John Day mill closed for lack of timber access

<p>Doug Story, a forklift operator at the Malheur Lumber Co. sawmill in John Day, loads lumber onto a truck headed for a buyer on the East Coast.</p>

JOHN DAY — Charlie Wilson remembers starting work at Malheur Lumber Co. in March 1983, when “it was just cottonwood trees and gravel pits around here.”

On his shift as a sawyer Monday, he was circumspect about the impending shutdown of the sawmill.

“We made a good run at it here,” he told a coworker. That run will come to a halt about Nov. 1, when the company shuts down the sawmill in the face of overwhelming timber supply challenges.

Bruce Daucsavage, president of parent firm Ochoco Lumber Company, met with employees last Friday at the John Day plant to break the news.

While the sawmill will be “mothballed,” the plant’s biomass facility — the pellet fuel and wood brick production, the chipper and log shaver — will continue to operate. Malheur Lumber will continue to purchase timber sales from national forests and other sources to support that ongoing work, the company said.

Daucsavage thanked employees for “their loyalty and hard work this past 30 years” and credited them with the company’s past success. “Our employees have been remarkable,” he said.

He also lauded the leadership of the Malheur National Forest for trying to come up with the timber necessary to keep the mill open, and state and Grant County officials for their support.

However, the company cited “lack of support by others in the national forest system.”

“We regret this action, but find we can no longer sustain our sawmill and planing operations without sufficient local timber from adjacent national forests,” he said.

Without that supply, he said, “we’re going over 250 miles, to Idaho, to look for logs.”

The company has about 95 employees — 90 in John Day and the rest in Prineville. The shutdown means 75 percent of the workforce will be laid off.

Current workers will be considered for jobs at the biomass plant, which will be run by a general manager based in John Day. “We have no intention of shutting down that part of the plant,” he said. The sawmill shutdown will mark the end of 75 continuous years of lumber manufacturing by the company.

“We are proud of our contributions to the communities in which we have operated, and to the employment we have provided to the rural communities,” he said. “We are infinitely saddened and frustrated by the circumstances that bring us to this decision.”

This week, Daucsavage reflected on the efforts to keep the plant operating — rescheduling shifts, tweaking product size, altering the processes — in the face of lagging timber supply off the national forest.

“I’m out of aces up my sleeve,” he said. “The system has failed — it has failed us, and our communities.”

Since announcing the shutdown, he said, the company has had “an amazing outpouring” of concern from throughout the industry.

“Our product has been the best in the industry coming out of the Northwest,” Daucsavage said. “Our customers are very upset.”

When they ask what they can do, he tells to write letters to the nation’s leaders, urging them to prevent “something like this from happening to another small business.”

While the business may be small in industry terms, it has a large footprint in Grant County — nearly $4 million in wages.

Grant County Judge Mark Webb stressed that the company has tried to adjust to challenging times and keep the mill going.

“They’ve made an heroic attempt,” Webb said. “I can’t say enough about the way they’ve tried to adapt and find ways to survive.”

He called the shutdown “pretty devastating” for the community, noting that the county already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

“I’m frustrated with our state reps, our Congressional delegation, and the Forest Service at the D.C. level — because we know what needs to be done, and frankly I don’t think they have exhibited the leadership or will power to do what needs to be done,” Webb said. From the nation’s capital, Wyden said the announcement “sends a clear message that we have a lot of work to do” to ensure reasonable harvest levels to maintain the mills.

“If we are ever going to restore the health of the overstocked forests, we need the infrastructure and that means successful mills and skilled workers,” he said.

Walden pledged to continue working for legislation to provide active forest management — to allow federal land managers to do their jobs in the forests, and to ensure natural resources are available to create local jobs and healthy forests.

”Malheur Lumber, its employees, and the community of John Day have become another victim of the broken federal forest policy dogged by bureaucracy and lawsuits,” he said. “This unfortunate closure is a stark example of the urgency faced by our federally forested communities.”

“We must make a change in forest policy or risk losing all timber infrastructure and the economic foundations of many rural communities.”

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