Since the 19th century, Oregon has relied on the timber industry to drive its economies. It started with the California Gold Rush’s demand for timber to build railroads and has grown to a multi-billion-dollar industry.
In the late 19th century, sawmills along the lower Columbia River were exporting 75 to 100 million board feet of lumber per year, depleting the Midwestern forests. Because of this, interest shifted to harvesting pine and fir.
Timber harvesting grew and grew until World War II, when timber harvesting really took off. Coos Bay was called the “Lumber Capital of the World” and the population grew 30 percent in the 1940s and 50s.
More than 2,000 logging operations were in action at that time, with the state increasing its cut from 5.2 billion board feet to 9.1 billion in 15 years.
This, however, led to land managers depleting forests. Federal laws were implemented in the 1960s and 70s to conserve the remaining forests.
By the early 1980s, a recession greatly affected timber-dependent communities. High interest rates slowed down housing construction, Canadian lumber became highly competitive, and a demand for timber from Asia caused American companies to export their timber than mill domestically.
Thus, many mills closed down and those that remained open needed new technology. This technology reduced the number of employees necessary to run the mill.
The price of lumber dropped by nearly 50 percent and four of the five counties with the highest unemployment rates were timber-dependent counties, including Coos and Curry. During the recession, 48,000 jobs were lost.
The recession caused Oregon to diversify in its industries and manage its land more sustainably. Now, Oregon harvests around 4 billion board feet of timber, but the industry has slowed down to allow for old growth.
The wages of timber workers aren’t as high as they were in the 1940s, but jobs and wages have held steady and are projected to stay this way.