Mill shutdown: Supply or demand?
Fire-safe costs to go up, fewer acres to be treated
Negotiations going well or poorly, depending on who you believe
(3/11/09)  (link to Story)

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor

    When Sierra Pacific Industries announced last week that it was closing its small-log mill in Quincy, it put most of the blame squarely on environmental groups whose litigation has tied up Quincy Library Group projects. The company said it had been counting on the small logs created by the QLG tree-thinning work to supply the mill.

    A number of politicians were more than happy to take up that battle cry. In a press release, Congressman Wally Herger, who co-authored the QLG legislation, called the lawsuits “frivolous” and the plaintiffs “a minority of extreme activist groups.”

    Dan Logue, the area’s assemblyman, declared that “environmental extremists” and “radical environmental groups” had “abused the appeals process.”

    In a phone call to Feather Publishing, Logue offered to organize a picket at the offices of Sierra Forest Legacy, an environmental group that has lodged many of the administrative appeals and lawsuits against QLG projects.

    As vice chairman of the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economic Development and the Economy, Logue said he would be holding hearings in Nevada to interview businesses that left California “as a result of excessive regulatory and environmental burdens.”

    Congressman Tom McClintock spoke on the House floor about the “regulatory costs” to SPI and the “endless litigation by environmental groups.”

    Closer to home, county supervisor Lori Simpson, whose district includes the SPI mill, called the layoff announcement “horrible.”

    Simpson, who already had a trip to Washington, D.C., planned for this week as the county’s representative to the National Association of Counties conference, said she would be meeting with Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. “Taking the QLG message to them is the main thing now,” Simpson said.

    Craig Thomas, executive director of Sierra Forest Legacy, defended his group’s strategy. He said under the Bush administration his group had been shut out of discussions. “We had nothing but doors slammed in our faces.” He called it “damn unfortunate” that the only tool left to his group was to go to court.

    Thomas said SPI’s problem was not the lawsuits brought by his group but the “economic disaster” brought about by eight years of George Bush’s administration and “de-regulated financial markets.”

    “SPI has been selling lumber to build houses that are now caught in the foreclosure meltdown,” Thomas said.

    The Western Wood Products Association expects demand for U.S. lumber to drop to 35 million board feet this year, the lowest level in 27 years.

    Mark Pawlicki, SPI spokesman, said that although the small- and large-log mills produce some products that are different, “demand is down across the board.” (The small-log mill handles timber up to 28 inches in diameter, and the large mill anything larger than that.)

    Some members of the Quincy Library Group said last week that even if all the lawsuits were resolved tomorrow in QLG’s favor, that wouldn’t take care of the problem.

    “If there’s no market, what can you do?” said QLG attorney Michael Jackson. “All we can do is make timber available. The best we can hope for is to get the litigation cleaned up so we’re ready to go when the economy improves.”

    Jackson said he had no idea when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would make a pending decision, a ruling expected to set off a chain reaction in a number of related QLG lawsuits. He vowed, “We may get beat, but we won’t give up.”

     Outside of the blame game, one thing everyone seemed to agree on is that the small-log mill is an essential piece of infrastructure for fire-safe projects.

    John Sheehan, executive director of Plumas Corporation, said Plumas County Fire Safe Council projects, many of which are grant funded, would now become more expensive, which means fewer acres will get treated.

    “Fire-safe projects, current and proposed, will have to be restructured because there’s no place to take small logs. We try to structure the projects to get some revenue, but if we have to truck this stuff somewhere it drives up costs,” he explained.

    Alice Carlton, forest supervisor for the Plumas National Forest, told the Quincy Library Group Friday that the loss of the small-log mill “makes our job harder. The small-log mill is essential to our job of fire-safing communities. It will make it harder to get the healthy forests we all need and want.”

    Rather than assessing blame, Sheehan said he was more concerned with the need for the community to come together. “We need to mobilize. All of us need to work toward making sure this mill closure in not permanent.”

    Although SPI is calling the closure “permanent,” it is leaving the plant’s equipment in place and operational should conditions change.

    While some took that as a hopeful sign, others said it indicated SPI was using the closure as leverage for some kind of government assistance.

    Asked what the company would like to see happen, Pawlicki said SPI wanted Congress to void the QLG lawsuits and pass legislation to limit future litigation.

    For his part, Thomas said he felt facilitated negotiations with the Forest Service and QLG were going well. He said he had seen “an amazing shift” in the Forest Service with the change in leadership at the local and regional level. Carlton, Lassen Forest Supervisor Kathleen Morse and Regional Deputy Forester Beth Pendleton were “much more capable of dialogue,” Thomas said.

    He thought a number of projects were close to being resolved, “So we can facilitate treatments and get people back to work. We have broad consensus; we’re arguing about just 5 percent. There has to be some way to get the right work done.”

    At last Friday’s meeting, members of the QLG were far less sanguine about the negotiation process. “Some of us don’t think collaboration is getting us anywhere,” said QLG chairman Bill Coates.

    Carlton and Morse tried to reassure the group that they would “not negotiate down to a prescription (treatment) that won’t achieve results on the ground.”

    Group member Linda Blum said she felt too many acres had already been negotiated away. “If the Forest Service capitulates to Sierra Forest Legacy, I’ll feel like a schmuck.”

    “We will stand firm on management objectives,” reiterated Carlton.

    “I want to see performance on the ground,” said Coates, “and not 5,000 years of process.”