Timber towns are bouncing back


The current economic state of logging communities across the West varies depending on several factors, but the poor economy certainly isn’t doing any favors. Recently news has come out about two logging communities on the West Coast: the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and Mackenzie, British Columbia.

What is clear from this Los Angeles Times story on a possible timber deal in Tongass is that even when logging jobs may be on the verge of returning, issues about the environment and past timber practices can still bubble to the surface.

Part of the Tongass forest, which the Times calls the “crown jewel of the national forest system,” may be transferred to a corporation owned by several Native American tribes, under legislation currently being considered by Congress. Some environmental groups and local residents say the deal will lead once again to massive clearcutting in the park, which everyone agreed happened in the past, and also threaten the more modest timber operations already underway.

What is clear, though, is life hasn’t been quite the same in the Tongass since large-scale timber operations shut down, according to the Times story.  Thorne Bay, for instance, one of the towns in the forest, used to to be the largest logging camp in the world.

The shift has been dramatic. In 1997, 495 million board feet of timber was cut out of the forest. In recent years, less than 34 million board feet a year has made it to the mills.

Wilderness advocates say the region is beginning to come into its own in a new way with tourism, fishing and small woodworking enterprises — businesses that thrive on a healthy forest. Gradually, the mills are being retooled for smaller, replenishable trees to wean them from their dependence on the massive, old-growth giants.

Yet nothing so far has been able to overcome the loss of the big chain-saw jobs. Over the last 10 years, logging industry employment has shrunk from 4,000 jobs to barely 450. Towns like Thorne Bay and Craig have lost nearly 20% of their populations. Unemployment in some Native villages approaches 30%.

And finally, the Globe and Mail, the national Canadian newspaper, has a heartwarming story about the town of Mackenzie, B.C. Starting in 2007, the town’s six sawmills closed down one by one, but in recent weeks several mills have been bought and will be restarted by large companies.

The story quotes Evelyn Poulin, who moved to Mackenzie with her husband in 1966 to work in the timber industry.

She doesn’t expect the town to fully recover, but hopes the pulp-mill deal will be enough to start bringing home people who left their families behind to go find work.

“It’s just the breed of people that live in small towns,” she said. “They just don’t give up.”

Best of luck to the residents of Mackenzie as they rebuild the local industry that provided their livelihoods for decades.