For years you heard it. It was a popular theory that the people of the West need no longer rely on natural resources to power the region’s economy.
Voiced by politicians — but, interestingly enough, not by economists — the theory went something like this: Natural resource-based industries such as agriculture and timber will be replaced by “green” industries such as computer chips, tourism and, presumably, coffee shops and food carts.
Such statements are the work of overactive imaginations. The West was built on natural resource development. The Indians thrived on the region’s natural resources. The first Europeans who arrived in the West were farmers, ranchers, loggers and miners who sought the opportunity to develop the region’s plentiful natural resources.
Political leaders of the time were proud to say natural resources were the driver of the economy. President Theodore Roosevelt championed the national forest system as a multiple use resource that would help fuel the U.S. economy.
But in the late 20th Century political leaders took their eye off the ball. Such inattentiveness allowed preservationists to press their case for stopping logging, mining and curtailing agriculture. To this day, the logging industry is depressed not only by a weak economy but by efforts to stop logging in most federal forests.
There’s plenty of talk about “treating” the forests to make them less vulnerable to massive forest fires like the ones that torched areas of California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho this summer, but such plans are political, not based in economic reality.
What the region needs is more logging of federal forests, which make up 60 percent of the forestland in Oregon but produce only 12 percent of the annual timber harvest. Private forests make up 19 percent of the forestland but produce 75 percent of the timber each year. State forests make up 3 percent of the forestland and produce 10 percent of the timber.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, said in 2011 that federal forest managers need to step up their commitment to provide timber and remove some of the burden from the state and private forests.
Even as environmental groups threaten legislation and lawsuits — they still like the tourism and coffee shop economic model — members of the Oregon congressional delegation have joined the chorus led by Kitzhaber.
Many counties in Oregon, Washington state, Idaho and California have historically depended on the timber economy and received a portion of federal timber receipts. The federal government doesn’t pay property taxes to the counties so that was a compromise. When the federal government backed away from logging, those timber receipts shrank, putting the counties with the most federal timber in the worst economic bind.
To make up for the lack of timber receipts, the federal government sent money to the counties. That worked fine until the federal government hit rocky fiscal times. Now political leaders like Kitzhaber, Reps. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and their counterparts in other states have begun to talk about the need for more federal logging as a way of averting financial disaster in those counties. No longer can the federal government be depended on to stroke a check to make up the lost revenue from the lack of logging.
All of the sudden, logging is cool again.
At the same time, agriculture has gained a certain cachet, even among urban members of Congress.
This is good. When political leaders stand up for responsible natural resource development as a way to broaden the regional economy we can all have hope for the future.