Independent logging and lumber production has been a way of life in Idaho for more than a century. In 1956, more than 300 lumber mills were booming across the state. According to the Associated Logging Contractors, Idaho easily led the nation in timber production then, and ranks 8th in America today. At face value, these numbers are encouraging. But many loggers are concerned about the future of the industry, which has seen an overwhelming decline in the number of operational facilities over the last decade.
The Idaho Division of Financial Management’s economic forecast reported that there were just 27 operational lumber mills in 2011, less than half as many now as there were just 25 years ago. Further, Idaho lumber and wood products employment dropped from 5,700 jobs in 2010 below its 2006 peak of 10,000 jobs.
The timber and logging industries were hit hard by the Great Recession and resulting housing bust in 2008 causing many businesses in Idaho to shutter their doors. High labor costs, a recessive economy and significant financial losses have all been cited as causal factors.
If Idaho is to remain a competitive national leader in timber and logging, officials at the local, state and federal levels must encourage policies that aid long-term recovery across the industry.
In the U.S. Senate, I am working to advance legislative solutions that will help reenergize the marketplace for current loggers and the industry they support, and attract and train the next generation.
To that end, my colleague Angus King (I-ME) and I have introduced the Future Careers in Logging Act, legislation that would allow family members to learn about and gain experience in the trade of logging from an earlier age so that they may carry on the family business.
The agriculture industry currently enjoys regulatory exemptions that permit family members to participate and learn the operations of the family business under the direction and supervision of their parents. However, young men and women in families who own and operate timber harvesting companies are denied the opportunity to work and learn the family trade until the age of eighteen.
The Future Careers in Logging Act would level the playing field and allow 16 and 17 year olds to observe their parents, work hands-on with specified equipment under direct supervision, and gain a better understanding of the business. The logging industry faces an aging workforce, and training the next generation of loggers to safely operate modern machinery at an earlier age is vital to ensuring the sustainability of the trade.
Regardless of age, the most important resource for loggers and the wood service industry is timber. Each year, about 568,000 acres of Idaho burns in wildfires, causing irreparable damage to our lands and disrupts timber markets. To address this concern head on, I have joined a bipartisan coalition of Senators, including Mike Crapo, in advancing legislation to improve forest management and wildfire budgeting. Treating wildfires as disasters will end “fire borrowing” which upends the ability to manage federal timber.
Logging and forests are inextricably linked to the history and well-being of our state. Long-term solutions to the challenges we face must be driven by collaborative projects in Idaho and throughout the west. As I have often said, collaboration can produce more public value than when any one organization tries to act alone. Together, let’s continue fighting for the industry and act on these and more common sense reforms.