Death of a Sawmill
small businesses--and do ecological damage while they're at it.
BY JIM PETERSEN
Thursday, December 29,
2005 12:01 a.m.
EUREKA, Mont.--My friend
Jim Hurst auctioned his sawmill in August.
Jim's decision to pack
it in after 25 years of beating his head on the wall made big
news here in northwest Montana but, alas, not a peep from this
newspaper or the New York Times. That's too bad, because the
loss of our family-owned mills also signals the loss of
technologies and skills vital to our efforts to protect the
West's great national forests from the ravages of increasingly
I was in Jim's office a
few days before the auction. He told me he was at peace with his
decision, but Jim has a good game face, so I suspect the
decision to terminate his remaining 70 employees tore his guts
out. They were like family to him.
Jim's outfit was the
economic backbone of tiny Eureka, Mont., a sawmill town since
the early 1900s. I have a photo of my schoolteacher great-aunt
standing on the front steps of the town's one-room schoolhouse
in 1909. Although the town has grown some since then, its rural
charm is still very much intact.
Thanks to the nation's
housing boom, business has been good for the West's sawmills for
the past three years. But Jim faced an insurmountable problem:
He couldn't buy enough logs to keep his mill running. This
despite the fact that 10 times as many trees as Jim's mill
needed die annually on the nearby Kootenai National Forest. From
his office window, Jim could see the dead and dying standing on
hillsides just west of the mill. They might as well have been
standing on the moon, given the senseless environmental
litigation that has engulfed the West's federal forests.
Thanks to Jim's
resourcefulness, his mill survived its last five years on a
steady diet of fire- and bug-killed trees salvaged from Alberta
provincial forests. Such salvage work is unthinkable in our
national forests, forests that, news reports to the contrary,
remain under the thumb of radical environmental groups whose
hatred for capitalism seems boundless. Americans are thus
invited to believe that salvaging fire-killed timber is "like
mugging a burn victim." Never mind that there is no
peer-reviewed science that supports this ridiculous claim--or
that many of the West's great forests, including Oregon's famed
Tillamook Forest, are products of past salvage and reforestation
shared his good fortune with his employees. Each received an
average $30,000 in severance and profit sharing: a tip of the
hat from him to a crew that set a production record the day
after he told them he was throwing in the towel. Such is the
professionalism--and talent--found among the West's mill
workers. A few Oregon mills tried to recruit them, but most
don't want to leave Eureka. I haven't the faintest idea how
they'll make a living, but in the 40-odd years I've spent
observing forests and people who live in them, I've learned
never to underestimate the power of roots.
Although he's still a young
man filled with creative energy and enthusiasm, I suspect the
government has seen the last of Jim Hurst. Three years ago, I
called nearly 100 sawmill owners scattered across the West and
asked them if they would invest $40 million in a new small-log
sawmill on the government's promise of a timber supply
sufficient to amortize the investment. The verdict was a
The never-reported truth is that the family-owned sawmills that
survived the decade-long collapse of the federal timber sale
program no longer have much interest in doing business with a
government they no longer trust. Most now get their timber from
lands they've purchased in recent years, other private lands,
tribal forests or state lands. Some even import logs from other
countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Chile.
You would think
environmentalists who campaigned against harvesting in the
West's national forests for 30-some years would be dancing in
the streets. And, in fact, some of them are. But many aren't.
Railing against giant faceless corporations is easy, but facing
the news cameras after small family-owned mills fold has turned
out to be very difficult. Everyone loves the underdog, and
across much of the West there is a gnawing sense that
environmentalists have hurt a lot of underdogs in their lust for
face a problem they never anticipated. Recent polling reveals
some 80% percent of Americans approve of the kind of methodical
thinning that would have produced small diameter logs in
perpetuity for Jim's sawmill. We Americans seem to like thinning
in overly dense forests because the end result is visually
pleasing, and because it helps reduce the risk of horrific
wildfire--a bonus for wildlife and millions of year-round
recreation enthusiasts who worship clean air and water.
Many Westerners wonder why
the government isn't doing more thinning in at-risk forests that
are at the epicenter of our Internet-linked New West lifestyle.
I don't. Until the public takes back the enormous power it has
given radical environmentalists and their lawyers, the Jim
Hursts of the world will continue to exit the stage, taking
their hard-earned capital, their well-developed global markets
and their technological genius with them.
Fifteen years ago, not long
after the release of "Playing God in Yellowstone," his seminal
work on environmentalism's philosophical underpinnings, I asked
philosopher and environmentalist Alston Chase what he thought
about this situation. I leave you to ponder his answer:
"Environmentalism increasingly reflects urban perspectives. As
people move to cities, they become infatuated with fantasies
about land untouched by humans. This demographic shift is
revealed through ongoing debates about endangered species,
grazing, water rights, private property, mining and logging. And
it is partly a healthy trend. But this urbanization of
environmental values also signals the loss of a rural way of
life and the disappearance of hands-on experience with nature.
So the irony: As popular concern for preservation increases,
public understanding about how to achieve it declines."
Mr. Petersen is the
founder of the non-profit Evergreen Foundation and the publisher
of Evergreen Magazine in Montana.
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