SENECA, Ore. — Loggers are working in the woods south of Seneca as the Malheur National Forest's ambitious 10-year stewardship program makes its debut.
Literally years in the planning and development stages, the program aims to restore the health of the forest, large tract by large tract, while also giving the communities of Grant and Harney counties a shot at economic stability.
"We've been given a great opportunity," said Russ Young, president of John Day-based Iron Triangle LLC, which won the 10-year contract in September. "Not just for us, but for the community."
Iron Triangle and the Forest Service officials working on the contract hope to see benefits ripple through the local economy as the work -- thinning overstocked stands, removing fire fuels, and restoring watersheds -- ramps up over the next couple of years. For the community, they say, the contract promises more jobs in the woods, more material for the local mills, and more opportunities for independent contractors in related fields.
That's a radical change from the trend of recent decades, when litigation brought logging to a standstill on the federal lands and shuttered all but one of the local mills. Iron Triangle, founded by Young's father in 1983, rode through those tough years to emerge as what one local mill operator calls "the best logger in the region" and what others describe as the logical choice to take on the long-term contract.
"There's still a lot of heavy lifting to be done to make this a success," cautioned Young, "but for the first time in a long time, this gives us — the industry and the community — a fighting chance."
The work begins
The first task order, as the individual projects of the contract are called, is a 34,000-acre swath of forest called Marshall Devine, located on the Emigrant Creek Ranger District in Harney County. Iron Triangle put two local subcontractors -- Rude Logging of John Day and Engle Contracting of Monument -- to work there as of Oct. 30.
According to Steve Beverlin, the Malheur's acting forest supervisor, Marshall Devine is expected to produce 190,000 tons of ponderosa pine sawlogs — more than 36 million board feet — and 65,000 tons of biomass. In addition to the timber harvest, the project includes a substantial amount of "service work" -- 7,255 acres each of precommercial thinning and grapple piling, where brush and slash are piled for later burning.
That level of production eclipses the entire forest's target of 29 million board feet in fiscal 2012, Beverlin noted. Combined with conventional timber sales, officials believe the contract will allow the forest to meet its accelerated restoration goal of 55 million board feet for this year, a level that's scheduled to rise to 75 million board feet in future years.
Different than conventional timber sales, which may have five or more years to complete, the contractor has two years to complete this work — and the situation becomes more complex as the contract moves ahead.
Each year, the Forest Service will roll out another task order, so the activity will increase as the projects overlap. After Marshall Devine, the task orders will include work on all three ranger districts of the forest, layering on projects that have cleared the required environmental reviews and planning.
The 2014 task order will include: Upper Pine, near Marshall Devine on the Emigrant district; Galena, in the Blue Mountain district; and Elk 16, on the Prairie City district.
Beverlin said the service work for Marshall Devine is not as complex as that planned for future task orders, which will include an array of activities such as watershed improvements, fencing, road building and more. That in turn supports additional local jobs and subcontracting opportunities.
Benefit to local communities was a key consideration in awarding the contract, even more important than price, Beverlin said. Iron Triangle's proposal was notable because it projected working with almost all of the local timber industry in one way or another. In addition, nearly all of the workforce identified by Iron Triangle for completion of the contract — some 97 percent — hails from Grant and Harney counties.
In addition to those workers, there will be new positions and the prospect that workers from outside the area — and their families — may move into the area.
Young said Iron Triangle is always in hiring mode, fueled by retirements and relocations, but the company will grow its workforce as much as 20 percent due to the 10-year contract. Equally important are the jobs expected in related fields and in the mills, he said.
In the first task order, the large sawlogs are headed for the Malheur Lumber Co. sawmill in John Day, Young said. The smaller diameter wood will go to Boise Solutions in La Grande, while much of the fiber is headed to the Kinzua plant in Pilot Rock.
The Forest Service and community leaders are working on ways "to find a home" locally for more of the biomass, and future task orders are expected to produce sawtimber of the size and species suited to other mills in the county.
"The potential offshoots of the 10-year are tremendous," Young said. "The changes aren't going to happen overnight, but the end result is going to be positive."
He lauded his crew for the work done so far, and also the industry partners who took a chance on working together toward the contract, after years as tough competitors in equally tough market conditions. As the contract took shape, he said, people realized a new way of doing things could offer a framework for stability.
"We went so long with such a lack of activity on the forest. We lost a lot of infrastructure, both contractors and mills," he said. "To be here now is kind of bittersweet."
However, he said, "People were willing to say, let's give it a go."
Creating a model
Beverlin said the full impact of the new stewardship approach won't be felt until the second or third year of the contract, when the variety of work amplifies across the forest. However, the Malheur Forest already has bolstered its own staffing for the launch of the contract and the work ahead.
In addition to hiring 60 additional seasonal workers this past year, Beverlin said, the agency has added about 20 permanent positions: harvest inspectors, silviculturalists, vegetation management specialists, wildlife and fisheries biologists and more.
The goal is to improve a range of resources: wildlife habitat, watersheds, recreation opportunities, and public safety. Most important, restoring health to such large landscapes should reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, he said.
"That in itself is huge," he said. "The Forest Service spends nearly half of its budget on wildfire suppression each year, and we cannot afford to continue doing that."
He credits the forest staff and the two collaborative groups, the Blue Mountains Forest Partners and the Harney County Restoration Collaborative, for laying the groundwork to launch what could become a model for such contracts across the West.
"We're attracting talented people who want to be engaged in our accelerated restoration program, and build upon its success," Beverlin said. "This is an opportunity to restore a whole forest, as we keep moving through the contract."