At Seneca Sawmill Company in Eugene, Oregon, a team of lumbermen stand watch as wooden boards are spit out one-by-one onto a planing platform.
“We’re taking rough lumber from the saw mill, bringing it over and putting a smooth surface on all four sides and then grading it based on lumber grading rules,” explains Todd Payne, Seneca’s CEO.
Payne says his business is thriving. A “now hiring” sign even hangs out front. Seneca Sawmill has weathered the past few decades better than many of Oregon’s other timber operations.
The region’s logging industry says it has struggled under the cumulative weight of a tough economy, unfavorable trade deals, job-stealing automation and environmental regulations that have restricted the supply of timber from federal lands.
‘The Industry Is Very Much Diminished’
“This used to be the largest public timber-producing district in the United States of America. The industry is very much diminished in terms of relying on public land. The industry is very much diminished in terms of number of people of working,” says Rep. Pete DeFazio, D-Ore., who has watched mill after mill close over the three decades that he’s represented this part of southwest Oregon in the House.
That downturn has affected the way people connected to the timber industry feel about their communities and themselves.
In May 2016, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump capitalized on the combustible mix of timber and politics during a campaign stop in Eugene. He promised to help revitalize the state’s timber industry.
Trump didn’t offer specifics about how he do it, but Valerie West — a Trump supporter who lives in rural Roseburg, Ore. — says she liked what she heard then and believes Trump can deliver.
“I really think he can,” she says. “I really think he will bring it back.”
Roseburg sits about an hour south of Eugene. The once bustling town was known as the “Timber Capitol of the Nation.”
Valerie says her husband used to worked for a lumber mill in Roseburg before he was deployed to Iraq, where he was injured and disabled. Valerie now collects disability.
Times were different, she recalls, when her husband had that timber job.
“We were making pretty good money. We were able to buy a house and live comfortably,” she says.
That’s part of what nearly delivered this district to Trump in November. In 2012, Oregon’s 4th district voted overwhelmingly to reelect former President Barack Obama. But in 2016, only 554 votes separated Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton, according to a count by the Daily Kos.
That outcome and Trump’s national victory didn’t come as a surprise to Rep. DeFazio.
Trump’s Targeted Timber Message
“I predicted a long time ago Trump was going to win because I look at my district as a microcosm of America. I could see it,” the Democrat says.
DeFazio saw Trump’s targeted timber message as effective and shrewd at the time, given the protracted push and pull over natural resources between conservationists and logging interests.
Both sides, he says, are bitterly divided at the extremes.
“You know, I’m a strong environmentalist,” says De Fazio, “But I’ve been called a ‘timber beast’ by enviros in my district because I’m not going to say like they do ‘Never ever cut another tree!’ and ‘Build houses out of hemp!’”
Back at Seneca Sawmill Company, Payne says more logging on federally owned public lands would help.
“A lot of our land base is owned by the federal government,” Payne says, “and there’s hope that we can get back to a balanced approach in managing those lands both for timber production and environmental protection and everything in between.”
But Doug Heiken with the conservation group Oregon Wild says they’re more valuable when protected.
“These forests provide clean drinking water,” says Heiken. “They provide habitat for endangered species that were trying to recover. They provide great recreation opportunities for people that want to, you know, live, work and play here in Oregon.”
DeFazio, who was comfortably re-elected in November, says he’s tried to strike a balance.
For now, people here in timber country are waiting to see whether President Trump makes good on his campaign promises. If he does, this corner of a blue state may become a bellwether.