An era ends: old industries face reality

  • Forest Service regions

    Diane Sylvain
  • Kathy and Kent Strong say their company fights for every log

    Peter Chilson photo
  • Natural gas chart

    Diane Sylvain
  • Crude oil chart

    Diane Sylvain
 

Note: a sidebar article titled "Surrounded by dogs, bikers, developers" accompanies this feature story.

RIFLE, Colo. - Logging is a touchy subject with Kent Strong, owner of K & K Lumber near this Colorado River Valley town 70 miles west of the ski resort at Aspen. Ask about business and he says, "There's no logging industry left in this valley."

A slight exaggeration. Strong fights hard for every log. He's working three timber sales in the nearby White River National Forest, and a salvage sale in Utah. But every year there are fewer sales to buy. Ten years ago he paid $70 per thousand board-feet of timber; now he pays nearly $300. "It's scary," says Strong, whose family has logged in Pitkin and Garfield counties for 80 years.

Hundreds of sawmills operated in Garfield County at the end of World War II, selling lumber to coal mines mainly to shore up underground shafts. But when coal demand fell at the war's end, many mines and mills closed. Larger mills sought markets farther away until the 1980s. Timber sales on the forest hit 46 million board-feet in 1988, before falling to 6 million last year. Now, Strong's is one of three mills left. "This whole valley," he says, "is tougher to make a living in."

Logging is in trouble everywhere. Since the early 1980s, national forest timber sales have fallen from 12 billion board-feet to 3.8 billion today. In the Pacific Northwest, federal timber sales fell from 5 billion board-feet in the 1980s to 870 million last year. The U.S. Forest Service's Region 1, Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota, sold 2.8 billion board-feet in 1970, but barely 300 million in 1997. In Region 2, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, sales were near 400 million board-feet in the 1970s, but only 169 million last year. Region 3, Arizona and New Mexico, averaged 400 million board-feet in the 1960s and 48 million last year. Region 4, Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho, and western Wyoming, sold 415 million board-feet in 1990, and 155 million last year. Region 5, California, hit 2 billion board-feet in 1965, but last year sold 400 million.

But timber isn't in trouble alone. Broad changes are transforming the economy that made the West, where for 150 years loggers, ranchers, miners, and oil and gas workers brought home the big paychecks. No more. Battles over logging and grazing are still intense, but the numbers show there is less and less to fight over. If current trends hold, there will be hardly anything to fight over in a decade.

Even oil and gas activity has dropped by more than half, and while mining is still a robust industry, the West is no longer pockmarked by thousands of active mines. Instead, the many small mines have been replaced by a handful of gargantuan operations. Because there are fewer mines, the environmental damage mines cause may become easier to manage.

The story playing out here in Rifle is a microcosm of what's happening across the West. The town's coal mines are gone. The timber cut is down every year. There is less grazing land and fewer cattle. And extraction's great hope, the oil shale boom of the 1970s, ended in 1982, when Exxon closed its Colorado River Valley operations and erased 2,100 jobs.

Ranching's decline has been steadier than that of logging, but the trend is the same. Brand inspectors for the Rifle and neighboring Eagle districts say the cattle herd of 14,000 is half what it was in 1985, largely because development has been devouring ranchland. For the West as a whole, the story is a long one. The Western cattle herd, roughly 20 million in 1890, spread across 16 Western states, had shrunk to 17 million by 1934. But land managers realized the numbers were still too high; they feared overgrazing could turn the West to a desert. That year Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, whose reforms were designed to reverse the trend. Now, with the added burden of a more competitive market, 2 million cows roam the range.

Mining and oil and gas: smaller and better

The numbers are just as stark for mining and oil and gas, but the implications of the numbers are tougher to grasp. Oil and gas companies drilled 8,500 wells on public and private lands in 1983, and 1,900 in 1996, according to Federal Land Access to Oil and Gas Minerals in Eight Western States, a 1996 report of the Cooperating Associations Forum, a consortium of industry associations.

Wyoming, which is heavily dependent on energy, has been especially hard hit by a decline in drilling activity, losing 6,000 jobs over this period. That spurred the state's current governor, Jim Geringer, to action. In a speech in December 1997, he charged that access to public land "is decreasing at an increasingly disturbing rate," from 114 million acres of available land in 1983 to 32 million acres in 1996. That's a 70 percent drop.

But Bureau of Land Management officials say those numbers reflect a decline in federal land under lease for oil and gas development, and have nothing to do with access. Jay Douglas, a BLM minerals-leasing specialist, says oil and gas firms still have access to 100 million acres of federal land, a figure also included in the Cooperating Associations Forum report.

The immense decline in the number of wells drilled, and, therefore, in roads built and land disturbed, is probably due in part to the depressed prices oil and natural gas bring compared to the early 1980s, and in part to increased efficiency. Geologists can now "see" beneath the surface through 3-D seismology, which works like sonar to produce a computerized picture of geologic substrata. Today, crews drill with a near 100 percent certainty of finding what they are looking for.

But Geringer and his staff stick to their guns, and continue to interpret the decline in leased federal land as due to restricted access. Paul Kruse of Wyoming's Office of Federal Lands Policy said, "The point is the trend of land availability is going down."

Mining, too, is a numerically smaller, more productive industry, helped by improved technology. Hardrock mining, concentrated almost entirely in the West, has lost two-thirds of its mines and half its workers since 1954. The number of mines has shrunk from 3,300 to about 1,000 today, and employment, 103,000 in 1954, is 57,000 now.

But while the workforce and the number of mines plummet, production rises. Hardrock mining contributed a record $15 billion to the U.S. economy in 1995, the last year records were available. Copper mining is a good example. In Arizona, the leading producer, employment has dropped to 12,000, half the number of the 1970s, but the industry directly contributed a record $2 billion to Arizona's economy in 1996.

"Mines don't have the labor base they once had," says George Leaming, a Phoenix economist who heads the Western Economic Analysis Center, a consulting firm. "But the money flowing in is pretty high."

Toward a Western irony

The arguments over the cause of the decline in logging, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling and mining on public land go on and on. The extractive industries and their supporters blame everything on environmental regulations. Environmentalists say ranchers literally ate themselves out of house and home, and that loggers cut down too many trees too quickly and in a destructive way. These arguments matter to historians and to those who continue to fight the natural resource wars. But what matters to most Westerners is what kind of place the West is becoming, as natural-resource extraction on public lands shrinks.

"Twenty years ago, the urban and the rural West were linked," each in need of something the other offered, says University of Washington historian Richard White. "But that's not true anymore." The West, he adds, is evolving into a patchwork of hot urban economies, like Denver and Salt Lake City, with little connection to surrounding rural areas; pristine rural resorts; and impoverished, ultra-conservative backwaters that young people leave.

As the old economy fades, growth booms. Since 1982, urban growth has eaten up more than 2 million acres of Western land. U.S. census figures show the West's population at 20 million in the 1950s. Some 59 million people live here now - half in California - with 70 million expected by 2010. In numbers of people, the West has been the nation's fastest-growing region for a decade, expanding 12.5 percent since 1990. Four of the nation's five fastest-growing states are Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

In the numbers is an irony. "The West is the most urbanized part of the country," says Sierra Club chairman Mike McCloskey. "We tend to think of the West as an area of wide open spaces. It depends little any more on the natural resource extraction of the hinterlands." Seattle, once connected to the timber industry, or Denver, an old livestock center, have more complex economies dependent on high-tech companies, recreation, manufacturing and services.

Even when you have a rural economy dependent on an old industry, like mining, the benefits may flow to cities. George Leaming, the Phoenix economist, says mining companies are moving their headquarters to cities and now contract for services they once offered themselves. "The mines hire consultants who work out of cities, rather than use their own engineers," Leaming says. "That's true even for repair services."

Rifle, the commuter town

In Rifle, traditional industries, like mining and timber, suffered together as local coal mines closed. Kent Strong's mill survived for a while by selling to mines across Colorado. But business dried up as mines began using metal and cement to shore up shafts. Now K & K Lumber supplies companies that sell log cabin kits, a market consisting mostly of newcomers looking to live the "Western" lifestyle. Says Strong, "It's not looking good."

But David Hawker, Rifle city manager, calls this town of 6,300 people, "a city manager's dream," and says, "We're growing at a pace of 45 new homes a year, not so fast that we can't keep up with infrastructure." Rifle is riding the recreation and tourism industry that brings Colorado millions of visitors and billions of dollars annually. The area is a minor mecca for climbers. In recent years, summers have attracted hundreds more cyclists, hikers and fishermen as well. The town publishes brochures that advertise local recreation.

Garfield County planners describe a more sober reality, a commuter economy with more people working far from home in low-paying jobs. Half the county work force holds service and retail jobs, while 3 percent work in mining, timber and agriculture. Planners say the county is split, with the east side under the thumb of resorts whose economies push the west side of open spaces, squeezing out locals who can't afford to stay.

Jim Snyder, a rancher near Rifle, hopes to die on his land, but knows his ranch won't be around after that. "It's going to be house to house around here. Lots of people and we just don't have the economy to help everybody make a living. If I sell out, somebody is going to pay dearly."


Peter Chilson is HCN associate editor.

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