Oregon’s Forestry and Logging Industry: From Planting to Harvest

by Brian Rooney

October 20, 2020

Oregon is one of the world’s great tree-growing areas. The state’s soils and climate provide ideal conditions to grow such commercially viable species as Douglas fir and ponderosa pine. Forests cover more than 30 million of Oregon’s 62 million acres – almost half of the state’s landmass.

The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) estimates logging harvests totaled 4.1 billion board feet in 2018. While much of this timber feeds Oregon’s wood products industry, creating jobs and income, many jobs are also created planting, growing, and harvesting this resource.
 
Forestry and Logging Industry Employment


Firms in the forestry and logging sector grow and harvest timber on a long production cycle, generally of 10 years or more. Timber production requires natural forests or suitably large areas of land that are available long term. Oregon’s often mountainous and remote terrain, in both public and private ownership, provides that land base.

The forestry and logging subsector is made up of three industries:

  • Timber tract operations
  • Forest nurseries and gathering of forest products
  • Logging
According to the Oregon Employment Department’s covered employment statistics, the subsector’s 749 firms employed 9,353 workers statewide and added $563 million in payroll to Oregon’s economy in 2018.

Employment was in decline between 2005 and 2009 and has since leveled off. It is currently varying seasonally in a band between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs.

Of the 2019 annual average total, 5,512 were employed in the private sector while 3,841 were employed in government. Most of the government employment is in federal government at 3,657 while the rest is in state government.

Covered employment is a count of workers covered by Oregon’s unemployment insurance (UI) program. Self-employed individuals are generally not included in the program and, therefore, not counted. However, the U.S. Census Bureau produces nonemployer statistics. A nonemployer business is one that has no paid employees, has annual business receipts of $1,000 or more, and is subject to federal income taxes. In addition to covered employment, the forestry and logging industry had 1,543 nonemployers in Oregon in 2018. Gross income for these companies was $116 million. Although there is no further industry breakout, it is likely that many of these self-employed are involved in timber tract operations and the gathering of forest products.

Forestry and logging is a highly seasonal industry. Employment generally grows throughout the spring and peaks in August. Employment often stabilizes for a month or two in the fall before dropping off as winter rains begin.
The forestry and logging sector is dominated by logging companies, which totaled 626 reporting units and 5,020 employees in 2019. The logging industry, with a statewide annual average wage of $51,012 in 2019, pays a little less than the average wage of $55,019 for all industries. Major occupations in this industry include loggers, equipment operators, truck drivers, and fallers and buckers. Logging shows a similar seasonality to the overall sector, except with less volatility.
The second-largest group of employment in the forestry and logging industry is timber tract operations, employing 4,163 on an annual average basis in 2019. Timber tract operations employment is largely government employment. In 2019, 3,657 federal workers and 173 state workers managed government forestlands. The remaining 335 were in the private sector. In addition to forest workers, many occupations in this industry are managerial or professional and require a high level of experience and education. Wages, therefore, are relatively high – $72,254 on an annual average basis in 2019.

The industry with the least employment in the forestry and logging subsector is forest nurseries and gathering of forest products, with only 14 establishments and covered employment of 170. Many of the occupations in this industry are seasonal nursery work, which contributes to the low annual average wage of $38,059. The covered employment numbers for this industry may be low since many of the entities that gather forest products are sole proprietors or family operations that are not covered by UI law.

Long-term Decline but Stabilization after the Great Recession

After a period of relative stability in the early 2000s, the forestry and logging industry continued a slow decline that began in the early 1990s. From 1990 to 2000, private-sector forestry and logging employment declined from 15,774 jobs statewide to 12,887, a loss of 2,887 jobs or 18 percent. During that period, timber harvests in Oregon declined from 6.2 billion board feet to 3.9 billion board feet.

The decline was due largely to environmental concerns and the resulting decrease of harvests from public lands. In 1990, the Oregon Department of Forestry reported 48 percent of timber cut for the lumber and wood products industry came from public lands. Over time, restrictions took a toll, and the harvest from public lands in Oregon dwindled to 18 percent of the total in 2007.

Due to low interest rates along with a record level of housing starts and an increase in lumber prices in the western U.S., the 2004 timber harvest level of 4.5 billion board feet was the highest since 1993. A few years later, western housing starts declined due to a nationwide recession. Timber harvest levels declined along with building permits and lumber prices to 3.8 billion board feet in 2007. Correspondingly, employment in forestry and logging dropped 1,886 jobs, or 15 percent from 2004 to 2008.

With the end of the Great Recession in 2009, the industry stabilized, due in part to increased exports to China. Since then, private-sector forestry and logging employment has been stable compared with previous periods, going from annual average employment of 5,680 in 2009 to 5,512 in 2019.

As of the writing of this article, the logging industry is one of the industries least affected by restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, losing about 6 percent of its employment between March and April 2020 compared with 13 percent for all industries. It then regained all of its employment and added jobs into June.
Some of the long-term decline in employment was due to increased mechanization. A simple way to look at the efficiency created by mechanization is to look at the volume of timber harvested per logging worker. There was an average of 550,300 board feet harvested per logging worker in 1990. By 2018, that figure had risen to 773,200.

Support Activities for Forestry

The high level of forestry activity in Oregon also creates demand for a support activities industry. In 2019, support activities had covered employment of 4,409 and provided $174 million in payroll. In addition, there were 559 nonemployer businesses with gross income of $30 million in 2018. Included in this industry are firms that replant forests, fight forest fires, thin forests, and provide information to the timber industry.

At $39,355 in 2019, annual average covered wages in this industry were below the all-industry average of $55,019. Seasonal, sporadic, and part-time work are prevalent, bringing down the annual average.

Employment in support activities has been relatively stable with annual average employment increasing recently, going from 3,432 in 2011 to 4,409 in 2019. The annual average spiked to 4,966 in 2018, likely due to a busy fire season.

As of the writing of this article, the support activities for forestry industry was one of the least affected by restrictions enacted due to COVID-19. The industry lost 244 jobs or 5 percent between February and April 2020 compared with 13 percent for all industries. The industry had gained back most of the lost jobs by June.

Like forestry and logging, the support activities industry is highly seasonal. The year usually starts with tree planting in the late winter and into spring, depending on the slope and elevation. Firefighting then picks up in the summer, usually peaking around August.

The support activities industry has become very mobile and flexible, with Oregon companies planting trees, thinning brush, and fighting forest fires throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Some Oregon companies in this industry take part in more of these activities, often far from Oregon. As Cassandra Moseley of the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program points out, “A company can do all three in an area once they have the transportation and people that are willing to work hard.”

Another major portion of the support activities industry is replanting forests after logging. In 1971, Oregon enacted the Oregon Forest Practices Act, making it the first state in the nation to set rules to ensure a continuous harvest of timber. As a result, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, about 40 million seedlings are planted in Oregon each year.

Outlook

Employment Department projections show that the logging industry in Oregon is expected to lose about 400 jobs, or 8 percent, between 2019 and 2029. Logging was one of the industries least affected by restrictions enacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but slower overall growth contributes to less demand for lumber. Other industries within timber production, such as timber tract operations and support activities for forestry do not have published Oregon Employment Department forecasts.

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