Oregon's forests remain open for logging and timber sales during the novel coronavirus pandemic because forest products have been deemed part of "critical infrastructure," according to state and federal officials.
While forests have strictly limited outdoor recreation to prevent spread of the virus, and halted activities such as prescribed burning, forest officials said they'll continue to support timber activity on public lands.
The Bureau of Land Management sold over 49 million board feet of timber last week alone, while the U.S. Forest Service reiterated its commitment to logging.
"National Forests in Oregon and Washington are open to support local and rural economies," said Dan Shively, Director of Natural Resources for the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region. "If forest leadership and business operators are able to mitigate risks while supporting 'stay at home' orders, we will support timber, forest products, grazing, and other sustainment and economic uses of our forestlands."
However, Oregon senators and environmental groups have objected to approving new timber sales amid a "stay at home" order that makes it difficult, or impossible, to have public meetings or hearings or view proposed sales in person.
Although timber harvest allowed, 'stay home' order could shutter mills
In Oregon and Washington, the U.S. Forest Service has approved roughly 400 timber projects. Of those, only about 30 to 35 are actively moving forward, officials said.
The reasons for that relatively low number could be a number of factors, including an economic slowdown caused by region-wide orders to stay at home.
Freres Lumber Co. president Rob Freres said they're currently logging both private and public lands but that "could abruptly stop," he said.
"Our customers discontinued purchasing five weeks ago and are not replenishing so our order file has evaporated," he said. "We will continue to operate in the near term and hope for sales. If sales don’t happen, logging and manufacturing will end.
"Sheltering in place prevents consumption of wood products."
Are loggers required to follow social distancing guidelines?
Oregon has required specific measures to protect workers from the spread of coronavirus in many of the industries still in operation.
That's also true for loggers.
"Forest operators are required to establish, implement and enforce social distancing guidelines consistent with the governor’s Executive Order and OHA guidance," said Jason Cox, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Oregon senators oppose continued timber sales
The decision by federal officials to continue offering timber sales has drawn the ire of Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
They singled out multiple sales in Southern Oregon, offered by the Bureau of Land Management, as examples of projects that should be halted amid the crisis because the public couldn't sufficiently weigh-in during orders to "stay home, save lives," issued by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
"The Interior Department should be focusing during this public health crisis on helping communities in Oregon and nationwide to respond, as opposed to jamming through unrelated policies and proposals without key public input,” Wyden told the Statesman Journal.
BLM officials told the Statesman Journal they're committed to getting public input and evaluating on a case by case how to best do that, information officer Sarah Bennett said. In the meantime, the agency completed eight timber sales between March 25 and 27.
George Sexton, of the environmental group KS Wild in Ashland, said BLM was basically telling the public to stay home but the timber industry to continue business as usual.
"The rules that apply to all of us don't seem to apply to the BLM old-growth timber agenda," he said. "The BLM is encouraging timber purchasers to go to the field to assess timber and bring bids to the office. They require hard copies of protests to be signed and delivered to them. All of which precludes staying at home," he said.
Bennett said BLM was taking measures to limit the number of people at timber auctions and in the field, keeping strong social distancing measures and moving to a "sealed bid" process this month. But, she said, timber sales are expected to continue.
She added that BLM has kept land open to recreation whenever possible.
"Timber sales are are a strong vehicle to propel the local economy with good paying jobs, which is very important in these uncertain times," she said.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
This article was originally published by the Salem Statesman Journal, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.