Mill closure a body blow to rural community

Callister

By SCOTTA CALLISTER

For the Capital Press

During a recent visit to Malheur Lumber Co., there were few outward signs of angst, just employees going quietly, perhaps a little somberly, about their work despite the news that the sawmill will shut down in November.

Just outside the sawmill was a little scene that foreshadowed some of the trouble ahead for our community. A loader dumped chips into a waiting truck, a gift headed for the Grant County Fair. It was just a routine donation to help out the county's signature celebration -- one of many donations to the community, not the largest by far, nor the smallest.

That little gesture, once foreclosed forever, will be sorely missed. It pales in comparison to the value of just one job among 75 to 80 projected to disappear in the shutdown, but the symbolism couldn't be more clear.

How often and in how many ways -- big and small -- will the community feel the loss of this mainstay industry?

Community leaders have termed the sawmill shutdown "devastating." We are talking about 75 to 80 jobs. In Portland or Medford or Eugene, the loss of 80 jobs would have the suits -- the big shots in government and industry -- frantically forming task forces or convening high-level meetings and confabs. The situation in Grant County, where the impact will be exponentially greater on a per-capita basis, should provoke no less a call to action. This is undeniably a huge hit for a county already beleaguered by unemployment, poverty and remoteness.

Ah, yes, remoteness. That translates in some way as "easy to forget." Yet we also are the keepers of some of the state's greatest treasures -- the great ponderosa pine forests of the Blue Mountains. The question for Oregon leaders, and federal forest managers, is how will we fulfill that role in the future, without the infrastructure to do the work needed to restore bug- and fire-prone forests to health?

There seems to be increasing recognition that mills will play an essential role in the recovery of forest health, as the U.S. Forest Service's mission focuses on restoration. Yet the lag time between getting that message and embracing the change it requires is still far too great.

Bruce Daucsavage, president of Malheur's parent company, Ochoco Lumber, alluded to that in describing the events that led to the shutdown decision. One tipping point, he said, came in spring 2011 when the mill ran out of wood because wet conditions were keeping crews out of the forest. That and the lack of other options for securing timber -- the size and type needed for the John Day mill -- led to an unprecedented two-month shutdown. It was a wake-up call, Daucsavage said, when the company had to admit things really weren't getting better.

The whole community was buoyed when the Malheur National Forest was picked to receive some $2.5 million a year in Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration funds. Company officials were dismayed, however, to see the potential of that funding seemingly blunted by other cuts to the forest's budget, a process that some termed "backfilling." The hoped-for surge of work on the ground wasn't materializing.

Malheur Forest Supervisor Teresa Raaf said she couldn't comment on the criticism about the spending. The forest has been dealing with a budget cut from Congress, she said, and the staff did devote a portion of the new money to planning and preparatory work needed to get forest projects ready. That work will pay off in the future in the form of more product coming off the forest, she said.

For Malheur Lumber's sawmill, however, it seems to be too late. It's like the old joke that the operation was a success, but the patient died. Malheur isn't dead yet, of course. Even the sawmill could be revived, but we haven't had much experience with that kind of phenomenon in Grant County in recent years. The continuing biomass operation offers a kernel of hope, as a way to dovetail the forest mission with the local economy, but that business also will require an assured supply of raw materials.

County Judge Mark Webb is pressing ahead with a plan to get approval for county investment in forest projects, hopefully to jumpstart the work that seems too slow in coming from the federal level. That's more than worth exploring in light of last week's developments. Meanwhile, the community must push for consistent funding of on-the-ground work in our forests. We also must demand accountability from our congressional leaders, whose supportive statements -- while strong -- have generated few real results in recent years.

As Daucsavage noted this week, the system has failed Malheur Lumber -- and our community. The full impacts of the shutdown will play out over the next months, even years. As a community, we need to share the pain and press the case for action from those with the most control over that broken system.

Scotta Callister is editor of the Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper in John Day, Ore.

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