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DISPATCH FROM LIBBY, MONT.

A Town Puts Its Faith in Hope

The lumber mill closed, putting 300 residents out of work. Now the community is looking for some way to restore the plant and the jobs.

January 26, 2003|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

LIBBY, Mont. -- Every Tuesday, the savviest civic leaders here huddle around a conference table at the Forest Service office with a daunting task: to reopen the local lumber mill and save this town.

Mill closings have gutted Northwest timber towns for more than two decades, but rarely has a community faced a challenge of the scale confronting this small town, tucked in the fir and larch forests of northwestern Montana.

Asbestos from a vermiculite mine has turned the entire area into an environmental and public health disaster. More than a third of its 5,500 residents have lung abnormalities; more than 200 have died. The Environmental Protection Agency predicts it will take five years and $50 million to cleanse the community.

Amid the misery after the mine's closure in 1990, the plywood mill alone had stoked the town's struggling economy. Then the mill, the town's largest employer, shut down too, closing two days after Christmas, its 300 employees plodding home after a bittersweet farewell barbecue and football game. The Stimson Lumber Co. of Portland, Ore., shuttered the plant because more and cheaper timber is logged in Oregon, Washington and Canada, and because home builders have found cheaper alternatives to plywood. Also a contributing factor: Stimson faced escalating workers' compensation premiums because asbestos was installed in the mill by a previous owner, and Stimson was being sued by its own workers.

But Andrew Miller, president of Stimson, has offered a parting gift to Libby, and townsfolk see it as the best, if not only, chance for the town's economic recovery. If Libby can find a buyer for its $6-million steam boiler and other key equipment, it will donate the rest of the 428-acre facility.

And therein lies the challenge to Libby's future, the reason the six people -- a county commissioner, the hospital administrator, an economic development advisor, the schools superintendent, a labor union representative and a Forest Service official -- meet weekly to figure out how to resurrect the mill.

Because of environmental restrictions, there's no expectation that the Kootenai National Forest, which surrounds Libby, will yield the 200 million board-feet of lumber it did during the region's logging heydays of the 1960s, when the mill employed 1,500 workers. Officials say a new forest management plan will probably allow the harvesting of only about 25% of that amount, not enough to sustain a traditional plywood mill. In addition to competing for public timber sales, Stimson had purchased most of its logs from a private company that owns forest land, but that 10-year contract expires this year.

So around the conference table, discussion turns to other options. Can the facility be used to manufacture mobile homes or furniture? Can the wood-burning boiler be retrofitted to generate electricity for profit? Can smaller trees be profitably harvested, without objection by forest protectionists, to at least manufacture carpet strips, or floor joists, or lesser-quality plywood to frame cement work?

And who would operate the mill? Another lumber company? Could the city or county operate it as a public utility, or in partnership with a private firm? Might the former employees resurrect it as stock owners, with government loan assistance?

So many questions, and Stimson has given Libby until March to come up with answers. Otherwise, it will strip the plant of its equipment and the opportunity will be lost.

"We're still exploring ideas, but nothing has come to the forefront yet," lamented John Konzen, a Lincoln County commissioner who heads the local task force. "We're being very cautious, because we don't want to make a decision we'll regret."

Former mill workers are distressed for the town's future, and their own. In a ripple effect, employees are being laid off by other local companies, such as the local car lot, because business has slowed. Unemployment here hovers at 15%.

"The days of this being a working town are over," said Audrey McCollum. "I'm afraid Libby's going to turn into a welfare-, government-dependent community."

Some workers are thinking of moving out of town, but are worried they'll lose money on their homes because of the depressed market. Young working families haven't moved to Libby in years, and retirees are buying home sites out of town, in the woods.

Other workers, getting by on severance pay and skimpy unemployment checks, hope to find local jobs to tide themselves over until, they hope, the mill reopens.

Barry Brown, 55, worked at the mill from the age of 20 and said his future is glum. "I'm too old to get a new job and too young to retire," he said.

Business experts say Libby is further disadvantaged because of its isolation on a two-lane road 100 miles from the nearest commercial airport, in Kalispell. It lacks broadband Internet connections to drive technology businesses and its labor force may need retraining.

"I'm not sure a community of Libby's size has the ability to successfully do much," said Paul Polzin, a University of Montana economist. "I don't hold much optimism for Libby."

But don't tell that to the folks around the conference table.

"Hope is the key word," said Rick Palagi, the hospital administrator. "We're going to roll up our sleeves and figure our way through this."

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