Last August my friend
Jim Hurst auctioned his sawmill
By Jim Peterson
Jim’s decision to pack it in after 25 years of beating his head
on the wall made big news here in northwest Montana,
but, alas, not a peep from the New York Times or even the
local newspaper. That’s too bad, because the loss of our family-
owned mills also signals the loss of technologies and skills
vital to our efforts to protect the West’s great national forests
from the ravages of increasingly fearsome wildfires.
I was in Jim’s office a few days before the auction interviewing
him for a book I’m writing on the post-war history
of the West’s sawmill-owning families. He told me he was at
peace with his decision, but Jim has a good game face, so I
suspect the decision to terminate his remaining 70 employees
tore his guts out. They were like family to him.
Jim’s outfit was the economic backbone of tiny Eureka,
Montana, a sawmill town since the early 1900s. I have a
photo of my school teacher great aunt standing on the front
steps of the town’s one-room schoolhouse in 1909. Although
the town has grown some since then, its rural charm is still
very much intact.
Thanks to the nation’s housing boom, business has been
good for the West’s sawmills for the last three years. But Jim
faced an insurmountable problem: he couldn’t buy enough
logs to keep his mill running. This despite the fact that ten
times more trees than Jim’s mill needed die annually on the
nearby Kootenai National Forest. From his office window,
Jim could see the dead and dying standing on hillsides just
west of the mill. They may as well have been standing on
the moon, given the tsunami of senseless environmental litigation
that has engulfed the West’s federal forests.
Thanks to Jim’s resourcefulness, his mill survived its last
five years on a steady diet of fire and bug-killed trees salvaged
from Alberta provincial forests. Salvage work is unthinkable
in our national forests — forests that, news reports
to the contrary, remain under the thumb of radical environmental
groups whose hatred for capitalism seems boundless. Americans are thus invited to believe that salvaging firekilled
timber is “like mugging a burn victim.” Never mind
that there is no peer-reviewed science that supports this
ridiculous claim — or that many of the West’s great forests,
including Oregon’s famed Tillamook Forest, are products of
past salvage and reforestation projects.
Jim shared his good fortune with his employees. Each received
an average $30,000 in severance and profit-sharing: a
tip of the hat from him to a crew that set a production record
the day after he told them he was throwing in the towel. Such
is the professionalism — and talent — found among the
West’s mill workers. Afew Oregon mills tried to recruit them,
but most don’t want to leave Eureka. I haven’t the faintest
idea what they’ll do to make a living, but in the 40-some
years I’ve spent observing forests and people who live in
them, I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of roots.
Although he’s still a young man filled with creative energy
and enthusiasm, I suspect the government has seen the
last of Jim Hurst. Three years ago, I called nearly 100 sawmill
owners scattered across the West and asked them if they
would invest $40 million in a new small-log sawmill on the
government’s promise of a timber supply sufficient to amortize
the investment. The verdict was a unanimous, “No.”
The never reported truth is that the family owned sawmills
that survived the decade-long collapse of the federal timber sale
program no longer have much interest in doing business with
a government they no longer trust. Most now get their timber
from lands they’ve purchased in recent years, other private
lands, tribal forests or state lands. Some even import logs from
other countries, including Canada, New Zealand and Chile.
You would think environmentalists that campaigned
against harvesting in the West’s national forests for 30-some
years would be dancing in the streets. And, in fact, some of
them are. But many aren’t. Railing against giant faceless corporations
is easy, but facing the news cameras after small
family-owned mills fold has turned out to be very difficult.Everyone loves the underdog, and across much of the West
there is a gnawing sense that environmentalists have hurt a
lot of underdogs in their lust for power.
Environmentalists also face a problem they never anticipated.
Recent polling reveals 80-some percent of Americans
approve of the kind of methodical thinning that would have
produced small-diameter logs in perpetuity for Jim’s
sawmill. We Americans seem to like thinning in overly dense
forests because the end result is visually pleasing, and because
it helps reduce the risk of horrific wildfire — a bonus
for wildlife and millions of year-round recreation enthusiasts
who worship clean air and water.
Many westerners wonder why the government isn’t
doing more thinning in at-risk forests that are at the epicenter
of our internet-linked New West lifestyle. I don’t. Until
the public takes back the enormous powers it has given radical
environmentalists and their lawyers, the Jim Hursts of
the world will continue to exit the stage, taking their hardearned
capital, their well developed global markets and their
technological genius with them.
Fifteen years ago, not long after the release of “Playing
God in Yellowstone,” his seminal work on environmentalism’s
philosophical underpinnings, I asked credentialed environmentalist
Alston Chase what he thought about this
situation. I leave you to ponder his answer: “Environmentalism
increasingly reflects urban perspectives. As people
move to cities, they become infatuated with fantasies about
land untouched by humans. This demographic shift is revealed
through ongoing debates about endangered species,
grazing, water rights, private property, mining and logging.
And it is partly a healthy trend. But this urbanization of environmental
values also signals the loss of a rural way of life
and the disappearance of hands-on experience with nature.
So the irony: as popular concern for preservation increases,
public understanding about how to achieve it declines.”
Jim Petersen writes from Montana. He is the founder of the
nonprofit Evergreen Foundation and the publisher of Evergreen
Magazine. This story first appeared in the Wall Street Journal
Dec. 29, 2005.