both in Oregon and America — deserves careful scrutiny as to how this has occurred. Are trees less plentiful? Have workers moved on to other, higher-paying, jobs? Or are government policies making it harder to survive in the forest-products industry?
Though forestry contributes over $3.8 billion to the state's economy each year and supports tens of thousands of jobs, the last several decades show a downward trend in the total number of residents working in the wood-products industry, even though our state's population has grown.
Growing automation and technological advances have certainly played a role, as has growing competition from other states and nations. However, land-use restrictions and other regulations disrupt commerce in timber markets, limiting both economic growth and the creation of permanent jobs.
One example of a policy that negatively affects Oregon's wood-based economy is the LEED building code standards that more and more cities, states and federal agencies require for construction projects. These codes give preference to a type of timber that is comparatively rare.
To obtain LEED's certified wood "credits," builders involved with construction projects must use lumber "certified" by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a program that validates responsible land management. These credits enable a business to receive a government contract and enter projects.
However, these credits are out of reach for most state businesses — less than one percent of our forests have received FSC certification. Competing programs such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) combined certify nearly 30 times more land in Oregon than does FSC. Regrettably, LEED does not recognize ATFS or SFI timber as sustainable.
The end result is that our state businesses and foresters who responsibly manage their property get hindered and blocked from entering "green" building markets. The total number of LEED projects grows each year, and this growth represents larger potential losses for our state tree farmers, as they are deprived of an expanding customer base.
The idea that our state foresters can simply choose FSC certification ignores the realities of harvesting timber in Oregon. FSC, unlike SFI and ATFS, applies stricter standards for certification in the Pacific Northwest than in other regions of the country. These standards, such as limiting what and how much can be cut, beyond state and federal regulations, impose costs of time and money on businesses.
A recent study by the research group EconoSTATS found that forcing landowners to manage their land to FSC standards would cost 31,000 Oregon jobs.
Roseburg Forest Products' manager of external affairs noted to The Oregonian in its recent editorial on this issue that our state's terrain lends itself to large harvest units, which FSC looks down upon, while SFI and ATFS allow for greater flexibility.
Rather than play favorites and give preference to FSC-certified wood, regulators seeking to improve sustainable land practices should provide incentives to increase overall certification on our public and private lands, regardless of whether it is through FSC, SFI or ATFS.
A level playing field provides relief to our businesses by granting them greater access to green markets.
It remains to be seen whether policymakers will wake up and realize the folly of tying forest policy to a program (FSC) hardly used in the state. Millworkers, tree farmers, truckers and contractors, among many others, stand to benefit from more open building markets.
Governor Kitzhaber has taken a welcome step in the right direction. An executive order released last year calls for increasing the amount of Oregon wood in building projects.
A second step would be to disassociate from LEED in its entirety, unless it stops discriminating against the vast majority of Oregon timber.
As The Oregonian recently put it, "saying 'yes' to LEED certification is akin to saying 'no' to Oregon's forest-products industry and the jobs and revenue it provides."
It is time to do the right thing for our state's economy, businesses and workers.
State Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, represents District 55 and is House minority leader.