Many private forest owners are facing a tough decision during the economic downturn — sell timber or sell the land.

ALBANY — Many private forest owners are facing a tough decision during the economic downturn — sell timber or sell the land.

As the value of timber declines, many owners can make more money selling their land for subdivisions than harvesting it, said Matt Donegan, co-president of Forest Capital Partners.

The firm buys and manages forests across North America. Donegan said more than a million acres of forest land roughly the size of Delaware are lost every year.

In Oregon, about 85,000 people directly depend on the timber industry for their livelihoods. That doesn't count those who work in mills and manufacturing plants, which also depend on productive forests.

"Once these forest lands are gone, they're gone," Donegan said during a recent tour of some of Benton County's private forest lands.

The tour was hosted by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute and drew participants from both the public and private sectors. The OFRI was created by the 1991 Legislature to educate the public on forest issues and conducts tours annually.

Barte Starker is one of the co-owners of Starker Forests, which has 73,000 acres of timber land in Benton, Polk and Yamhill counties. Benton County accounts for 80 percent of its property. Beyond the 22 people who work directly for the company are more than 100 independent contractors.

"As forest lands are converted or degraded, it puts pressure on jobs," he said.

Private timber growers have to compete on a global scale but face escalating costs, such as paying for most of their fire protection, Starker said. Only 40 percent of the money for fire protection comes from state government.

It doesn't help that Oregon's population is growing, he said.

"There's bound to be friction between the interest in keeping forests and finding places for people to live," Starker said.

Few people like the idea of sacrificing forests for development, he said, but they don't comprehend the pressure on timber growers.

"The public doesn't understand that as the value of timber land goes down, the disparity between the value of land for forests and land for real estate is increasing," Starker said.