In Our View: It's Essential to Diversify

It's good Clark County timber harvest up, but also good not over-reliant on lumber

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Unlike its neighbor to the east, Clark County never has been particularly reliant upon the harvesting of timber as an economic engine. As a relatively urban area when compared with Skamania County, Clark County has depended upon commerce, manufacturing, and its port for economic vitality.

For example, in 1970, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, a total of 23 million board feet of timber were harvested in Clark County, while 399 million were taken in Skamania. Yet despite that well-rooted reality about the timber industry in this area, an uptick in logging in eastern Clark County — as detailed in a recent article by Columbian reporter Eric Florip — is noteworthy. As local resident Harry Barber said about the log-

carrying trucks rumbling past his house, “They’re logging it hard. It’s extensive. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve lived up here 40 years.”

The reason, according to experts, is that favorable market conditions have provided incentive to harvest, and forestland that had been widely logged in the middle of the 20th century is now ripe for another round of cutting. That, as can be said about any activity that puts people to work and churns the economy, is a good thing. But it also points out the importance of diversification.

The danger of being too reliant upon one sector of the economy can be found in two local examples. Since the timber-harvest heydays of decades ago, Skamania County has experienced a precipitous drop in lumber production. By 2000, a total of 26 million board feet were harvested in the county — a 93 percent drop from the 1970 total. In 2012, the number had increased to 76 million board feet, but that still was a shadow of the total from decades before.

Skamania County has been mired in an economic slump largely fueled by the fall in the timber industry, and residents there long have struggled to develop industries that can replace the once-robust logging operations. As recently as January 2013, the unemployment rate in Skamania County stood at 14 percent.

Oregon also has experienced the impact of a collapsing lumber industry. In 1972, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry, 9.7 billion board feet of timber were harvested in the state. By 1982, that had dropped 41 percent; by 1998, it had dropped 64 percent from the volume of the early 1970s. Or, here’s another way to look at it: According to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, 40 years ago the wood products industry accounted for up to 13 percent of the state’s gross domestic product; today it generates about 1 percent of GDP.

In the wake of the disappointing lumber industry, Oregon was hit especially hard by the recession of the early 1980s — a fact that was exacerbated when a federal ruling provided protection for the Northern spotted owl and forced restrictions in logging operations. Timber production dropped, mills closed, and the controversy over the owl became a lingering case study for the economic impact of environmental restrictions.

Historically, the economy in this part of the country has been dependent upon our vast natural resources, primarily fishing, timber, and produce. Clark County, by virtue of geography, has been able to develop a more diversified economic base than some rural counties, and therefore has been less vulnerable to downturns. Yet, while lumber has not been one of the linchpins of our local economy, an uptick in the harvest is beneficial to the region. Trees coming down can only mean jobs going up.