Senator says days of plentiful timber are over
BONNERS FERRY, Idaho _ The days of plentiful local timber to supply Boundary County sawmills are over, U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, told a roomful of business leaders here Thursday.
It's time to diversify, he said.
"There's been a substantial philosophical shift in our country in regards to public timber," Craig said to the group of business and community leaders. "I fought that over the years with many of you. I have not been successful."
During the last decade, he said, the allowed timber harvest on public lands has declined by 80 percent. In Boundary County, the squeeze on timber supply is exacerbated by the need to protect habitat for several endangered species, including grizzly bears and woodland caribou.
"Boundary County is constipated in its ability to move product off the land," he said. "I don't know of any other county that has that many restrictions."
Craig spent two hours with the group Thursday, listening to the special challenges facing area businesses such as log home building, farming and banking, and discussing what he's trying to do to help.
The meeting was called to solicit support and ideas for bringing more jobs to the resource-based community. This year, Boundary County lost 130 jobs with the permanent closure of the Louisiana-Pacific sawmill in Bonners Ferry.
L-P recently sold its North Idaho mills to Riley Creek Lumber Co., but the sale of the Bonners Ferry mill won't be final until financial matters concerning the lease of the mill's equipment are resolved.
Riley Creek Lumber Co. owner Marc Brinkmeyer has expressed a willingness to work with the community to come up with a new use for the mill. While Thursday's session was billed as a community brainstorming exercise, no one discussed any specific ideas for the mill site.
Instead, business owners talked about issues that concern them, such as the lack of timber supply. Competition for timber and depressed prices for wood products contributed to the closure of the Bonners Ferry mill.
"We reach out 120 to 130 miles away from Bonners Ferry to find work," said Tom Faust, president of Faust, Inc., a major North Idaho logging company. "I can't accept that when we see so much of our forest going to waste. Our industry is dying."
Sam Fodge of Fodge Pulp said he's having a tough time getting enough wood supply to keep up with the demand for his products, which include green fuel for co-generation electrical plants.
"If we had the timber, we could grow," he said. "We'd like to expand into other things, but the only thing I know is timber."
Craig is working on the "Healthy Forest" legislation in the Senate, which would relax federal regulations on timber sales and potentially open up more public lands to logging. He also discussed recent legal success in overturning the Clinton administration's roadless initiative, which put all roadless areas off limits to logging.
He also discussed how he's even found a sometimes-ally in Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein, of California, in advocating more logging to reduce the fuel loading on public lands.
But he didn't give false hope that the glory days of the timber industry would ever return. Nor did he advocate closing the borders to Canadian timber and lumber products.
The rash of forest fires in recent years has prompted an "awakening" among his congressional colleagues, many of whom now accept that thinning is needed to prevent catastrophic fires, Craig said. So, too, is the regulatory atmosphere changing under the new administration.
But while changes may occur, "It won't change in a way to produce millions and millions and millions of board feet for this county," he said. "It will yield fiber. I'm not sure what it will look like."
Fiber can mean big logs or small diameter logs that are removed to clear out the understory of an overgrown forest. The community recently landed a $25,000 feasibility study to research whether a business incubator that focused on finding alternative uses for the small diameter trees would be successful in Boundary County.
The county's Economic Development Corporation has been focused on downtown revitalization and business retention, but now it's turning its attention toward aggressive business recruitment, said Robin Ponsness, the group's economic development specialist.
Craig suggested that Boundary County capitalize on its assets, and focus on recruiting businesses from California, where he said some companies are like road-kill ready to be scavenged by watchful vultures.
"It means your community is going to change some," Craig
cautioned. "Your economy is going to change some if you're going
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