If you want to know how China’s construction market is reshaping the Northwest, a Rainier, Ore., log yard is a good place to start.
The Teevin Brothers yard along the Columbia River rumbles with activity while workers prepare half a million logs for the towering ships docked across the river in the Port of Longview. A yellow stacking truck opens its pinchers and sends its payload rolling out across the ground. The air smells like sap and sawdust. Scalers wearing neon safety vests inspect the logs, stapling each with a plastic barcode.
Nearby, another stacking truck feeds the logs into a machine that, with a loud pneumatic sigh, chips off their bark to ensure that Northwest insects won’t hitch a ride across the Pacific Ocean.
Listen to a log getting its bark chipped off:
General Manager Eric Oien offers some numbers to put all this activity into perspective.
“This facility started out just 12 years ago with only 10 employees. And now Teevin Brothers employs over 120 people,” he says.
Teevin Brothers specializes in log handling and logistics for clients that include Weyerhaueser, Hancock Timber Resource Group and Georgia Pacific. Oien estimates that last year, Teevin Brothers alone filled about 18 vessels headed to China. China’s growing demand for logs may have helped blunt the impact of the recent recession on timber landowners and logging crews, while making it even harder for local sawmills to compete.
Hakan Ekstrom, an industry analyst, says China appears to have a long-term interest in logs from the Northwest. Smaller ports like like Grays Harbor and Olympia in Washington and Newport in Oregon are looking for a way into the business.
“Many of the ports that historically had been exporting logs to Japan, if you go back 10 to 20 years in time, have started to explore opportunities to see if they can update equipment, find land and maybe get involved in log exports again,” he says.
A Port In Transition
Newport is a vibrant center of commercial fishing, marine tourism and research on the central Oregon Coast. Efforts here to revive the Port’s long-shuttered log export terminal have run into opposition from neighbors and environmentalists.
Back in 1948, a private company built Newport’s first log export terminal on top of a pair of sunken concrete barges left over from World War II. In 1996, one of those barges, the S.S. Paisley, split apart and leaked fuel oil into Yaquina Bay; the terminal, already in decline due to reductions in timber harvest, became unusable.
In the years that followed, developers built condos and dozens of new homes with views of picturesque Yaquina Bay on the hillside overlooking the derelict terminal.
Now the Port of Newport has pulled the S.S. Paisley out of the bay and finished a major, award-winning renovation of the site. Teevin Brothers is negotiating a lease with the Port and a nearby landowner to build a log yard and use the renovated terminal to fill freighters with logs bound for Asia.
Hancock Timber Resource Group, an investment firm that owns about 1.8 million acres of forest in the Northwest, would provide the logs. The firm owns 225,000 acres of forestland in Oregon’s Coast Range mountains within driving distance of Newport. Hancock exports about 25 percent of the logs it cuts.
Retired teacher Ken Brant lives with a pair of black Chihuahuas in a three-story home filled with Asian antiques on the hill above the terminal. Brant is concerned the noise and log-truck traffic will lower the value of this home, and says the terminal detracts from Newport’s efforts to build an economy around tourism, fishing and the arts.
“This is a tourist town. The people that are for this say this used to be a logging town 30 years ago. Well, 30 years is a long time ago,” he says.
Brant is also concerned about the environmental impact of the terminal. He worries that ballast from the foreign ships could bring invasive species into Yaquina Bay.
“We have a pristine bay. We’re worried about our crabbing, we’re worried about our shrimping,” he says.
Log Vessel By The Numbers
Some stats associated with a typical log-exporting vessel:
- 4 - Species of logs loaded
- 45 - Direct jobs to load ship
- 1,800 - log truck loads to fill vessel
- 7 - days to load vessel
- 37,000 - individual logs loaded
Source: Port of Longview
The project would route 50 loaded log trucks a day down the quiet neighborhood’s main street. An Alaskan timber company, Alcan, is negotiating a second log export deal that could double that truck traffic on some days. Many residents are irate. A few have listed their homes for sale.
Port Commissioner JoAnn Barton says she understands their concerns but Newport can’t afford to let prime industrially zoned land sit vacant.
“This proposal has really shocked a lot of people who didn’t realize they were buying their retirement dream so close to an industrial property,” she says.
Barton says the terminal would create roughly 40 jobs. Berthing fees would provide the port with cash it needs to spend on maintenance on the docks that serve its commercial fishing fleet and recreational boats. The local longshore union expects to create about 24 part-time jobs loading the ships. It’s been 14 years since the longshoremen loaded any cargo in Newport. Yale Fogarty, the president of his union’s local, supports the terminal. He says he’s been living on the road since the Port of Newport stopped moving cargo.
“We travel to Astoria and Coos Bay and load wood from our own county, and it makes us kind of sick. Because we know that our county could be benefiting from it,” Fogarty says.