Logging is up but jobs are down - why?

With the fate of the Northwest Forest Plan hanging in balance, many politicians have suggested that increasing the amount of trees cut on federally managed land is the best solution for increasing jobs and stabilizing Oregon’s rural economy. However, the modernization of the timber industry over the past 20 years has resulted in the loss of many thousands of jobs which cannot be regained by an increase in timber volume harvested.

In 1990, forestland in Oregon produced 6,219 million board feet of cut timber, and supported 57,400 jobs in the logging and wood products industries, or 9.2 jobs per million board feet logged.

With the adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan, the amount of timber volume decreased to 4,304 million board feet (mmbf) logged in 1995, to a low of 3,854 mmbf in 2000. However, increased environmental protections may have resulted in the ratio of jobs per million board feet (j/mmbf) feet increasing, so that in 2000, the ratio of jobs per million board feet had increased to 11.2 j/mmbf.  While volume cut decreased by 39%, jobs only decreased by 25%.

However, in the late 1990s, mechanization of the industry had begun in earnest, as reported by the Associate Press in its 1996 article, Mechanized Timber Harvesting Is a Growth Industry in the Northwest:

They [timber operators] came to see a tandem of mechanized logging vehicles that, according to spokesmen, allow two workers to do the job of eight or    more, minimize environmental damage and increase workplace safety.  "This is the future of logging," said Rex Storm, forest policy analyst for Associated Oregon Loggers Inc. "Everybody realizes that technology is changing this profession."

This change began to be reflected in Oregon timber jobs in the early 2000s.  By 2005, the ratio of jobs per million board feet reflected this shift, declining to 9.1 j/mmbf.  The recession of 2009 seriously decreased the demand for Oregon’s lumber, and saw a decline in both volume logged and jobs per mmbf – down to 7.7 j/mmbf.

The latest statistics (from 2013) for Oregon timber harvest show that volume logged is again on the rise to 4,199 mmbf, but jobs per mmbf continue to fall, now down to 6.4 j/mmbf – almost 5 fewer jobs per mmbf than in 2000.  If as many people were employed per million board feet in 2013 as in 2000, there would be 19,929 more jobs without increasing the volume of timber logged.

According to the Oregon Department of Forestry’s Resources Planning Program economist, the key reasons for this decline in jobs, despite an increase in harvest, are a lack of domestic demand and mechanization. This downward trend in logging jobs due to mechanization is likely to continue.   US Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that: “Employment of logging workers is projected to decline 9 percent from 2012 to 2022. Increased mechanization of logging operations and improvements in logging equipment will result in less demand for timber-cutting and logging workers who work by hand.”

In sharp counterpoint to the decrease in timber industry jobs is the growing outdoor recreation sector.   In Oregon, as of 2012, outdoor recreation accounted for 141,000 jobs, $955 million in state & local tax revenue, and $12.8 billion in consumer spending. During the same year, in Washington state, a total of about 122,600 jobs, or about 62 percent, of all recreation jobs, were from expenditures associated with outdoor recreation on public lands.

Applying these trends locally to the Mt. Hood National Forest, according to Oregon’s Regional Economist for the Columbia Gorge, MHNF generates an estimated 2,157 jobs recreation jobs per year.  On the other hand, the timber logged on MHNF generated approximately 225 jobs (PSQ of 35 mmbf for 2015, multiplied by the ODF’s number of 6.4 jobs/mmbf). 

Interestingly, in 2014, MHNF received $2,178,000 through federal appropriations for the Timber Program, and only $1,405,600 for its Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness program. Applying the job statistics above, each timber job cost the government $9,680, while each recreation job cost $653.  Restoration of ecosystems damaged by past management of federal forests also generates significant jobs and income. For example, a recent report shows that, for every $1 million invested in restoration projects, 15.7-23.8 jobs are created in Oregon directly and indirectly.