November/December Preview: Revenge Forestry


Seneca AW46A flare-up in the Elliott Forest raises questions about détente in Oregon’s timber wars.

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A flare-up in the Elliott Forest raises questions about détente in Oregon’s timber wars.

Seneca AW46


When the Eugene-based timber company Seneca Jones made a $1.8 million bid on land in southern Oregon’s Elliott State Forest earlier this year, it wasn’t a business decision; it was personal. The 788-acre parcel (along with two other parcels in the Elliott) had been put up for auction at the end of 2013.

Just before bidding was scheduled to end, the environmental group Cascadia Forest Defenders sent a letter to Seneca Jones and other Oregon timber companies.

“Do not bid on this land,” it read in part. “If you become the owner of the Elliott, you will have activists up your trees and lawsuits on your desk. We will be at your office and in your mills.”

Kathy Jones, who co-owns Seneca Jones with her two sisters, was furious. Months later, her voice still quivers as she talks about the affront. “You are not going to threaten the very fabric and culture of this state,” she says. “No. No. Seneca will never accept that kind of threat.”

The company bid on the land and won. Jones called Cascadia Forest Defenders’ threats “cowardly” in The Oregonian, and told Oregon Public Broadcasting “if . . . we maintain [the land] as we do all of our private timberlands, we will be clear-cutting and replanting Douglas fir.” Within months, environmentalists were locking themselves to equipment at Seneca Jones’ biomass plant in protest.

Who said Oregon’s timber wars were over?

Elliott-Forest-map OBM

If you want the story of Oregon timber, drive Oregon Route 38 to the Elliott State Forest. Branching off from Interstate 5 south of Eugene, the road runs alongside forest logged in the telltale checkerboard pattern of “O&C” lands (named after the Oregon & California Railroad that once owned them).

Logging receipts from these tracts once provided 18 western Oregon counties revenue for law enforcement and other services, until environmental concerns caused harvesting to be largely halted in the 1990s.

Timber-dependent communities such as Drain, which the highway passes through before crossing Hardscrabble Creek, saw their economies cut to a stump. Some — like Elkton, farther down 38 — have managed to reinvent themselves as tourist destinations, trading big rigs for B&Bs and lumberyards for vineyards. But many ex-timber towns remain mired in economic depression and civic stagnation, and resentment toward environmental groups in these places is widespread.

Not long before reaching its terminus in Reedsport, Route 38 arrives at the Elliott. These approximately 93,000 acres of forestland extend south from the Umpqua River over dramatically mountainous terrain, rising and falling across miles of fir-blanketed ridges and salmon-bearing streams. It’s a forest with a history as old as Oregon’s. Upon the state’s admission to the Union in 1859, the federal government granted it pieces of land scattered throughout the state, on the condition that they be used to generate revenue for schools.

In 1930 Oregon’s first state forester, Francis Elliott, used land exchanges to create a more manageable block of these so-called Common School Fund trust lands; the new tract was named after him. Roughly half the Elliott was logged in the decades that followed, with timber profits going toward K-12 education statewide.

Environmentalists didn’t pay much attention to state forestlands such as the Elliott until after the Northwest Forest Plan was implemented in 1994, sharply curtailing clear-cutting on federal land in Oregon. Heads swiveled, however, when in 2011 the State Land Board — currently made up of Governor John Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Kate Brown and State Treasurer Ted Wheeler — voted to increase the annual timber harvest from the Elliott by 60%.

The state forest is home to numerous federally protected endangered species, most notably the marbled murrelet, an obscure seabird that nests in coastal mature forest. Arguing that upping logging so much would result in the destruction of marbled murrelet habitat, a trio of environmental organizations — Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Audubon Society of Portland — sued. After years in court, the state canceled dozens of timber sales.

The problem was that the State Land Board is constitutionally obligated to maximize revenue from Common School Fund trust lands, and last year, with harvesting more or less on hold, the fund actually lost $3 million. Pleading fiduciary responsibility, the board put three parcels of land in the Elliott up for sale.

Thus the latest clash in the fight over Oregon’s forests was sparked. As clashes go, the conflict over the Elliott is relatively obscure, centering on a little-known forest and a wonky school-funding issue. But beyond the arcana is a story that spotlights a major Oregon timber player’s entry into the political arena and raises doubts about the alleged détente in the state’s timber wars.

The discourse around natural resources in Oregon seemed to become less antagonistic after the ’90s; collaboration and compromise were the watchwords, or at least the buzzwords, of tree hewers and tree huggers both. But the Elliott flare-up throws into question whether one of the state’s deepest divides ever really narrowed.

“I don’t think the conversation [about forest resources] has changed substantially; I think the rhetoric has,” says Jimmy Kagan, with the independent, state university system–affiliated Institute for Natural Resources. “The fact is that there is no trust, and that lack of trust makes addressing any issue problematic.”

Seneca AW29

With 450 workers and a yearly yield of 575 million board feet, Seneca Jones is one of Oregon’s largest independent timber companies. Until recently, it was best known as a milling innovator, pioneering the use of laser scanners and razor-thin saws in processing logs.

But since founder Aaron Jones — who died in September — bequeathed the timber empire to his three daughters in 2012, Seneca has gained notoriety as a visible, vocal political player in a typically publicity-shy industry. The Seneca sisters’ provocative purchase of Elliott forestland is their boldest move yet, securing their positions as standard bearers of Oregon’s anti-environmental movement.

“They have chosen to speak out when they’ve been threatened,” says Bob Ragon, executive director of the Southwest Oregon trade association Douglas Timber Operators (of which Seneca Jones is a member). “It’s a little unusual, but to some of my members it’s good news.”

Sitting in the office that used to belong to her father, surrounded by his hunting trophies and family photos, Kathy Jones explains that it was never the plan for her and her sisters to inherit Seneca. 

“Dad had that patriarchal kind of Texan mentality that you put women on a pedestal and you take care of them,” says the lanky 62-year-old, who has dark hair that hangs to below her shoulders. She and her sisters, Becky and Jody, spent their childhoods playing hide-and-seek and riding horses on the family’s 20-acre property outside Eugene. Though the three of them grew up around the mill — Jones laughingly remembers games of tag around heavy machinery — their father, she says, “didn’t really see his daughters as strong business leaders.”

Regardless, an advancing case of Alzheimer’s forced the patriarch to entrust the company to the “Seneca Girls.” Jones — who by then had a real estate career, four kids and a home in California — notes that she and her sisters didn’t need to play an active role in overseeing Seneca. “You can take your money and head to the Bahamas,” she says. “The mills are not going to quit running.” But for her, the “studious, political” one of the triumvirate, returning to Oregon was inexorable.

“The issues with the environmentalists in this state are so horrific, it’s like a baby off down a dark hallway, crying,” she says. “I said, ‘I have to go see what’s wrong with that baby.'” 

Since taking the helm of the company, Jones and her sisters have steered it firmly into the political realm, vociferously opposing environmental interests and elected officials they see as sympathetic to the cause. This election season, the Seneca Girls paid $200,000 for billboards attacking Kitzhaber, whom Jones accuses of letting environmentalists “run amok.” She is speaking for many Oregonians, she claims.

“When we bought the Elliott land and it was in the press,” Jones says, “you can’t imagine the response we got from Oregonians, saying, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for standing up against the environmentalists, and standing up for the people who feel like they have no voice.'”

Read the full story in our next issue — available on newsstands and online in November.