Trouble in the mills

No one reading a recent cavalcade of depressing news stories can doubt that an economic wildfire is sweeping away many of the last vestiges of the Pacific Northwest's once-dominant logging industry.

For the foreseeable future, America will continue to need wood products. A smaller, more efficient and hopefully more forward-looking timber business will emerge from the present horrendous housing collapse.

But in the meantime, our region and the nation owe a real duty to acknowledge the genuine heartache and trauma being experienced around the kitchen tables of forest families.

Around our region, sawmill closures and cutbacks in places like Warrenton, Dallas, Raymond and Aberdeen spell an end to some of the last good-paying jobs available for the high school educated.

The news stories make for sad reading:

  • Including as many as 145 woods-crew job cuts announced this month in Aberdeen, Raymond and Pe Ell, Wash., Weyerhaeuser employment in its Grays Harbor-Willapa Bay forests will fall from nearly 1,300 in 2005 to about 300. Two months ago, Weyco laid off 59 from its Warrenton mill. On May 6, the company's credit rating was cut to "junk" grade for the first time in its 109-year history.
  • Tacoma's News Tribune reported, "The volume of lumber produced in the West is the lowest since the 1930s, says Portland's Western Wood Products Association spokesman Robert Bernhardt Jr. Demand for lumber and wood products nationwide is down from 64.3 billion board feet in the overheated days of the 2005 housing boom to a projected 28.9 billion board feet this year, according to an association forecast. That's a 55 percent drop. And the prices that timber companies get for their products has dropped sharply."
  • Locally, forest job losses contribute to Clatsop County's highest unemployment rate since the mid-1980s. In Pacific County, at least one worker out of every seven is jobless on the heels of Weyco's cuts.

Bad as all this is, it only hints at the pain experienced by too many of our friends and neighbors. They are living through the stressful destruction of lifelong economic assumptions at a time when other good options are few and far between. Their troubles are all of our troubles in a very concrete sense, in that their paychecks no longer circulate in North Coast stores and restaurants.

They don't need pity, but help with job skills and creation of new opportunities in our communities. Their circumstances make it clear just how ridiculous it is that states are being forced to cut community college funding just as the need for training reaches a new high.

"Attention must be paid," said Willy Loman's wife of her husband in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." The same can be said of Northwest logging families, except in this case "attention" should consist of a nationally sponsored program to create a new vision for rural workers. It is time to look beyond the current crisis and begin working toward a new future that keeps good people employed.

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