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Housing slump hits California timber industry like a buzz saw

Weak demand for lumber is forcing some mills to close and leaving many loggers and truckers unemployed.

October 28, 2009|Alana Semuels

ORICK, CALIF. — Ron Barlow's 34-year career at the sawmill in the heart of California's Redwood Empire was a study in consistency.

From behind the wheel of his yellow LeTourneau log stacker, he watched trees swaying against a bright blue summer sky. In the fall, yellow aspens provided a blast of color in the fog-shrouded forest. Spring brought light-green sprouts of grass poking out of the damp, evergreen-scented ground.

Barlow's own season at the mill ended this month when the Seattle lumber company that owns the facility padlocked the gates, leaving more than 40 workers jobless. It was the last such facility in a community that once housed five, and about the only place in town someone with only a high school education could make $20 an hour.

"It's devastating to our community," Barlow, 54, said from his frontyard, surrounded by apple trees and lowing cows. "Most people will have to commute out of Orick to find work."

Add another casualty to the nation's housing slowdown: California's timber industry.

With U.S. housing starts in the dumps, most lumberjacks or "fallers" who cut trees are unemployed. Many mills that shape that timber into boards are closing their doors. And some truckers who transported all those trees and lumber have idled their rigs. Last year, softwood production at sawmills in 12 Western states sank to the lowest level in half a century, according to the Western Wood Products Assn. Lumber prices have plummeted.

There's no relief in sight. Workers this week decried the closure of California's last pulp mill in Samoa, 40 miles south of Orick, after the owners failed to win federal stimulus funds to revamp the facility. Finding enough wood chips to supply the plant has been tough with the timber industry in disarray.

"Wages at the plant put well over $11 million into the local economy," said Nate Zink, president of the Assn. of Western Pulp & Paper Workers, Local 49. "Now we're being forced into the job market, and there aren't a lot of jobs out there."

The slowdown is hurting communities throughout Northern California, including tiny Orick, population about 300. Life here in rural Humboldt County is marked by the sudden appearance of a herd of elk in a clearing and gentle tides on the rocky seashore a few minutes outside town.

Many residents have never ventured the 700 miles south to sprawling, smoggy Los Angeles, and don't much care to. Yet their fate is inextricably linked to the construction of subdivisions, apartments and condos in Southern California.

"Most of the wood in California stays in California, and housing in California is in horrible shape," said Henry Spelter, an economist at the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis.

William Melvin, co-owner of Melvin and Turner Chopping, a tree felling firm, was "virtually unemployed all summer" because there was no demand for the redwoods and firs he cuts down.

During the housing boom, his saws seldom stopped. He bought a new truck and paid off his house in the wooded hills above Orick. Now, at age 50, he's thinking about becoming a plumber.

"When the housing market went down, our jobs went away," he said.

To be sure, the state's timber industry has been shedding jobs and closing mills since its heyday in the 1950s. About 28 mills have closed since 2000, leaving 36 in the state, according to the California Forestry Assn.

Logging companies have wrangled with government regulators and preservationists. Environmental lawsuits are as common as road kill on tree-shaded U.S. 101. The supply of old-growth trees is dwindling. Harvesting smaller second-growth trees requires new permits and approval from the state.

Throw in the worst construction collapse in decades, and closing a sawmill is just one of many "very difficult decisions" facing timber companies in California, said Carl Schoenhofer, general manager of California Redwood Co. The firm is a subsidiary of Green Diamond Resource Co., which owns the plant in Orick, about 40 miles north of Eureka.

That leaves residents here contemplating life in a lumber town without lumber. And they're not alone. Sierra Pacific Industries shut down three California mills this year: in Quincy in May and in Camino and Standard during the summer. In tiny Scotia, 28 miles south of Eureka, Humboldt Redwood Co. had layoffs in January and April. The mill run by Schmidbauer Lumber Inc. in Eureka is running one shift a day instead of two. Dozens of other mills are cutting production and laying off employees amid weak demand for lumber.

The wood and paper manufacturing industry currently employs about 23,000 workers in California, down nearly 40% from 1990. Every mill job lost leads to two jobs shed in the local economy, said Bob Mion, a spokesman for the California Forestry Assn.

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