Death of a Sawmill

Last August my friend Jim Hurst auctioned his sawmill.

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 the New York Times or even this newspaper. 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 fearsome wildfires.

I was in Jim’s office a few days before the auction interviewing him for a book I’m writing on the post-war history of the West’s sawmill-owning families. 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, Montana, a sawmill town since the early 1900s. I have a photo of my school teacher 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 last three years. But Jim faced an insurmountable problem: he couldn’t buy enough logs to keep his mill running. This despite the fact that ten times more trees than 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 may as well have been standing on the moon, given the tsunami of 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. 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 projects.

Jim 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 what they’ll do to make a living, but in the 40-some 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 unanimous, “No.”

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 that 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 power.

Environmentalists also face a problem they never anticipated. Recent polling reveals 80-some 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 powers 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 credentialed 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.”