After operating more than 60 years, the local mill will close and the blame for the closure is, depending on who is talking, focused on 'elitist environmentalists' and the US Forest Service
>The log pond at Ochoco Lumber Company had been emptied before the last week's announcement that the plant will cease operation next month. Fearing the pond was warming water that would drain into Ochoco Creek and cause problems for fish in the stream, the Department of Fish and Wildlife had requested that the pond be emptied.
It's official ... after more than 60 years of operating in Prineville, the Ochoco Lumber Company's local sawmill will close.
Company officials say the closure of the Prineville plant will put 80 employees out of work. Bruce Daucsavage, president of Ochoco Lumber, said the closure will take $4 million in annual wages and benefits out of the local economy. Shutting down the local mill doesn't mean the end of the lumber company, though.
"We'e an ongoing company," Daucsavage said. "We're still a $40 million company. Unfortunately not here in Prineville."
The reason given for closing the mill is, according to Daucsavage, simply a lack of a steady supply of timber. "The price of pine lumber has been very low for a long time. We were forced to lay off one shift last October and had hoped by this spring that things would improve. We are very disheartened."
Ochoco Lumber Company president said the "elitist environmentalists" are to blame. The recent appeal of the Hash Rock Salvage Harvest, Daucsavage added, is a good example of that. "The 55 trees on the ground are not in the Wilderness Area and should be harvested. Time and time again, we've come up against that wall. It is disheartening and hurtful."
Another factor is what Daucsavage labeled the apathy of local officials. "It (being allowed to harvest public timber) is just not on their screen," he lamented. "Why fight the battle? I hope the next generation will see that the timber supply has value and is needed."
Crook County Judge Scott Cooper said the news of the closure made Thursday "a very, very bad day." Speaking forcefully, he placed the blame directly on the Forest Service's doorstep. "Congratulations to the US Forest Service. I hope this is what they wanted with their policy to lock it (the forests) up and preserve it. That policy is killing rural communities in the western part of the country."
Prineville and Crook County are not unique in this, he added. "All of the western US is facing this because of the federal policies over the last 10 years. Ours is a natural resource based economy," he pointed out, "and without improved transportation and teleconferencing capabilities, all we have are the natural resources. What kind of government would close the tap at Klamath Falls and say, 'Sorry!'? They are taking 1,000 jobs away down there ... we are only losing 80. Am I surprised? No. We've all seen this coming for some time."
The trickle-down effect of the closure goes far beyond the unemployment office. For the City of Prineville Railroad, manager Jerry Price said it is "devastating."
For a long time, Ochoco Lumber has been the railroad's biggest customer, transporting carloads of wood chips out to the main line. Price said the mill's share of the railroad's income is usually between $300,000 and $350,000 a year.
Lately, the railroad has been running at a break-even level and losing Ochoco Lumber Company's business will be a major hit.
"It's going to be tough," Price said.
Another question is the future of the physical mill itself. It's too early, Daucsavage said, to think about what will happen to the local plant. The replacement cost for the equipment would be close to $20 million. But, he added, in its current condition it's not worth the price of scrap metal.
Daucsavage said one bright side to last Thursday's announcement of the closure was the response from customers and others. "I've been fielding calls from all over the US and overseas all morning," he said Friday, "people we've dealt with for years, calling. I tell them we're still out there kicking."
Although the John Day mill cut back to one shift sometime ago, there are no plans at this time to close it down. There are timber harvests in that area to supply the mill. Locally, the company owns forest land which it will manage, Daucsavage explained. "It won't have an impact on the county, but we'll still be here."
The loss of Ochoco Lumber Company will have a long lasting impact locally. The Prineville plant has been at the same location since the early 1920s, and has been operating non-stop since 1938. Owned by the Shelk Family, the company has long been recognized both locally and statewide as good community supporters. Through the Shelk Foundation, the scholarship program has benefited many. The contributions made by the foundation and Ochoco Lumber to Prineville, Crook County and the state goes back a long way.
The employment picture is uncertain. Kevin Sicard of the Oregon Department of Labor said it'll be a couple months before the closure's impact will show up on the local unemployment rate. It will take a while after people start filing claims, he explained.
"Eighty workers isn't a lot for someplace like Portland, but in Prineville, it'll really show up."
Most, he said, will qualify for the Displaced Timber Workers program and be able to get educational and retraining. "This could be a positive thing for other local companies," Sicard said. "By increasing the number of trained and qualified workers. Redmond, for example, has a need for qualified workers. That would help Prineville's employment rate."