The governor announced Friday a $5 million funding package made up of tax credits and a state loan that will allow Josephine County’s last sawmill to reopen.
Speaking at a news conference at a wood products mill in White City, Gov. John Kitzhaber said the funding helps spread the economic recovery happening around urban Portland to rural parts of Oregon.
The Rough & Ready Lumber Co. mill in O’Brien was dependent on large pine logs when it closed for lack of timber supply last year, putting 88 people out of work.
Rough & Ready President Link Phillippi said the upgraded mill will be more automated, employing 67 people, and processing about the same amount of timber, but from smaller logs obtained through forest thinning and ecological restoration projects.
“Closing our business last year was the hardest thing we have every done,” he said. “It’s become increasingly evident that sawmills play an important part in supporting both local economies and forest health.”
A study from the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Cooperative commissioned by the governor’s office has identified 27 million board feet of timber a year for 20 years that could potentially come off federal lands within a two-hour drive of the Rough & Ready mill from new thinning and restoration projects under existing environmental constraints. Other mills would be competing for that resource, executive director George McKinley said.
Phillippi said the mill would need the even larger potential log supply from an increase in logging on the so-called O&C lands of Western Oregon called for in legislation pending on Congress.
Bettina von Hagen of Ecotrust says they joined the governor’s office in putting together the package that includes $4 million in state and federal new market tax credits purchased by JP Morgan Chase, & Co., and a $1 million loan from Business Oregon. New market tax credits are designed to benefit disadvantaged communities. Ecotrust has helped put together similar packages for mill renovations in John Day and Dillard, she added.
“Many forests in the vicinity of this mill are in need of thinning, reducing overcrowding of trees, reducing the danger of fire and disease,” she said. “We also think this is an important component of community health.”
The Rough & Ready mill is emblematic of the changes to the timber industry since logging was cut by 80 percent on federal lands in the 1990s to protect fish and wildlife like the northern spotted owl and salmon. Jobs have declined further as the timber industry automated. While the majority of mills retooled to use smaller trees more common after steps were taken to protect old growth, a few, like Rough & Ready, continued to depend on larger trees from timber sales that were regularly challenged by conservation groups intent on protecting old growth forests.
Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, which battled Rough & Ready over timber sales cutting large old trees, said they would be happy to work with the Phillippis to get the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management to increase thinning and forest restoration projects.
“There is a biological limit to how much forest needs thinning,” he said. “The real limit is how much money BLM will have to plan and offer sales.”