Projects and Stories

Forest and community well-being in eastern Oregon

Forest restoration and job creation go hand in hand in John Day, OR


John Day, the largest town in Grant County in northeastern Oregon, was once a hotbed of timber activity. The economy boomed until the conflict over “jobs versus the environment” shut the timber industry down. Meanwhile, thousands of people lost their livelihoods and the condition of the landscape further deteriorated.  

In 2006, Sustainable Northwest was invited to help start the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, a collaborative forest restoration group comprised of people with very different views on how to manage Malheur National Forest, the source of once-abundant jobs. For several years, we facilitated difficult conversations over controversial forest management issues, from preservation of old growth trees to salvage logging after wildfires.  We continually brought people to the table for open dialogue.

As discussions took place, Malheur Lumber Company announced that it would close its sawmill – the last operating mill in Grant County – because of an inadequate supply of timber from the federal forest. Seventy workers would be laid off – a huge number in a county with only 7,445 people. One job in Grant County is equal to 180 jobs in Multnomah County, so the closure was equivalent to losing 12,600 jobs in Portland.

Sustainable Northwest and the community rallied. The Blue Mountains Forest Partners and the U.S. Forest Service developed a short-term solution to keep the mill open by increasing the pace of restoration projects in Malheur National Forest. These projects remove dead, sick, and overgrown trees that pose the risk of extreme wildfire. Logs coming from these projects supplied the mill with the timber it needed to keep its doors open.

Then, in September 2013, the U.S. Forest Service announced the award of a 10-year stewardship contract to a local company, Iron Triangle, to log on restoration projects in Malheur National Forest. The decision was applauded by conservation groups and the timber industry alike. It would restore the health of the forest and bring jobs back to the community.

This contract is the culmination of seven years of facilitated dialogue and collaboration. Sustainable Northwest brought opposing sides together to find agreement, and laid a foundation of trust, respect, and good will. Members of this group have now become colleagues and friends. It’s an amazing story.

And as a result of the 10-year contract, Malheur Lumber Company announced in May 2014 that it would introduce a second shift for the first time since 1998, adding 20-30 jobs to the business. Now, the mill will be able to expand. Its biomass facility, which takes chips and sawdust from thinning projects and turns them into a fuel source, might heat and power more buildings in the community. This is how sustainable forestry can support a growing local, clean energy industry.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden commented, “This is great news for Malheur Lumber, for the residents of Grant Country and for all of Oregon.  It is an example of the positive things that can happen by working together and investing in Oregon communities.”  

Collaboration is hard but rewarding work. It takes time and patience, but the lasting solutions and peaceful relationships forged in this process make it worth it. The success of John Day is a model for the future of land management, one that integrates the best interests of people and nature. It’s a model that any community – whether based in its forests, rangelands, or watershed – can adopt. And we look forward to sharing this success with others in our beautiful region – one community at a time.