FORKS — Recent mill closures and Allen Logging Co.’s upcoming stoppage were hastened by the state’s failure to sell logs that were authorized to be sold on North Olympic Peninsula trust lands.
A combination of staff shortages, legal challenges and the protection of a threatened seabird prevented millions of board feet of timber from being harvested in Clallam and Jefferson counties, state Department of Natural Resources officials said.
The 247 million board feet of Olympic-region timber that was supposed to be sold from 2004 to 2014 but wasn’t sold — “arrearage” in forestry parlance — would have been enough to keep the shuttered Interfor sawmill in Beaver and planer mill in Forks running for four years and the idled Green Creek mill in Port Angeles running for about 12 years, said Rod Fleck, Forks city attorney and planner.
Fleck noted that just one year’s arrearage would have sustained Allen Logging south of Forks for several years.
Allen, the last production lumber mill on the North Olympic Peninsula’s West End, announced this week it would close its Hoh River mill next month.
The amount of timber on the region’s trust lands that DNR was authorized to sell but didn’t in the past decade is worth upward of $68 million, Fleck said.
“That’s tens of millions of dollars to the state, millions of dollars to the county and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the port, the library, hospital, etc.,” Fleck said at the North Olympic Timber Action Committee’s annual meeting April 28.
A lack of a reliable supply of logs was cited in Allen Logging’s recent announcement that it expected to close by mid-July, leaving the West End without a production mill.
“It’s convenient to blame a state official, but I don’t take that responsibility,” said Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, in a June 1 interview with the Peninsula Daily News.
Goldmark pointed to environmental and staffing issues, and said he has created a subcommittee to study what can be done to prevent more arrearage.
Fleck for years has tried to spur DNR to sell all the timber it is authorized to sell. Such sales support trust beneficiaries such as county governments, hospitals and school districts.
Fleck said that groups within the environmental community have stalled harvests with lawsuits — but added that DNR has not done enough to meet its sustainable harvest calculation for the past decade.
Recently, Fleck has taken DNR to task for arrearage in a series of presentations to local civic organizations and other groups.
“It is not surprising to a lot of folks in the industry that we had a set of mills close on the Peninsula,” Fleck told North Olympic Timber Action Committee members in April.
“We were not seeing the offering of sales off DNR land.”
Interfor last summer closed its two West End mills, which supported 87 family-wage jobs in Beaver and Forks.
Green Creek Wood Products closed its Port Angeles mill last fall, leaving 35 out of work.
The looming closure of Allen Logging will idle 45 workers.
Officials with all three companies said a lack of available logs was one reason for their closure.
Goldmark said there are several factors behind arrearage.
A DNR science team blocked from harvest a significant amount of state land on the Olympic Experimental State Forest — the area north of Lake Quinault and west of Lake Crescent — and elsewhere to protect the threatened marbled murrelet, a small seabird.
DNR was sued by environmental groups over a pair of sales of 55-year-old timber not identified by the scientists as marbled murrelet habitat.
“To say that we’re against a lot of forces that are proposing that habitat for murrelet is supreme to anything else is an understatement,” Goldmark said.
“We’ve got a big fight on our hands just trying to harvest even where the science team says we can, let alone where they say we can’t,” he added.
“That’s been a major, major issue that’s prevented us from meeting the sustainable harvest that was mapped out in 2004.”
Goldmark, who was elected in 2008 and took office in 2009, said massive layoffs early in his tenure limited the agency’s ability to manage sales during the recession.
“It’s taken two or three years post that crash to be able to just build up the revenue to be able to hire the staff to where I can now be fully engaged on doing that long-term management strategy,” he said.
“That’s been a huge issue.”
DNR is developing a long-term conservation strategy for the marbled murrelet as it updates its sustainable harvest calculation.
In the last 10-year harvest calculation, DNR was authorized to sell 575 million board feet of timber on the Olympic Experimental State Forest, which includes Clallam and Jefferson counties.
It sold 357 million board feet on the West End, leaving 218 million board feet in arrears.
Eastern Clallam County had 27 million board feet of arrearage, and eastern Jefferson County had 2 million board feet in arrears, according to DNR numbers.
“The lumber being sold to China or India or Korea is a different lumber,” Fleck said.
“It’s all a part of the same big wood basket, but not a large portion of that was going to our domestic mills.”
The total arrearage for the North Olympic Peninsula could support between 988 and 1,976 direct and indirect jobs for five years, according to Fleck’s estimates.
“They didn’t offer this for sale,” he said.
“That’s why we’re watching logging trucks move up to Alaska. That’s why we’re watching cutters go to find jobs in Randle. That’s why we saw mills close.”
Under a settlement agreement that ended litigation with environmental groups in 2007, DNR was restricted from harvesting timber older than 50 years, Goldmark said.
Also under the settlement, half of the harvest had to be thinnings.
“Since taking office, I’ve had to really bear down to fulfill our part of that settlement agreement and do a tremendous amount of thinnings just to meet that component of the settlement agreement,” Goldmark said.
“It was a very onerous settlement from my view.”
In addition to state forests, the diminished volume of timber harvested on federal forestland has been a “big issue” for the Olympic region, Goldmark said.
To address arrearage problem, Goldmark has assembled a two-member subcommittee of the six-member state Board of Natural Resources to make recommendations to the full board.
The subcommittee is composed of Clallam County Commissioner Jim McEntire and Thomas DeLuca, University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences director.
“We’re at work trying to come up with a framework and policy decisions that the board is going to have to take up,” McEntire said.
“I’m going to push for addressing the arrearage and working down the arrearage to zero as soon as feasible, and then working with Tom and the department, devising a methodology for preventing future arrearages.”
McEntire said the issue “can’t be taken lightly,” especially in light of the recent mill closures.
He said he hopes to schedule an arrearage workshop at the August meeting of the Board of Natural Resources in Olympia.
Kyle Blum, deputy supervisor for DNR uplands, said generating revenue for trust beneficiaries is one of the agency’s core obligations.
He said staffing levels and market influences, particularly the drop in hemlock prices, were “key factors” for the Olympic region’s arrearage.
“We’re absolutely committed to doing a better job in the next 10 years than we did in the last 10 years,” Blum said in a May interview.
Bill Peach, one of the three Clallam County commissioners — he lives in Forks — and a former Rayonier forest manager, encouraged the public to keep track of the issue.
“I like the work that Rod [Fleck] has done to try to quantify arrearage in dollars and cents to the user, the junior-taxing-district users,” Peach said in a May interview.
“That’s important work. That’s your tax dollars.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at email@example.com.
Reporter Jim Casey contributed to this report.