West Coast Wood Exports Undercut Economy and Environment

– by Samantha Chirillo, Energy Justice Network

Since the European Union (EU) countries set high carbon reduction standards and counted biomass energy as carbon neutral and renewable, biomass exports from the southeastern U.S. have skyrocketed.

Now, as Japan looks for an alternative to nuclear energy, as U.S. corporations get tax breaks to relocate facilities to the countries of least regulation, as trans-Pacific trade agreements give these corporations power over governments, and as Oregon’s Congressional delegation plans to log more public forest, west coast ports are preparing for log and biomass export expansion. In 2013 alone, log and chip exports from the northwestern U.S. already doubled, according to Public Interest Forester Roy Keene. Exports are the surest path to forest decline, as history has shown, says Keene.

Oregon may be the biggest loser, or at least the state with the most to lose, with a third of its total annual harvest volume exported as logs and chips, as Keene states in his article “Outsourcing Forests Costs Thousands of Jobs.” Oregon does not have stringent forest practice laws or headwater protections at the state level, like Washington and California do. Current bills to log the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) checkerboard public forest lands in Oregon fail to account for the large-scale clearcutting and poisoning of near Oregon’s intermingled private forests.

Oregon is losing economically, too. Oregon overall ranks 4th among all the states in the number of manufacturing jobs lost to offshoring, many of these in the wood products sector, when measured by population, according to Oregon Fair Trade Campaign and based on U.S. Department of Labor data. Without a sales tax, Oregon also loses revenue when facilities paying property taxes move overseas.

Of course, raw log exports from the northwestern U.S. have been increasing over the last few years, and wood chips also. Now, chip exports are increasing more rapidly than before as Asian demand increases. This means a drain on public forest resources and more drain on the Northwest economy. What would seem like a gradual occurrence feels more like a sudden rush.

One reason is a lack of environmental review, public process, or media coverage of export expansion until deals are already made. Permitting processes involve what unfortunately may be only temporary delays, as the west coast biomass export train seems to have already left the station.

The port proposal in Oregon with the most media attention so far has been the Port of Newport, which is negotiating with Teevin Bros. to operate a log exporting facility at the International Terminal on the north side of Yaquina Bay. Opponents include Citizens Seeking an Alternative to the Log Terminal (CSALT) and some Community Rights activists. A video of the October town hall meeting there can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jpoSlD4xlo In November, in case brought by Oregon Coast Alliance, among others, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals gave the traffic impact analysis for the proposal an incomplete, a minor setback perhaps.

Besides the Newport expansion, insider contacts tell of a new biomass pipeline and a new highway to Coos Bay, proposed by Roseburg Forest Products, one of the largest privately held timber companies in the U.S. The pipeline would move what is called a “slurry” of wood chips mixed with water. Vancouver, Washington also plans to expand its log and chip export capacity.

What does it mean to prepare a port for increased log and chip exports? In Newport, the plan involves building a 15-acre paved log yard on port property. Dredging, which damages habitat, is typically a major activity which removes silt and sediment that has accumulated on the bottom of the bay or river mouth, allowing larger vessels access. Road widening, more truck pollution, and more traffic noise are other complaints that port residents and some recreation and tourism businesses have.

For struggling port communities where some folks reminisce about the “good ol’ days” of massive log exports, export expansion sounds like a solution to their unemployment issue. Some, like industrial fishers, piggyback on the gained ability to move larger vessels year-round. Longshoremen with families celebrate the promise of having steady work again. But while export expansion benefits some jobs, exports in general subtract more, so increased timber harvest has not led to the increase in jobs that Oregon politicians promise.

According to Keene, between 2009 and 2012, the timber harvest increased 108 percent in Lincoln County, where Newport is located, while employment decreased. This disconnect is typical in counties dominated by industrial forests. Lane County, Oregon, for example, where Weyerhaeuser is the largest private landowner and the region’s main log exporter, saw a 75 percent increase in the timber harvest from 2009 to 2012 and a concurrent 14 percent decrease in wood products manufacturing jobs.

Export expansion and incentives for corporations to move facilities overseas have had a dangerous effect on local economies—not just from a lack of spending, but a lack of property tax when a facility moves overseas. Some facilities are the largest property owners in their communities, like Weyerhaeuser was in Longview, WA. According to Takeshi Owada, staffwriter forThe Asahi Shibun, in an August 27, 2013 article, a current trend is pulp and paper companies converting their facilities to produce biomass energy in Japan. Besides Tasmania and Australia, Japan is also sourcing biomass from the northwestern U.S., particularly Oregon. This is especially true since Japan seeks an alternative to nuclear energy.

While some politicians have called for review of the impacts of coal exports, they are silent or enabling on log and chip exports. Most notable are Oregon Congressmen Peter DeFazio, who opposes ‘free trade’ agreements and in the early 1990’s had a bill to end all log exports from public forests.  It was in the late 1980’s that much of the export from public forests ended. DeFazio, who became Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee this year, did not make this export ban part of his recent forest privatization bill (H 1526), which would remove public forests and their waterways from federal protection, placing them under Oregon’s draconian Oregon Forest Practices Act. DeFazio’s bill passed the House. Afterward, Congressman Doc Hastings (WA) came out with a post-disturbance public forest ‘salvage’ bill (H 3188), which has been opposed publicly by 250 scientists.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has taken the lead on the Senate version of forest legislation, the O&C Act of 2013. The bill number is not yet assigned, but the bill text is available here:http://www.wyden.senate.gov/priorities/oc-act-of-2013. None of these bills address the fact that an increase in raw log exports from private forestland have led to de facto substitution (increased logging) from public forests, nor do these bills address loopholes that allow pseudo-processed timber (delimbed, debarked wood all the way down to veneer) and wood chips from public forests to be exported, contrary to industry propaganda. Wyden also chairs the Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs and Global Competitiveness, and has refused to vote against ‘free trade’ agreements which open up foreign markets for Oregon’s forests. DeFazio, Wyden, and Senator Jeff Merkley are all strongly pro-biomass energy and pro-logging on public forests to fuel facilities. They also strongly urged the Environmental Protection Agency to defer biomass energy from carbon accounting.

Some also point a finger at environmental groups who have remained silent on the timber export issue, despite clear warning signs that the west coast has been following in the path of the east coast with exports. Some of the same environmental groups have also agreed to increased logging on public forests and got funded to participate in collaborations with the timber industry involving logging public forests under the guise of “restoration” and “fire fuels reduction” after the stalling of Wyden’s Eastside Forest bill.

A major element of Wyden’s current bill is doubling the cut on Western Oregon BLM public forests. To what extent these elements will ultimately be limited to Western Oregon BLM forests after House and Senate combine legislation is unclear. The dry and burned forests in Southern Oregon and public health will take a hit with the recent approval of the Iberdrola/Collins Pine biomass energy facility, in Lakeview, Oregon. Setbacks from Wyden’s bill could ultimately apply to forests in other states, too, at least as a bad precedent. Biomass energy opponents in Washington state are worried the abuse to Oregon may bleed over to their state, targeting Senator Cantwell (WA) as a result. Others are lobbying Senators Baldwin (WI), Franken (MN), Heinrich (NM), and Schatz (HI).

Other major elements of Wyden’s legislation include eliminating the “survey and manage” safety net for species provided in the Northwest Forest Plan, as well as eliminating public involvement and the litigative hooks under National Environmental Protection Act. Instead of having a review of each timber sale or project, there would be one generic mega-environmental impact statement for an entire BLM district, for example. As such, Wyden’s bill, rather than being a new and innovative policy, the bill extends and solidifies the new nature of forest management and protest against it at the landscape level. This new bill harkens back to Wyden’s Eastern Oregon forest bill, opposed by the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign and 95 scientists, which failed to gain traction in Congress. Despite failing to pass into law, Oregon environmental groups nevertheless began their revenue shift from the timber sale litigation game to foundation funding for collaborations with the timber industry. These logging projects, some biomass extraction ‘pilot’ projects, had far less public oversight in the dry forests with unkempt roads of Eastern Oregon.

A major propaganda piece with Wyden’s bill applying to the wet Western Oregon forests is so-called “ecological forestry,” labeling the forestry approach, known as variable density regeneration harvest to generate complex early seral habitat (basically, biodiverse understory species). From the industry’s perspective, it’s less efficient than clearcutting their own private forestlands but more efficient than ‘thinning,’ which they claim has not met the original ‘sustained yield’ requirement for BLM (O&C land) forests, ignoring the requirement to also sustain waterways and recreation value. From the environmentalists’ perspective, punching large holes in the checkerboard landscape already riddled with them is tantamount to clearcutting, while they ignore the negative impacts of many ‘thinning’ projects, some which they collaborated on. From a forestry perspective, whether to do ‘thinning’ or regeneration harvest is worth considering but misses the fundamental systemic roadblock to either fair economic value to the public or preserving ecological integrity: the reality of how and why public timber is sold.

I visited the three main pilot projects with foresters and agency officials on which Wyden says he modeled his bill. Roy Keene and I visited the one with most media attention, the Myrtle Creek Project in the Roseburg BLM District both before and after the trees were sold and some now logged. Our “after” visit was November 5, 2013. Projects are broken up into sales after review. Included in this project is Unit 8, the site of a treesit, a rare, native, never-before-logged, biodiverse young old growth stand with biodiverse understory species, already sold to Roseburg Forest Products. Keene, a forester of more than 30 years, could not imagine finding, much less ‘generating’ any forest more precious in this area. This stand was bordered by complex early seral in a unit that had been previously heavily logged but allowed to renew naturally.

As we have seen with other projects, the fundamental problem needing the attention of the American public is the unfair economics and procedures of the federal timber sale program which stack the deck so that only the largest timber companies can buy any action and log our forests at a loss to the public, not even counting all the taxpayer subsidies for roads and biomass transport, for example. Project after project, Roy and I see that the agency is doing what it calls “restoration” logging small-diameter plantations (like the Buck Rising Timber Sale, also part of the Myrtle Creek Project) although sometimes merely regrowing them, on one hand, and logging what we consider young old growth (trees 80-120 years) to pay for logging the smaller trees on the other hand. Most of the older old growth has been logged out (“cherry-picked” as we call it) of most Western Oregon BLM stands already, so what is left is young old growth which is unlikely to get protected under any past or current legislation. Any of these young old growth that have a significant amount of cull wood (rot, damage) could legally be chipped and exported. No past or  current legislation addresses this.

A global battleground of sorts but filled with diversity and perhaps a source of more allies for biomass energy opponents is the fair trade movement. Recall the WTO protest in Seattle. Like the Occupy movement, nearly everyone can agree on the need to take back power from the corporate elite. Many on both sides Congress recently said they oppose fast-tracking these trade deals. They want information and deliberation. Perhaps the greatest danger of  these bad trade deals is all the power they give corporations over governments and people via “investor provisions.” If a government interferes with a corporation doing business, regardless of illegal activity, that corporation can sue the government (local, state, or federal) before a foreign tribunal. Corporations have gotten large amounts of money out of countries this way.

The U.S. recently finalized the South Korea Free Trade Agreement, and the pending bad trade agreement is like the combo deal of trade agreements, the TransPacific Partnership, opening up U.S. and Latin American forests to other Asian markets, like Japan, to produce biomass energy, and China to manufacture raw logs into finished products. China then “dumps” these back to us at prices U.S. manufacturers cannot compete with.

According to Forest2Market, “Russia’s market share, traditionally the largest supplier of Chinese logs, has continued to erode, leaving Chinese buyers to fill the shortage with deliveries from North America.” Russia placed a 25 percent tariff on log exports to protect its domestic industry. When Russia was accepted into the World Trade Organization, it agreed to lower log tariffs to 15 percent. According to Roy Keene, even a 15 percent tariff helps domestic mills compete for logs and creates revenue to offset unemployment and the collateral damage to forests from increased logging.

While Senator Merkley successfully pushed for arbitration upon Canada’s breach of the 2006 Softwood Lumber Agreement. Canada had undercut U.S. prices on timber from British Columbia. However, Merkley has not been so outspoken about such unfairness between Asia or Europe and the U.S. Merkley has come out with his own trade reform bill, saying that his“Level the Playing Field in Global Trade Act . . . would ensure that sub-standard wages, workplace safety practices, and environmental protections are properly accounted for as unfair subsidies by foreign countries when calculating American duties intended to offset cheating. It also rewards companies that meet high standards on a global basis in wages, workplace safety and environmental compliance with streamlined trade and protection from enforcement actions.” Fair trade advocacy groups, on the other hand, support the stronger version first introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (OH), the 21st Century Trade and Market Access Act, which according to Citizens Trade “would reassert Congressional and public oversight over the TPP and future trade policies. It sets a range of binding negotiating requirements regarding labor rights, the environment, food safety . . .” For the latest on trade agreements and trade reform and what action is needed, go to www.citizenstrade.org

Some food for thought — even if you live in the Midwest or work for a high-tech firm, U.S. policies that create an unfair playing field in global markets, expand raw resource export, offshore jobs, and undercut environmental protections all promote the race to the bottom for all of us . Making Oregon a resource colony degrades the public forest resources of all Americans, makes Oregon even more revenue-dependent on the rest of the U.S., and sets a scary precedent. Of course, activism at home can sometimes relocate the exploitation somewhere else in the country or the world. If we wait till it’s our state or our job or our backyard, it’s too late.

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