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.
That’s no surprise to residents of Humboldt County, where September’s jobless rate hit 10.3%. The slowdown touches La Hacienda restaurant in Orick, which delivered Mexican food to hungry workers at the mill every Friday. The town’s elementary school has already lost four of its 24 students since the mill closure was announced in July.
Jim Hagood has worked just two days since he was laid off in April from his job trucking trees. A wiry 69-year-old with a shock of white hair and an ear for town gossip, he also owns Hagood’s Hardware. The general store rents dusty DVDs and sells a variety of odds and ends, including fabric, wrenches and crutches, which hang from the windows.
Business at the store has been “nothing” lately, he says. “When there’s no money, people aren’t buying.”
Now, he and other locals spend mornings perched on log stools outside the town’s lone gas station, sipping coffee and reminiscing about the days half a century ago when Orick had five sawmills, more than a dozen dairy farms and a population of 2,000.
They expect more of Orick’s lumber workers will leave town. Riley Childress hopes to be among them.
The 34-year-old saw filer is putting out feelers in the timber regions of Washington state. He’s ready to get out of the town where most people remember him from the days when he would run a bag lunch up to his dad at the mill.
Cutbacks in law enforcement have turned Orick into a “a haven for thieves,” he said. A few months ago, someone broke into his house and stole two chain saws, a lawn mower and a weed eater. The deputy sheriff retired a few years ago, he said, and now it takes 40 minutes for an officer to drive up from McKinleyville.
“There’s nothing for me here,” said Childress, who started at the mill when he was a teenager.
Most of the handful of jobs listed recently in the classified section of the local paper, the Times-Standard, require at least two years of college education. The listings include a meat cutter at the supermarket and a manager at a hotel.
Like many former mill towns, Orick is banking on visitors to replace logging as a job creator.
“Tourism is all that’s left,” said Connie Secor, a longtime resident who works at Orick Community Services District, which manages the town’s water. Her son worked at the mill for 19 years but left recently to work in a prison 60 miles away.
Orick already has at least three shops selling whimsical windmills and bar stools made of redwood. But there haven’t been a lot of visitors lately.
Barlow is thinking of applying for a job at nearby Redwood National Park, which would keep him out in the woods where he has spent most of his working life. Still, he knows his old company’s departure will mean big changes for Orick.
California Redwood not only paid its workers well but also was an integral part of the community. It contributed to the town’s rodeo. And it sponsored annual dinners for workers, catered by one of the local restaurants, Barlow said.
“Every five years they kept saying it would close in five more years, and we kept dodging the bullet,” Barlow said. “This time we didn’t.”