Within the next three months, the Stimson Lumber mill at Arden will close due to a combination of economic factors and federal policies that CEO Andrew Miller said are “a real shame.”
“While it is regrettable that the mill is closing, the real tragedy is what has happened on the Colville National Forest in recent years,” said Miller. “Our closure is the natural result of Forest Service policy.”
The Stimson Lumber operation currently employs 67 people in the area who will be out of work when the mill closes this winter, likely within 30 to 100 days, Miller said.
Like many mills in the area, Stimson relied on annual timber sales from the Colville National Forest to bring product to the mill.
Miller said the amount of timber that has been available over the last decade has not been enough to sustain area mills like Vaagen Brothers, Boise Cascade and Stimson Lumber.
‘…We went from too much cutting to nearly zero.’
“Looking back over federal policy on the national forest, we went from too much cutting to nearly zero,” he said. “Even if you give the environmentalists what they want, there is a vast amount of land that has been logged before and has young trees on it that are now becoming diseased.
“The Colville National Forest is an asset that could be managed responsibly with balance to suit even the most die-hard environmental groups.”
Recent harvest figures from the Colville National Forest have hovered around 40 million board feet (MBF) per year; in 2010, 48.2 MBF were sold, just slightly more than 2009 when the 43.6 MBF were sold.
Miller said those figures are not conducive to healthy forests or economies.
“The CNF could easily sustain all three mills with 150,000 board feet per year. Really, 120,000 MBF would hardly keep up with growth,” he said.
Along with not being able to access enough timber to keep the mill going, Miller said attempts to shore up the plant by switching product have been unsuccessful.
“When we bought the mill from Plum Creek, it was a 90 percent pine board facility. Three years ago we transitioned to cedar, but our only access to cedar is 200 miles away in the St. Joe River Valley,” Miller explained. “The mill is in the wrong place for where the timber is.”
Miller said the Stimson Lumber Company, which operates seven other plants in the Pacific Northwest, plans to channel the money being spent to sustain the Arden plant into their facilities in Plummer and St. Maries, Idaho.
“For the last 10 years, we have been looking at this and trying to decide if we want to keep sinking money into a plant when we have no confidence the timber from the national forest will be available,” he said, noting the plant has been at the break-even point for the last several years.
USFS blames funding
Colville National Forest Supervisor Laura Jo West said that she is concerned about the loss of jobs from the Stimson plant, but the USFS is limited in their ability to do much more due to funding.
“It is devastating that any jobs are lost in this community; that is serious business and we understand the frustration of the business community here regarding timber harvests,” said West. “But the timber sales we have been putting out are the maximum amounts, given our capacity.”
“We wish we could do more,” she added.
However, the forest plan currently being developed for the CNF actually calls for less timber harvests, not more. The current plan only calls for 25 to 35 MBF per year instead of the 35 to 40 MBF average over the last several years.
West said cost is a factor.
“The timber harvest number in the plan has confused people,” West said. “It is not a goal for us, it is what we will be able to do based on our funding.
“Sometimes we get flushes of more funding and are able to get more done.”
USFS Forester Ed Maffei said it costs the Colville National Forest around $85 per 1,000 board feet of timber to do the paperwork and marking associated with a timber sale.
“It takes around two years to complete the environmental assessment and involves eight to 10 people,” he said. “For a sale of 48.2 MBF like we did last year, it costs us around $3 million in cost, including salaries, contract work and supplies.”
Revenue from timber sales generally goes to fund stewardship programs, Maffei explained.
“With the timber sale revenue, we fund stewardship projects like fuel reductions, reducing overstocked stands and adding improvements for fish habitat, for example,” he said.
Since the cost of putting out a timber sale seems to be a hindering factor for the USFS, a new project spearheaded by the Stevens County Conservation District (SCCD) is exploring ways to reduce the cost of timber sales, including the environmental assessment or National Environmental Policy Act process.
SCCD works to streamline NEPA process
The SCCD has embarked on a project to help reduce the cost of forest management in an area called the East Wedge, roughly 21 miles north of Kettle Falls.
The SCCD is completing the NEPA/Environmental Assessment via a grant from the USFS to explore ways to reduce costs and promote forest health through actions like commercial timber harvest, mechanical treatment of fuels, under-burning, non-commercial thinning, new road construction, reconstruction and road decommissioning.
“We have an advantage in that we are able to hire people part-time for this project to spend dedicated hours on it,” said SCCD Project Manager Claudia Michalke.
The SCCD was given $458,000 for the project that generally costs the USFS $1.5 million. The project was re¬leased for public comment this week and Michalke anticipates the NEPA will be completed in December, or around 10 months after commencement.
USFS Forester Maffei said it generally takes the USFS two years to complete the same process.
Although solutions may be on the horizon in regards to federal timber sales, it will be too late for the Stimson plant that CEO Miller said will be shuttered in 30 to 100 days.
“When you don’t allow farming, ranching and logging in rural areas you are going to end up jobless,” he said. “It is terrible when we have assets that aren’t managed and end up wasting away what could be used for economic, social and environmental benefit.”