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California and the West

Sierra Sawmill's Closing Leaves a Town and Its Workers Grasping for a Future

Jobs: The plant's demise, one of many, is blamed on imported wood and federal rules restricting lumbering in nearby national forests.

March 13, 2001|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOYALTON, Calif. — He wakes at 5 a.m., roused by the loud, practiced ring of his internal alarm clock. Ray McGarity bolts from bed, ready to march to work.

Except there's no place to go.

His job for 42 years at the sawmill, the only economic engine in this town of 1,100 and the biggest employer in tiny Sierra County, went away a few weeks ago. So did the mill, shut down after a century of operation.

McGarity, who talks of turning 60 last August with the faint surprise of a man who can't believe those years disappeared, is left to sit and wait for dawn. He drinks coffee and frets. About his future. About his town.

The millworker and the town are inextricably linked. Both enjoyed a prosperous past. Both worry what is to come.

It is hardly a new concern up and down the great spine of the Sierra Nevada, where men have been cutting trees and making lumber since Gold Rush days but now see their way of life felled by changed times. In the past decade, half the sawmills in California have closed. Folks all over fear that it will only get worse.

Like every lumberman in the Sierra, McGarity sees two main threats: a market flooded with cheap imported wood, mostly from Canada, and the minimalist rules laid down in the final days of the Clinton administration for logging the region's vast national forests.

While he mourns the death of his industry, these days McGarity worries most about the short-term prospect of getting a job. Though nearing retirement age, he isn't ready to quit.

But this is a man who never before looked for work, never before wrote a resume. The mill was always there for him, the lumber to be culled, the ripsaws whining away, day after day.

"I've never even put an application in for another job," said McGarity, one of 100 mill employees who lost their livelihood. "A resume: How do I do that? All I know is lumber. Three-quarters of my life is in that mill. What am I going to do? It's scary."

And it is the same for his hometown.

It is perched on the eastern side of the Sierra Valley, a 15-mile-long alpine bowl an hour's drive north of Lake Tahoe.

Loyalton grew up around its sawmill. It has remained unashamedly a company town. Just about everyone worked in the mill, had a relative who worked there or had a business that depended on it.

Salaries were good. Everyone had a home. Inertia set in.

Jan Buck owns the local appliance store, one of only a few businesses along the city's sleepy main street. She remembers how her newspaperman father, Hal Wright, wrote editorials for decades in his biweekly, urging the community to diversify.

"We knew this was coming," Buck said. "My whole life they talked of that mill closing."

Of late, however, the mill's prospects hadn't seemed so dire. The owner, Sierra Pacific Industries, invested millions of dollars only a few years ago in retooling the mill so it could accept small logs, increasingly the only timber that regulators would let fall to the chain saw in national forests.

It didn't seem a gamble. In the mid-1990s, icy relations thawed between loggers and local environmentalists in the north Sierra. A plan was hatched. The timber harvest in national forests north of Lake Tahoe would be doubled. But bigger trees would be spared and, so the pitch went, the wildfire threat would be eased by clearing overgrowth.

Congress gave a thumbs-up in 1998. But national environmental groups ridiculed it as a sellout to the timber industry, Sierra Pacific in particular, and the plan got snagged in the regulatory process.

Meanwhile, a master blueprint for the entire Sierra emerged from the U.S. Forest Service on Jan. 12. Instead of boosting the cut, the so-called Sierra framework slashed logging in half to protect the California spotted owl and other frail species.

Loyalton was hit particularly hard. Three-quarters of the surrounding land is federally owned and, under the new rules, was mostly set off limits.

Facing months or even years of uncertainty, the sawmill owners made some hard choices.

Just before Christmas, plant leaders called the crews over to announce a three-month shutdown. "It was like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat," McGarity said. Two months later the temporary closure "turned into forever."

"Loyalton will be hurt," warned Chris Nance, a California Forestry Assn. spokesman. "This will have a huge ripple effect."

The local gas station has already laid off a mechanic. School district officials fear declining enrollment. The tiny hospital, already bankrupt, is downsizing as it combines with a Plumas County facility to survive.

"It's gloomy," said Brooks Mitchell, a Sierra County supervisor and longtime logger who was born and raised in Loyalton. "It's just hard times. We need to move fast or we're going to lose a lot of these families."

Others see a chance for revival, recalling how some former lumber towns remade their economies and survived. Several foothill mill towns endured plant closings and forged a future in tourism and high-tech firms.

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