Several county leaders grill Oregon forestry officials after sawmill closures

By April Ehrlich (OPB)
Feb. 24, 2024 2 p.m.

Three sawmills have closed in Oregon within less than two months, prompting several counties’ leaders to grill state forestry officials about a plan that would limit logging in western Oregon forests.

The Interfor Sawmill in Philomath will shut down over the coming months, the company announced Feb. 16.

The Interfor Sawmill in Philomath will shut down over the coming months, the company announced Feb. 16.

Courtesy of Zach Urness/Stateman Journal


The mill closures in Philomath, Banks and Springfield resulted in a loss of 183 jobs, as reported by the Salem Statesmen Journal. The mill owners pointed to market factors like high log costs, but they also called out state policies around species protections, including the Western Oregon State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan.

The habitat conservation plan was on Friday’s agenda for the Forest Trust Land Advisory Committee, which is made up of seven county commissioners from different parts of the state who advise the Board of Forestry and state forester.

“In Columbia County, practically all of our mills have closed,” said Columbia County Commissioner Margaret Magruder. “We’ve got a couple left, but it is just devastating.”

State Forester Cal Mukumoto told the committee that he had trouble connecting the mill closures to the state habitat conservation plan, since the plan has not yet been finalized.

“I do believe it’s probably linked to high log prices,” Mukumoto said. “And that’s always a problem from production facilities when those things collapse.”

Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker took issue with Mukumoto’s statement.

“Your comment came across as not compassionate for those 183 people who won’t have their careers anymore, whose employment plans and insurance policies, their medical care, all of that stuff is going to stop, and that is a big deal,” Tucker said.

Multiple commissioners said they were unhappy with the current draft of the habitat conservation plan and called for a “middle ground,” without specifying what that could look like.

Mukumoto is scheduled to give his recommendation on the draft plan at the Board of Forestry’s March 7 meeting.


The Western Oregon State Forests plan promises to protect certain vulnerable species — like the Northern spotted owl, salmon and the marbled murrelet — by limiting timber harvesting activities in some forest lands managed by the state. It also allows species to be harmed in other areas where timber harvesting does occur.

The state and local counties share the revenue from logging on the 364,000-acre Tillamook State Forest.

The state and local counties share the revenue from logging on the 364,000-acre Tillamook State Forest.

Courtesy of Oregon Department of Forestry

Many conservation groups see it as a compromise. State officials see it as a way to avoid litigation.

Each time the forestry department plans to harvest and sell timber on state land, it undergoes a time-consuming and expensive process called “take avoidance,” which involves surveying the area for endangered or threatened species.

Oregon Department of Forestry officials say this process has historically opened the agency up to legal challenges that allege the department harmed protected species despite its survey efforts. By admitting that some species will be harmed during the logging process through a habitat conservation plan, there are fewer avenues for lawsuits.

The habitat conservation plan also seeks to provide some certainty about how much timber the state could harvest, explained state forest division chief Michael Wilson. He said as more animal and plant species become listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, more regions could become off-limits to logging. So without a conservation plan, the state can’t guarantee that timber harvesting won’t decline.

“What the [habitat conservation plan] really does would bring stability to these things,” Wilson said.

One thing is also certain with the plan: Timber harvests on state lands will decrease.

“We know that’s going to happen with this current HCP, and we have a good idea of what that’s going to be,” Wilson said. “Without an HCP, it is unknown.”

During Friday’s meeting, Clatsop County Commissioner Courtney Bangs questioned whether the forestry department’s spending on take avoidance was really a major burden to its budget, which has increased every year.

“It actually shows that you might have a spending problem,” Bangs said.

Wilson said that, despite Bangs’ assessment, the department is “not financially solvent.”

“The only way we managed to build our budget was through austerity measures for a number of years,” Wilson said, adding that the department has cut several things while other costs have risen rapidly, including wildfire management. “Everything has gone up. So, yes, we are currently deficit spending.”