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RIDDLE, Oregon (Reuters) - With prices of commodities rocketing upward, it is a great time to be a producer of oil, gold, corn and many other natural resources. Not so for U.S. timber companies, which are experiencing a slump amid a slow housing market and often hostile public.
In recent years, environmentalists have continuously battled timber firms, especially those seeking to thin out national forests in dazzlingly verdant states such as Oregon.
One of those on the receiving end of such economic and public relations woes is Paul Beck, timber manager of Herbert Lumber company. The company with more than $30 million in annual sales processes "old-growth" trees 100 years old or more in the nexus of American sawmills in Riddle, Oregon.
"We've done a really poor job of educating people on what we are doing out there," Beck said during a day-long tour of his company's mill and public forests where they have cut. "Very few foresters have a clue about public relations."
"I want to save the earth. The goal is the same; it's just how we get there," said Beck, whose 1947-founded company specializes in Douglas Fir lumber for door skins, window panes, moldings, paneling and timber-framed houses.
A fourth-generation sawmill worker who comes across as a reasonable person rather than anti-tree fanatic, Beck says because the United States has long fought natural fires, many of its forests are overripe with fuel and need thinning.
"There is more forested land today in Oregon than there was 150 years ago, I'll guarantee you that," he said. "There is plenty of wood; they are just not willing to harvest it."
In recent years environmentalists have warned that America and the world are rapidly losing their forests to logging, and they have enjoyed many legal victories blocking projects. In 2006 a U.S. appeals court stopped one Herbert Lumber project to protect small nocturnal rodents called red tree voles.
Some dismissive slogans to an earlier court battle, such as "I love spotted owl -- fried," may not have helped the logging cause. "It really portrays the industry as a bunch of brush apes and we're really not," Beck said.
When Beck testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests in March, he endured tough criticism. "These last few old-growth mills are like the last whaling stations," Randi Spivak, executive director of American Lands Alliance, told the subcommittee.
"It was once thought that only ivory from elephant tusks would do for piano keys and billiard balls or whale oil for lighting," he continued. "Killing whales or elephants to make products that can be made from other materials is no longer socially acceptable; it is morally wrong. The same is true for logging mature and old-growth forests."
Beck has been in the business for 30 years but was still surprised. "We didn't think the opinion of us was that low," he said.
Touring in and around Oregon's Umpqua National Forest 30 miles from his mill Beck differentiated logging on private and public land. The federal government manages more than half of the state's forests and logging on its land is limited to bid-winning companies for certain trees. In one area Herbert Lumber logged a few years ago new trees and underbrush are slowly growing back, although it is clear there are fewer trees there than in nearby uncut areas.
By contrast, a 120-acre private site en route to the national forest recently logged by another company showed a barren mountain side of stumps. "I'm the first to admit, when we are logging and immediately thereafter, it is not real pretty," he said.
Then, Beck pointed to a nearby area barren decades ago after logging but now covered anew in forest.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has highlighted the public land timber issue ahead of the Democratic presidential primary in Oregon next Tuesday, saying she is the only candidate who commits to ending logging in the state's old-growth forests. Her rival, Sen. Barack Obama, may be asked about it at a town hall meeting in Oregon timber country on Saturday.
Yet for all the legal battles and political controversy, the biggest trouble hitting loggers and sawmills is a sharp drop in the demand for wood from construction companies.
"The protracted recession in the housing market has had a devastating impact on our first-quarter performance," Daniel Fulton, chief executive of timberland owner Weyerhaeuser Co, said earlier this month.
Plum Creek Timber Company, which calls itself the largest private U.S. timberland owner, last month lowered its 2008 earnings outlook, citing lackluster construction.
On public lands along the Pacific Coast, less famous sawmills typically harvest the old trees, and this business has already taken some hits in recent years.
The Northwest Forest Plan instituted under President Bill Clinton in 1994 led to a sharp downturn in logging on federal lands. In his office, Beck keeps a collection of more than 150 company baseball caps, and points to one after another representing a company that went out of business since then.
But today's downturn, he says, is even worse. "This is the worst time in the wood products business ever. I'm not talking 10, 20, 50 years, I'm talking ever," he said, adding some of his wood sells for 30 percent less than a just year ago.
Still, Beck is optimistic that he can help change public opinion about logging, one pair of ears at a time: "I do almost feel that if I could talk to every person in the United States I could convince them that to take care of these trees, it does involve some harvesting."
Editing by Matthew Lewis