Boise Cascade’s decision to close its
La Grande sawmill was a terrible economic blow to the local economy. A reliable mainstay and a vital part of the community’s identity is gone. Let us hope that it is not forever.
As the plant falls silent, the community kisses goodbye millions of dollars that circulated through local businesses. We will all feel the pinch.
It begins with the workers directly affected, the 120 or so men and women left without the decent livelihood they always thought they could count on. These were not just any jobs, after all. They were the so-called “family-wage” jobs that have always been in short supply here. They were jobs with benefits, jobs that underwrote a solid future.
Here’s a telling statistic: the average wage earner in Union County earns about $30,000 a year, but people employed in the county’s manufacturing sector, so hard hit by the recession, average about $38,000.
By far, Boise Cascade workers and their families won’t be the only ones to suffer. According to the Oregon Employment Department, a community like La Grande can lose 1.25 jobs for every job lost at a mill.
The fallout will be felt — indeed, is already felt — throughout the local economy as the effect ripples outward.
The mill closure, when finally announced, did not come as a surprise. Rumors have been circulating for years. The wood products industry has been in decline since at least 2003. The La Grande mill has been teetering against the ropes at least since then.
The cost of labor was high, and that was a big factor. Other problems were beyond local control. Nationally, demand for wood products slipped as the real estate and housing markets imploded. Federal forest policies played a role too. The mill had to go far afield for logs, which by and large are not for sale on local national forests. On top of everything else, that expense grew intolerable.
Boise hasn’t said what its long range plans for the mill are. For the immediate future, it’s a mothballed operation. Infrastructure, including an almost-new, $4.5 million wood-fueled boiler, is still in place and can be put to good use if markets revive and the federal government decides to replace its irrational forest practices with a sane and sensible approach.
Let’s hope all that happens sooner rather than later. Let’s also hope that if the mill is fired up again, workers get a decent deal, that the jobs offered come with good wages and benefits.
The wood products industry has always been crucial to our economic well-being. If it fails to return to its former vigor, what can replace it?