Timber mills close in the Northwest

  • Boise Cascade sawmill closures

    Diane Sylvain
  • SCAPEGOAT: Conservationist John McCarthy


BOISE, Idaho - When an angry mob of Boise Cascade Corp. sawmill workers gathered in front of the Idaho Conservation League office in late July, staffer John McCarthy thought twice about going outside. At a similar rally earlier this year, a timber worker grabbed McCarthy by the neck and said, "If I was younger, I'd kick your ass," as the thin but agile environmentalist squirmed out of his grip.

But with news cameras swarming outside, McCarthy figured he was safe. "I didn't think it would come to blows," he said, "and if it did, I figured it would make national news."

The roughly 200 sign-toting mill workers were there because their worst fears had come true: Citing a lack of available timber on public lands, Boise Cascade had announced plans to close its sawmill 30 miles north of Boise in Horseshoe Bend. The company will also close plants in Elgin, Ore., and Yakima, Wash., as well as one in Louisiana. All told, 494 employees will be laid off by the year's end (HCN, 7/6/98).

"The fault lies with people who are constantly appealing timber sales," said Steve Bliss, a 27-year Boise Cascade employee who organized the protest. "If sales are held up, you can't run the mill."

But John McCarthy told Bliss and his fellow workers they should be protesting down the street, in Boise Cascade's world headquarters parking lot. The company had convinced its workers that there was an endless supply of trees, said McCarthy, but it was a lie. "I hate to suggest these angry people have been duped," said McCarthy, "but they've been used."

Barking up the wrong tree?

There's no arguing that environmentalists have been a driving force behind slowing the timber harvest in the Northwest. Environmental lawsuits have kept loggers out of forests to protect clean water and endangered species such as the spotted owl, salmon, steelhead and bull trout. Since 1987, federal timber harvest in the West has shrunk 78 percent, from 9.9 billion board-feet to 2.2 billion board-feet.

But experts say blaming environmentalists for the mill closings is too simplistic.

"The global economy is so interconnected that things like this cannot be explained solely by local events," said John Freemuth, a political science professor at Boise State University. "The timber workers want a clear answer about what's happening to them, but the forces are so big - it's really much more complex than some kind of sinister conspiracy to end logging on national forests."

According to Boise Cascade officials, Forest Service logging cutbacks were part of the reason for closing Boise Cascade's plants in Elgin, and Yakima. But timber sales on the Boise National Forest - one forest the Horseshoe Bend mill depends on - exceeded timber targets by more than 200 million board-feet in the last decade. In the last five months, three sales on the Boise have gone without any bids from timber companies.

Richard Parrish, Boise Cascade's senior vice president for building products, gave PR Newswire a list of factors that convinced the company to close the mills. In addition to "reductions in timber availability and consequent increases in timber costs," Parrish pointed to a glut of timber in the U.S. market, because Asia is importing less American lumber. "" In some cases, poor operating efficiencies have worked to the detriment of these mills," he added.

Boise Cascade has also posted net losses in quarterly earnings in five of the last six quarters, causing its ranking in the Fortune 500 list to drop 11 spots to 288 in 1998. The company is cutting back on its building products division, which has been performing poorly compared to its paper and office products branches.

Mark Solomon, executive director of the Lands Council in Spokane, Wash., says the company knew it was running out of large trees. "It's the old cut-and-run," Solomon said. "It'd be good for the timber workers to remember why unions formed in the first place - to prevent corporations from selling them down the river."

Steve Bliss doesn't blame Boise Cascade, knowing that in 1989, it spent $5 million to upgrade the Horseshoe Bend mill so it could handle small-diameter logs. He thinks the corporation has done everything possible to weather the political changes affecting national forests.

But to hear urban environmentalists like McCarthy telling him to get a job in Boise makes Bliss madder than anything else.

"They're hypocrites," he said. "They're using our products every day, but they're saying, "don't cut trees in my back yard," and they're driving the timber industry into South America."

Cutting down the timber industry will leave Idaho's forests vulnerable to huge wildfires, adds Bliss. "You just watch. These forests are going to burn, and John McCarthy, (the Idaho Conservation League) and the Sierra Club are going to have to stand up and take the blame. You did it, folks. You destroyed the forests and our jobs along with them."

Stephen Stuebner writes in Boise, Idaho.

You can call ...

* The Idaho Conservation League at 208/345-6933;

* Boise Cascade Corp. at 208/384-6161.

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