Restrictions lead to more sawmill closures

Issue Date: August 26, 2009
Kate Campbell

The Standard Sawmill in Sonora processes its final logs before closing last week. Owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, the mill provided local jobs for more than a century and offered an important wood processing service to forestland owners and managers.

With the last logs rumbling into the Standard Sawmill in Sonora, crews prepared to shut down the century-old mill and face the consequences of unemployment in a punishing recession. About 150 mill workers were laid off last week and about 350 other workers, such as contract loggers and truckers, also lost jobs as an indirect result of the closure.

Sierra Pacific Industries said the slowdown in construction contributed to declining demand for lumber, but said lawsuits filed by environmentalists contributed to a 40 percent drop in log volume this year from the Stanislaus National Forest.

In the past decade, more than two-dozen California wood processing facilities have closed. Only 40 sawmills remain in operation, with none in Southern California.

Earlier this year, Sierra Pacific also closed mills in Chester and Camino, bringing the company's total number of direct sawmill jobs lost to 470 and total rural California jobs affected by its closures to more than 1,000.

The closure of the Standard mill will affect timber producers such as Dick Tanner.

"We've been in business for about 20 years, and the sawmill at Standard was an important outlet for us as we worked on small timber clearing and harvesting jobs," said Tanner, owner of Tanner Logging in Murphys. "Now there are dying trees that pose a hazard to homes and businesses that need to be removed, but there's no place to take the trees."

"That means we've got a lot of standing firewood in our forests," he said, adding that the closest mill to the Sonora area is in Lincoln, about a four-hour drive that, he said "just doesn't make economic sense."

"Basically, we haven't worked this summer," Tanner said. "We usually employ 10 or 12 people directly and contract with others. Equipment is sitting idle in our yard and we're renegotiating loans with our banker. I know a half dozen other small logging companies doing the same thing."

The California Forestry Association said currently 75 percent of the lumber used in California must be imported.

"Meanwhile, many government-owned Sierra Nevada forests are stocked with up to 10 times more trees than Gold Rush-era forests," said Bob Mion, association spokesman. "At the same time, dead trees account for 38 percent of the forest in Stanislaus National Forest and 34 percent in El Dorado National Forest."

Mion noted that the incidence of catastrophic wildfires in California increased 300 percent in 2007 and 315 percent in 2008, compared to the five-year average. The cost California taxpayers paid for fighting wildfires last year topped $1.4 billion.

In most cases the timber was incinerated; in other wildfires, there was the possibility that quick salvage action might have saved at least some of the wood. But, the forestry association said, burdensome regulations and litigation prevented salvaging the wood.

Mion explained that Congress created the national forest system in 1897 to "furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens." Subsequent congressional actions, however, redefined the forest management directive to include multiple uses and sustainable yields.

"That's problematic for maintaining forest health," Mion said. "'Multiple-use' and 'sustainable yield' allow for broad interpretations. As a result, activist litigation has essentially trumped congressional mandate for a continuous lumber supply, but nobody's really being held accountable for the current condition of the forests."

He said there's "nothing sustainable about national forestlands so overgrown they're succumbing to insect infestation and catastrophic wildfire at unprecedented rates."

Beyond the environmental degradation, Tuolumne County Supervisor Teri Murrison said "the effect of the Standard Mill closure on our economy is huge. We've already lost small businesses and major retailers. But, with the mill closure, we lose jobs, investments and our ability to manage natural resources in more than 75 percent of our county."

With the shutdown of the Standard Sawmill in Sonora, Roger Edwards, above, faces the end of a 30-year career in the forest products sector.

For Roger Edwards, the mill closure ends more than 30 years of work in the woods and at the mill.

"If the mill goes down forever, I don't know what I'll do," Edwards said. "I was 24 years old when I started working here. I'm not much into computers and sitting at a desk."

Edwards said he may try to take the company up on its offer of retraining or try his hand at welding or metal work.

"I'll be OK for a little while, but some of the younger workers are taking the closure really hard. In some cases, these are men with young families. They have kids in school and can't afford to lose the health benefits, and they probably won't find jobs around here that pay as well."

Dick Pland, a Tuolumne County supervisor and a forester who worked in the surrounding woods for Sierra Pacific for 40 years, said the closure marked a sad day.

"I would applaud the Obama administration for bringing forward resource policies that lead to healthy forests," Pland said. "The main problem is all the lawsuits filed by the environmental groups. Although these legal actions aren't often successful, they can tie up the forests for years."

He said trees are growing at a rate 10 times greater than what is being harvested, leading to overgrown forests being overtaken by disease, pests and wildfire.

"It's hard to be optimistic right now," Pland said. "Unless we complete some timber sales, it's over."

A spokesman for Sierra Pacific Industries, Mark Pawlicki, said the company doesn't yet know what will happen with the Standard mill.

"We hope there'll be a turnaround in the economy and changes in forest management policies," he said. "But the truth is, this plant has struggled to get enough logs to keep going and we didn't have a choice."

There are no plans at the moment to dismantle the mill, Pawlicki said. Instead, the company will mothball the facility before making a final decision about its future.

"Right now the rules and regulations on logging are killing us," Edwards said, shaking his head as the last log popped onto the splitters. "We get sued every time we turn around. But this isn't the old days. We do things differently now. If the forests are managed right, we'll have logs forever."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.