The Malheur Lumber Co. sawmill in John Day is getting a reprieve, albeit short-term, thanks to some private landowners who reached out to provide timber to continue its operations.
Company officials announced earlier this month that the mill would be mothballed about Nov. 1 due to lagging timber supply off the local federal forests.
"A number of private landowners were very worried and concerned that, with the shutdown, they wouldn't be able to sell their timber," Bruce Daucsavage said this week.
Daucsavage, president of Malheur's parent company, Ochoco Lumber Co., said these owners have proposed to provide timber for the mill. He said it's not a lot of volume, but enough to extend the mill operations another 30-60 days beyond the November projection.
Daucsavage said this isn't a permanent solution, but "these landowners have been so good to us, we felt a commitment to them."
He also said he and Ochoco managing director John Shelk have been gratified by the outpouring of concern and support from the community, state and federal elected officials, representatives of the Forest Service and environmental groups. The result has been intense dialogue focused on the role the local mill can play in restoration of the federal forests.
Among the voices heard last week was that of the Grant School District No. 3 Board of Directors, which penned a letter calling for "a positive solution" to the impending shutdown of the Malheur mill.
The board, after a heartfelt discussion in last week's meeting, signed a letter describing the company's contributions to the schools, the community and the local economy, and decrying the expected loss of family-wage jobs. The letter went out to the Eagle and to about a dozen state, federal and county officials.
Malheur's biomass plant, which produces pellets and fuel bricks, is expected to continue operating, employing a crew of about 15 workers. The sawmill shutdown, however, raises the specter of 70-80 jobs disappearing from Grant County's already struggling economy.
District 3 Superintendent Mark Witty said the board is concerned not just about ripple effects on the school district, but the "devastating blow" to the community and its overall economy.
"The board understands that we're all in this together," he said. "We wanted to make sure the governor and other officials understand that this a a broad issue facing our community and others like it."
The letter notes the earlier closures of Prairie Wood Products in Prairie City and Grant Western in John Day, saying "the impact on our communities was stark." The Malheur sawmill shutdown will exacerbate that effect, the board said.
The letter stresses the importance of "living wage" jobs provided by the mill, a characterization confirmed by state figures.
Jason Yohannan, regional economist for Workforce Oregon Employment Department in La Grande, said it's not only the number of jobs at stake but also the type of job that makes this a blow. Manufacturing jobs, he noted, tend to pay better than many private sector jobs.
The state's statistics for Grant County show the average annual pay for all industries, public and private, is $31,944. For private industries, the average is $25,181, while for the manufacturing sector alone, the average is $34,114.
The layoffs are expected to decimate the county's manufacturing sector, which has hung on at 120 jobs this year and last. Malheur employs the lion's share of those workers, with the rest divided among five other employers.
Yohannan said the news is doubly disappointing because Oregon has been gaining some jobs in the past two-three years, a period of "very sluggish" recovery.
Grant County, however, has been stuck in the same recession trough.
Yohannan said the shutdown would leave Grant County without any large private-sector employer. He noted that a few years ago, Harney County saw the loss of its big companies - a wood products plant and an RV manufacturer - and "now that county is down to 10 total manufacturing jobs."