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Ore. timber country ponders future with fewer logs

Saturday - 5/18/2013, 5:46pm  ET

Associated Press

O'BRIEN, Ore. (AP) -- Jennifer Phillippi's grandparents started producing lumber in this corner of Oregon timber country in 1922, when a man could set up a mill, log the trees within range of a team of horses and move the mill to a new stand when those trees ran out.

In those days the forests were full, timber and work both plentiful. But now what was the last sawmill standing in Josephine County has hit the end of the line after yet another timber family had to give up hope that the lands surrounding them could provide enough of the big pine logs they needed to stay afloat.

Phillippi and her husband, Link, are spending their last days at the helm of Rough & Ready Lumber handing out severance checks and hugs to their 88 employees, many of them also the third generation in the mill. The sawmill shut down in mid-April and will ship the last finished lumber in June.

"What they tell me is one door closes and another door opens," said Ron Hults, 50, who worked at the mill for 18 years operating the various machinery it takes to turn a rough log into a smooth piece of lumber. "I'm waiting for the open door."

So are many of the nearly 1 million who live in Oregon's timber country.

The region's troubles have reached a tipping point since the expiration last year of federal subsidies that were sent to rural counties across America for 11 years to offset revenue losses caused by reduced logging on federal lands to protect endangered and threatened species.

Oregon, with far more federal timberlands than other states, got nearly a third of that money -- $105 million in 2012 alone.

The loss of the subsidies has forced timber counties to cut budgets to the bone. Sheriff's offices have laid off deputies, cut patrols and released some inmates, only to see them arrested for new crimes. Frustrated citizens have tried to fill the gap with armed patrols.

The subsidies were never meant to be permanent, but rather were intended to buy time to build new economies. Today these communities are still looking for what's next -- even as some timber counties drift closer to bankruptcy and state officials make contingency plans in case they collapse altogether.

"There is no silver bullet," said Bruce Webber, who directs the Center for Rural Studies at Oregon State University. "It sort of happens job by job and idea by idea. That is how change happens."

As recently as the 1980s, logging and milling were important parts of the economies of nearly every part of Oregon, from big cities to remote mountain hamlets. But as logging diminished, so did the industry's economic significance.

No Oregon community depends on timber as heavily as in years past. Tourism and light manufacturing join with schools, government and health care to provide jobs. But the more remote and rural the community, the tougher things are.

Unemployment rates across timber country tend to be in double-digits. A quarter of Josephine County's 83,000 people are on food stamps. Food banks struggle to keep cans on the shelves. Young people move away to find work.

Some economists have blamed timber country for not doing enough to get itself out of the mess. Property tax rates in the region are the lowest in the state, a legacy of when the federal timber revenues paid the bills, and residents have repeatedly voted down tax increases. On Tuesday, three counties -- Lane, Josephine and Curry --will try again: They are asking voters to raise taxes to pay for law enforcement.

"Always in the past people felt the federal government would come through" and renew the subsidies, said Curry County Commissioner Dave Itzen. "The federal cavalry is not coming ... In fact it's so far away, you can't hear the bugle."

An hour's drive east of the coast, just north of the California border, the Rough & Ready mill is ringed by the timbered expanses of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Gold mines once prospered here, but when the gold ran out, logging became Josephine County's economic foundation.

After World War II, the U.S. Forest Service began selling timber to build homes for baby boomers. Bulldozers carved roads into the hillsides to haul out the logs. Mills operated around-the-clock. No tree was too big to be cut.

"You could get a job anyplace," said Jim Ford, 85, of Grants Pass, the Josephine County seat. Ford quit high school during World War II to work as a logger. At 14, he threw steel cables around giant logs so they could be hauled and loaded on waiting trucks. After the war, he and his brothers started their own logging business. It closed in 1993.

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