Republic rallies to save its sawmill - Many blame environmental group for closure, loss of 90 jobs

John Craig - The Spokesman-Review


Republic, WA - Republic residents Justin and Carol Smith, left, and Jerry Allen were among an estimated 200 people who attended a rally at Vaagen Bros. mill on Thursday.

REPUBLIC, Wash. _ Two months shy of her third birthday, Tiffany Byington was likely the youngest of about 200 people who rallied Thursday against logging restrictions blamed for shutting down the local Vaagen Bros. sawmill.

Tiffany watched the rally from the shoulders of her mother's friend, Bruce Cloutier, a lifelong Republic-area resident who fears his way of life may vanish when the mill closes early next year.

"I worked here for 17 years, and I hate to see it go down," Cloutier said as he twisted and turned to keep Tiffany amused. "It's been great for all of us, and it ensures a future for little ones like this."

Cloutier, 42, quit the mill in 1994 to take a better-paying job at the nearby Echo Bay Minerals gold mine and mill. But he lost his job early last month when Echo Bay began laying off more than one-third of its 85 workers.

Like the 90 Vaagen Bros. workers who will lose their jobs, starting Jan. 27, Cloutier qualifies for state and federal retraining assistance.

"I guess I'll go to college and try to become a registered nurse," Cloutier said.

He hopes he'll be able to remain in Ferry County, but the Ferry County Memorial Hospital is one of many community institutions civic leaders say are threatened by the sawmill closure.

County Commission Chairman Dennis Snook said the hospital "already is marginal," and may be forced to close if the local economy gets much worse. "It's not that far away that we're going to lose everything we have here."

Snook was one of several people who addressed the crowd in the sawmill yard. They waited about 40 minutes for the intended audience, a Seattle-based Fox Network television crew to arrive. Reporters from Spokane and Colville covered the event, but it had been over for a half-hour when the Seattle news crew arrived.

The Fox crew never bargained for a rally. Civic leaders hastily arranged the event after learning in a casual luncheon conversation Wednesday that sawmill manager Jon Newman was expecting a visit Thursday from the network news crew.

Government offices in Republic closed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. so approximately 120 county employees and 10 municipal workers could attend the rally. The Ferry County Public Utility District, the Republic and Curlew school districts, the volunteer fire department and several businesses also allowed employees to attend the rally or sent representatives.

Garbage truck driver Mark Kennard got trapped by the rally while making his rounds, but said he was glad to participate.

"With this mill going down, we lose 40 percent of our shop, too," Kennard said, noting two of five Couse Sanitation employees are to be laid off after the Vaagen cuts are completed.

Couse Sanitation and Republic Commercial Tire, which lost more than half its business when the Echo Bay ore mill closed last month, are owned by Mayor Shirley Couse and her husband, Cliff.

"We can't just accept this," Shirley Couse told the rally crowd. "We can't just die."

She said in an interview that the 90 sawmill jobs are especially important. Even though they don't pay as much as mining jobs, the sawmill jobs have good benefits and can provide the kind of long-term stability that the county's mining industry lacks.

"Lumber is a renewable resource," Couse said. "It is sustainable, and we could depend on that as an industry here."

But she and other speakers blamed environmental restrictions for choking off the mill's supply of timber from national forests. County Commissioner Jim Hall laid the blame squarely on the Kettle Range Conservation Group, a Ferry County-based environmentalist organization. Hall cited a 2-year-old recruiting letter in which the group's executive director, Tim Coleman, said the conservation group had "challenged hundreds of projects that threatened wild forests, clean water and prime wildlife habitat."

"It's pretty sad that this small group of people can have the effect on a whole county that they have had," County Commissioner Mike Blankenship said. "This is about being able to go home at night to your family. It's about being able to live where your grandparents lived."

Although about 10 members of the Kettle Range Conservation Group silently attended the rally, Coleman and his wife, Susan, were not present. Later, Susan Coleman said allegations that the group is responsible for the sawmill closure are unfounded.

"We are opposed to logging roadless areas," she said. "This is our big issue. We are not opposed to logging the national forest (in general)."

She said the conservation group has been working with Vaagen Bros., the Forest Service and local officials to arrange sales of small-diameter timber.

But Vaagen Bros. President Duane Vaagen said in an interview at his Colville office that he considers the conservation group part of the reason his Colville-based company has to close its Republic plant.

"I've never seen them be for something in the forest that was part of the solution," Vaagen said. "They didn't have to send those people home."

Vaagen predicted Republic will be "the most economically devastated community in the state." The only hope he could offer was that he won't sell the mill anytime soon, leaving the door open to reopening it if conditions improve.

But Vaagen said -- and mill manager Newman reiterated Thursday -- that the closure should be presumed permanent.


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