Without trees, small-log mill's saws go quiet  (link to editorial)

Friday, March 6, 2009

The environmentalists who have fought the Quincy Library Group program over the past decade are an odd bunch.

After battling the attempt to build a durable cease-fire in the timber wars for most of the past decade, you'd think they'd be exchanging high-fives and celebrating victory. After all, Sierra Pacific Industries this week announced the closure of the small-log mill in Plumas County that it built in 1996 to take advantage of timber thinned under the Quincy Library Group's plan. The timber-industry heavyweight has conceded this bout - or at least a round.

Instead, at least in public, those same environmental groups assert that their campaign has nothing to do with the mill closure. It's just the economy, they argue.

And of course they're half right, as even Sierra Pacific officials agree. Logging and milling has always been a boom-and-bust industry, with housing growth largely driving demand for wood. And the number of new single-family homes built in California fell by almost 80 percent from 2005 to 2008, with no rebound likely in the near term. The company has slashed shifts and hours at all of its mills.

That's all bad enough, but throw in an endless string of new regulations, appeals and lawsuits that prevent the mill from receiving the steady supply of small logs it was built to handle, and you've got a knockout one-two punch.

Late in 1998, Congress passed the Quincy Library Group law, authorizing a pilot project to thin the forests of Plumas, Lassen and Sierra counties with the goal of reducing fire risks and ensuring a steady supply of timber, late in 1998. But in the past decade, only a small fraction of the planned work has been done, as no fewer than 55 separate appeals and lawsuits have slowed or stopped its timber projects, according to a tally kept by the group.

In the best of circumstances, milling small logs is less lucrative than carving big trees into boards. But at least a mill could hope for a steady supply of raw materials. If it can't even get that in the middle of tree-rich Plumas County, with the support of Congress and the community, well, the result is no progress on fire prevention and 150 fewer jobs in a rural community with few options.

Sierra Pacific spokesman Mark Pawlicki says the closure is considered permanent under laws regulating layoffs, but added, "We're not taking the equipment out of the mill." If economics and politics converge to make it viable, the saws could buzz again.

The business rebound will come sooner or later, but the dismal results of the once-promising Quincy Library Group make the odds of finding a sustainable path for our forests and communities farther away than ever.

Our view: The housing slowdown is tough, but a decade of lawsuits over the Quincy Library Group plan is a double blow to a mill and an attempt at consensus.