Posted by: Josh Lehner | January 23, 2012

Historical Look at Oregon’s Wood Product Industry

This post, first published in 2012 has been updated with new charts over time. A full set of slides from the 2017 update are included at the bottom of this post.

This post takes a high-level look at historical trends in Oregon’s Wood Products industry in terms of employment, the industry’s share of the state economy, industry wages and the geographic distribution of industry jobs across the state. Given that there have been significant conversations in recent months regarding federal timber payments and also a possible new forest plan proposed by Oregon’s U.S. Representatives Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader, coupled with the fact that over the past few years I have worked to piece together better historical data on Oregon’s economy, means this post is hopefully a positive and informative contribution to the ongoing discussions on the subject. There are two important items that should be noted. First, the information below refers strictly to the Wood Products industry itself and not the overall economic cluster, thus is leaves aside the impact on related industries such as pulp and paper mills (different industry codes) or transportation (log trucks). Second, this post is not about land use or land management decisions; rather it is strictly about what has happened to the Wood Products industry in Oregon. In economic jargon, this post is positive economics (“what is”) not normative economics (“what ought to be.”)

The first graph illustrates the number of employees in the state that work in the Wood Products industry since 1947. As with nearly all historical economic data the switch from Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) to North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) creates discrepancies in the data when trying to make like comparisons. The historical data, which is SIC 24 (Lumber and Wood Products) is shown in light blue while the current series for Wood Products Manufacturing (NAICS 321) is shown in dark blue. The main difference between the historical series and the current series is under NAICS, Logging employment is separated into its own category (NAICS 11331). There are also minor differences regarding some specialty flooring mills, wood cabinets and other misc manufacturing, labeled here as Adjustment. The red line in the graph is the sum of Wood Products Manufacturing, Logging and these other Adjustments. Even with these changes, there still remain some minor discrepancies in the series which cannot be easily reconciled at this time without examining individual firm data.


While the industry is certainly highly cyclical it is interesting to note the following four items: industry employment held steady in the 70,000 – 80,000 range during the first 30 years shown on the graph, the industry took a large hit during and after the early 1980s recession, the restrictions placed on federal lands resulted in a second large hit to the industry in the early 1990s and finally, the employment in the industry has been on a steady downward trend over the past 20 years except for a couple years during the housing boom.

Year-over-year employment growth in the industry is shown below alongside Total Nonfarm Employment to illustrate the different patterns over both the business cycle and longer, structural trends. The volatility within the industry prior to the mid-1980s is evident, as is the continued job loss since then.

The industry underwent a restructuring following the 1970s boom and early 1980s recession in which industry productivity increased substantially, an industry trend that has continued to this day. As the Oregon Employment Department said in a recent article (PDF): “Technology advances, more automation, and less labor intensive manufacturing processes all conspired to reduced demand for employment, despite the ramp-up in lumber production.” These increased efficiencies (standardization of logs, mills, equipment, etc), in addition to the federal land restrictions, have contributed to the declining employment in the industry, even as value-added output has held steady. UPDATE: Thanks to the Oregon Employment Department for providing two graphs showing the productivity in the industry. Click here for a short follow-up post.

In fact, industry output, as measured by state GDP figures has remained at approximately the same level since the mid-1970s in nominal terms (with some business cycle fluctuations). However, as a share of the state’s total GDP, Wood Products has declined due to growth in all other industries (high technology in particular). The graph below shows Wood Products’ industry output as a share of total Oregon GDP through 2009 (the latest year for which industry detail data is available).

The amount of timber harvested in Oregon has risen and fallen substantially over the past 100 years as the graphs below show. Beginning in the Great Depression, the harvest quadrupled over the following 15-20 years and then held steady through the 1970s. Clearly the federal land restrictions have played an important role as the harvest on private lands has remained relatively steady, with data available from 1962. Today’s level of harvest on federal lands is is approximately 15% of the 1960s and 1970s’ level while the total amount of harvest is back to levels seen in the 1920s and 1930s.

It is this decline in harvesting of federal lands that led to the implementation of a number of different federal funding programs to assist, mostly rural, counties, in particular for schools and roads. Beginning in 1908, counties received 25% of sales of commodities produced on Forest Service lands within the county. As the harvests dropped following land restrictions, this funding source dried up. With the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, the federal government increased funding for counties to make up for these lost commodity sales (portions of which must be dedicated to roads and schools). These monies were set to expire in 2006, however they were extended one year in 2007 and then extended again for four more years through FY 2011 at declining levels (this extension was incorporated into the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

Note: Headwaters Economics has studied county payments and land use issues extensively and Mark Haggerty has published essays on the topic in newspapers throughout the Northwest.

While local governments felt the effect of lower revenues from timber harvests, workers similarly experienced a relative decline in their wages over the past 30 years. In real terms, Wood Products employees averaged over $50,000 per year in the late 1970s, however due to slow wage growth through the late 1980s (wages growing slower than inflation), real wages fell to slightly above $40,000 per year by the early 1990s and have held steady since. For industry employees this is an end result of a number of factors at work within the industry. As mentioned previously, the industry underwent a restructuring in the early 1980s which resulted in less workers needed to produce the same output and productivity enhancements, along with automation and standardization also contributing. Another factor at work is increased competition from both within the U.S. (southeastern states) and Internationally (mainly, British Columbia, Canada). All these factors, coupled with lost jobs have resulted in average wages today that are on par with the statewide average.

Finally, the industry has a clear geographic footprint in Oregon as the following maps illustrate. Even while the number of total jobs has declined substantially in recent decades, this relative pattern remains mostly unchanged.

In summary, the Wood Products Industry in Oregon used to have 70,000+ jobs that paid 30% more than state average, however due to economic cycles, increased competition, increased productivity and decreased timber harvests on federal lands, the industry now has approximately 25,000 jobs that pay the state average. This is certainly an industry that has undergone immense change in the past 60 years and one that has importance to both our state’s past and future.

Future research is likely to incorporate more related industries, however the qualitative story will remain the same. For example, looking at Paper and Allied Products, SIC 26 (this would include pulp and paper) reveals that the industry employed 5,000 workers in the late 1940s. The industry continued to grow until the 1970s when it employed 10,000 workers in Oregon and then began a long downward trend to this day when it again employs 5,000 workers (NAICS 322). Broadening the research to include this and other support industries would strengthen the scope of the project however, hopefully, the above information provides a reasonable and approachable summary of the industry in Oregon.



  1. […]…ustry Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. Nice work, Josh.

  3. The down trend is apparent. Where is the up side? Is there a growth opportunity or has it all been doomsday? I suggest some parts of the wood products industry are still vibrant and have opportunity. Too bad they get lost in the statistics. I am a small business with a unique to Oregon wood product. There is oppprtunity for me to grow. Getting broad brushed (“wood products = decline”) is not helpful.

    I face the same challenge with workers compensation insurance costs. They do not differentiate between Weyerhauser and micro-business. It is a “sawmill” and that is all they need to know.

    Sometimes the data set is not the answer. Your trend/graphic shows the past and not the future.

    • Thank you for the comment and it is good hear that there are segments of the industry doing well with an opportunity to grow. Looking at total figures for the industry does hide the fact that some firms and sub-sectors are doing better than others. In 2011, both logging and sawmills were essentially flat relative to 2010, while plywood and other wood products continued to see some job losses. Overall, our office’s forecast – based heavily on input from the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors – sees 2010 and 2011 as the bottom in terms of the industry. We have industry employment growing by roughly 4,000 jobs over the next 4 years. That means the industry, essentially, adds back about 1/3 of the jobs lost during the recession.

  4. […] Parts of rural Oregon are dying economically, because Bill Clinton, bowing to green extremists, put the interests of spotted owls ahead of the interests of American timber workers — even though we now know that spotted owls are suffering at the hands of a rival owl species, not timber operators. Here’s a chart that illustrates the spotted owl casualty count. (And much more can be learned about Oregon’s Spotted Owl Recession here.)  […]

  5. […] in Oregon, once home to a thriving wood products industry, we’re now paid by the feds not to log. In 1994, the NW Forest Plan was implemented to protect […]

  6. […] kept up with inflation, according to a report from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis […]

  7. […] the industry declines over time so too does the industry’s influence on the index. [See this previous post for a historical look at the Wood Products industry in […]

  8. […] lumber and related industries made up more than 10% of Oregon’s economy; there were over 70,000 well-paying jobs, and families could have a good life with a single wage earner.  When I was a kid you could earn […]

  9. […] rate crested at 12.1 percent and the timber industry was hit hard, back when there were around 80,000 direct wood products manufacturing jobs, and the whole industry underwent a major […]

  10. […] the mills and loggers. For a more thorough look at the industry changes please refer to this previous post on the industry’s history or this recent Oregonian article. I will highlight just a couple items. First, the industry used to […]

  11. whoah this weblog is excellent i love reading your posts.
    Stay up the good work! You know, lots of individuals are looking round for this info, you can aid them greatly.

  12. […] from a geographical perspective within the state. The decline of the timber-related jobs, as detailed in-depth previously, is concentrated in the state’s Southern and South Coast counties, while the Computer and […]

  13. […] this carries personal relevance. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and watched the region’s lumber industry collapse during the 1980s, due in good part to unsustainable practices. That happened barely 100 years after […]

  14. […] changed over the past 40 years. Previously our office has detailed historical trends in both the wood products industry and the high-technology industry. What follows below the fold is a short summary from our latest […]

  15. […] makers, textiles and the like. Of course wood products and paper mills would be here as well, which have not fared well over the past 30 years. The reason Oregon outperforms is that a large amount of our manufacturing can be considered […]

  16. […] rates were strong for a few years, even if not all the jobs were fully regained in the mills (see here for a longer historical perspective on the wood products industry.) Given that the U.S. economy more broadly has not exhibited the strong, cyclical rebound in each […]

  17. […] and labor market. These are easiest to see in the manufacturing and goods producing industries (timber/forest sector) of course as the economy has and is transitioning more and more to services. Additionally, see […]

  18. […] In terms of the economic hit the Timber Belt experienced, it started with the early 1980s recession. At that time many of the mills in the region were at the end of their life cycle. The severe recession with sky high interest rates hurt the demand of new construction and wood products more broadly. As the recovery took hold, industry consolidation occurred and some mills retooled with new investment, however not all did. Furthermore, the wood products market had increased competition with lumber from British Columbia and U.S. southern pine. All told, the industry output recovered but not all the jobs returned. All of this was largely before the environmental restrictions which have seen the numbers fall significantly further. See here for more on the history of wood products in Oregon. […]

  19. The unfortunate fact is that we have more timber growing today in federal forests than we did in the mid 70s. On the O & C lands, there were approx 40 billion board feet growing at the time of the passage of the O & C act of 1937. From the figures given at the time of the WOPR (BLMs Western Oregon Plan Revision that was withdrawn about 4 years ago) the estimated volume on those same lands was over 70 billion board feet. The natural resource is still there and but for lack of management, and I’m not suggesting “CLEARCUTTING the last of the Ancient Forests” ….but good sound forest management through judicious thinning and replanting, it will be there forever.
    Job increases and healthier communities still exist as a potential. If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it, along with clean water, habitat and all the things we love about our forests.
    Reminds me of the old indian with the tear in his eye……

    • Thanks David. I think many share that sentiment in general. They (Feds, State and the various interested parties) have been working on a plan, e.g. the Wyden bill for lack of a better description. We shall see if it comes to pass. The recent agreement, news and even job numbers coming from John Day and Grant County are encouraging.

  20. […] issues going on, like the national downturn, flow of migrants, being a part of the Timber Belt and its longer run trends, possibly major employers cutting back and the like. However, here we see a regional economy suffer […]

  21. […] [9] […]

  22. On page 4 of the pdf chart download it says that industry output has remained steady since the 1970’s. On page 5 of the pdf download the chart shows that harvests have decreased about 3-fold since the 1970’s. The fall in fraction of GDP almost tracks the decline in production as does the employee count. The data actually presented suggests that reduction in timber harvest is responsible for most of the reduction in employment and percentage of GDP. Looks like some false advertising going on here.

    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re right, that can be a bit confusing. There are a few things going on. First, the industry’s output has been fairly steady for a few decades now in dollar terms (essentially harvest amount times log prices that turns into final lumber prices). So even as harvest levels have fallen considerably, the dollar value of output has fallen less due to higher prices. Prices were particularly high in the late 80s and early 90s, right as the big restrictions were put into place that lowered supply. Prices have come down since then, partly due to the rise of southern pine, British Columbia products etc.

      Second, while the industry has been fairly steady in output, the rest of the economy has grown considerably. So as a share of the total, the timber industry has declined a lot.

      Third, while harvest levels and mill activity certainly have an impact on employment, they’re not the only factor here. Mills today are much more efficient than in generations past. Same is true in a lot of other industries. We can produce a whole lot more stuff these days with fewer workers. Along these lines, even if we went back to 1970s harvest levels, we wouldn’t have 1970s employment levels.


  23. […] following the early 80s recession and timber industry restructuring. [See here for more on the timber industry’s history in Oregon, also a topic discussed on OPB.] Migration and population growth returned in full force […]

  24. […] issues going on, like the national downturn, flow of migrants, being a part of the Timber Belt and its longer run trends, possibly major employers cutting back and the like. However, here we see a regional economy suffer […]

  25. […] it once was. The state’s annual timber harvest is about half what it was 30 years ago, and employment in the wood products industry has fallen by a similar amount. With dozens of mills closed, many of those jobs wouldn’t come […]

  26. […] and labor market. These are easiest to see in the manufacturing and goods producing industries (timber/forest sector) of course as the economy has and is transitioning more and more to services. Additionally, see […]

  27. […] our job polarization work in recent years. However the first place it was really evident was in our historical look at wood products in Oregon, where the industry has seen both large levels of job losses in the past 30+ years and real wage […]

  28. […] While much of the recent focus is on farming and grazing, one big issue facing Oregon, particularly the southern and eastern parts of the state, is the decline of the timber industry.  It started with the early 80s recession and accelerated following the environmental restrictions put in place a decade later. (See here for more on the industry’s history.) […]

  29. […] the issue is that of stagnant or declining wages for the jobs that do remain or are created. Wood products or the forest sector more broadly used to pay a 30-35% wage premium relative to the average industry. However, after adjusting for […]

  30. […] impacts middle-wage jobs considerably. See here for our historical look at the wood products industry in Oregon. Also here to see how automation and technological change impacts women in middle-wage jobs just as […]

  31. […] 1990s were different and in a very good way for the economy (outside of the forest sector). Nominal wage gains were nearly 4.5% per year, significantly outpacing inflation. As such real […]

  32. […] be found at: Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. Wood Products Productivity, an Update. Analysis of Oregon’s wood products industry also showed that while wages in wood products industry used to be 30 percent higher than state […]

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