JOHN DAY – Forest Service officials, industry representatives and community leaders have begun hashing out the shape of a 10-year stewardship contract on the Malheur National Forest.
The topic drew about 50 area residents, timber industry representatives, and county officials to two meetings last Friday at the Forest Supervisor’s Office in John Day. A third meeting is set for 1 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17, at the Harney County Senior Center in Burns.
At issue is a proposed contract that could keep the mill industry alive in the John Day Valley and put loggers, truckers and others to work on the forest in both Grant and Harney counties.
Supervisor Teresa Raaf called it “a watershed moment” for the forest and the local communities.
The contract is one of a slate of actions proposed last fall by Regional Forester Kent Connaughton to speed forest health work and prevent the complete loss of local mill and industry infrastructure, acknowledged as critical need for restoration. The plans followed an announcement by Malheur Lumber Co. that it could close its John Day sawmill due to inadequate timber supply off the federal forests.
Local and regional Forest Service officials are working on the stewardship contract specifics and hope to put the contract out to bid in late spring, with an award possible in July.
That schedule is tentative, but Raaf said, “I am pushing to have it sooner, than later.”
As envisioned now, the winning contractor would get the right of first refusal on stewardship projects – including a mix of sawtimber and restoration work – as they are offered. If the contractor declines any projects, they would be repackaged for open sale.
Under stewardship contracting, the proceeds from projects are used to fund additional work in the future. The focus is on restoring the resilience of the fire- and insect-prone forests, but also benefiting the communities.
Raaf said she wants the meetings to produce input on the evaluation criteria for the contract, how to define community benefits, and how much of the forest’s harvest should be included in the contract.
Connaughton has pledged that the forest will offer 55 million board feet in fiscal 2013, and seek to ramp up to 75 million in future years. Overall, the target is to commercially treat 30,000 acres a year.
At Friday’s meetings, Raaf asked the audience to help determine “what percentage of our veg program should be in the 10-year stewardship contract.”
“It’s not going to be zero, and it’s not going to be 100 percent,” she added, noting that both extremes have been suggested. Instead, she said, it will be somewhere in between 20 percent and 80 percent.
Those attending Friday’s meetings raised questions about whether the volume of timber would be adequate. The forest has been offering about 30 million board feet, with about 70 percent of that in sawtimber. Raaf said the percentage likely would be similar as the total volume increases.
Dan Bishop of DR Johnson Co. noted that “20 million board feet doesn’t keep one mill open.”
John Shelk of Malheur Lumber said that at 55 million board feet overall, the sawtimber portion still wouldn’t be enough for a single plant, especially if an as-yet-unspecified percentage is removed for the green program.
County Commissioner Boyd Britton protested the figures, saying he felt the recommendations that came out of the collaborative called for 55 million board feet in sawlogs alone, not a mix of biomass and logs.
Raaf cited a Forest Service white paper indicating that 55 million board feet, including green biomass, would still produce 32 million board feet of sawtimber – a substantial increase over recent levels.
Britton remained concerned, given the other financial hits the counties are facing with the end of the so-called county payments act and reduced Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) money.
“That number of sawlogs, especially if it goes to an out-of-town timber company … We’re done,” he said.
Tracy Beck, of the Forest Service’s regional office, said the agency had not heard at the regional level that the 55 million would be all sawlogs. He said it’s “significant” that the Malheur is seeing this kind of increase.
“I’ve never seen a forest double their target in one year,” he said.
He and others also said the Malheur contract could be a pilot for other forests in the region, with ripple effects for the eastside economies.
“This is the first,” Beck said. “Others are going to follow.”
Sounding exasperated, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty warned the mostly Grant County audience: “If we don’t get this one right, you are going to see what Burns looks like.”
He noted the loss of industry there.
“We have nothing. You couldn’t identify five jobs outside of the federal payroll that come from the Malheur National Forest,” he said.
He also protested the lack of attention to Harney County’s concerns.
“You would not have met in Harney County if I hadn’t called,” he told Raaf. “This is wrong, to make Harney County the weak sister in every conversation we have.”
He urged the Forest Service to keep the percentage of timber low in the stewardship program, noting that the counties rely on the regular timber program for what little revenue it provides, and to open up the pool of contractors qualified to bid.
Britton was concerned about the idea of a “single winner,” and also suggested giving the contract to a nonprofit which would then then split up the work among the local timber and mill operators.
Forest Service officials said that could be considered if there was broad support for the idea, but there are questions about how the scenario would play out. The bid evaluation process pegs past performance, along with community benefits, among key criteria.
Britton’s suggestion drew opposition from industry representatives.
Russ Young of Iron Triangle said a nonprofit would just add another layer of bureacracy and also take its own profits from the top to fund its own organization. There are no “non-profit nonprofits,” he said.
There are always winners and losers in business, Young said, but if an industry bidder loses to a nonprofit, “we all lose.”
Shelk also objected to the nonprofit idea, and said parceling out the work to multiple companies would further dilute the sawlog volume. He said the one-winner concept will still mean a “net win” to the communities, in terms of employment.
Shelk also noted that with much work to be done on the south end of the forest, Harney County also would see some jobs out of the contract.
The Forest Service has stressed that green timber sales will continue outside the stewardship program, although the split is yet to be determined.
Despite his frustration, Grasty offered to be part of any further discussions on community benefits, and he conceded that a long-term approach is a good idea.
“Maybe it’s the last good idea … I don’t see anything else being put on the table,” he said.
He urged the Forest Service to make the application process simpler, to early on define the percentage of timber to be included, and to stress the value to community, not just to a mill.
Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, stressed that the Forest Service needs someone who is “going to be able to jump in and get things going.”
“Time is of the essence,” he said, adding that he hopes a successful stewardship effort on the Malheur can be expanded to other forests.
Raaf lauded the ground-breaking work of the forest’s two collaborative groups in getting to this point. She cited their work to find agreement and increase the scope of “vegetation management” projects on the forest over the past seven years.
Those partnership efforts have curtailed the litigation that dogged forest activity in the past, and even found agreement to harvest some larger trees.
She said that without the collaboratives’ efforts, “we wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about this 10-year stewardship contract.”
This story originally appeared in the Blue Mountain Eagle.