March 06, 2002 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

JOSEPH Joseph Timber Company is closing for the second time in the past year and the majority owner isnt saying much.

Late last month 25 employees were laid off. Another dozen jobs are expected to go by the end of this week, when the planer shuts down.

Its just like last year a curtailment, said Paula Krieger, a 92 percent owner of the mill. She made no further comment.

In March 2001 the mill reopened after a six-month shutdown.

Wallowa Resources, a non-profit organization that works to blend the needs of the land and community, bought 8 percent of the mill and forged a joint management agreement in which both companies had equal say.

Wallowa Resources then formed a subsidiary, Community Solutions Inc.

Recruited for the CSI board were Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward and former Wallowa Forest Products manager Les Bridges. David Hockett of Joseph was board president. Hockett became the mills general manager in August after manager Dave Shriner resigned.

In late January Hockett resigned as manager over differences of opinion in the decision making of the sawmill, he said.

After Hockett stepped down, the 47 employees were told the mill would shut down after the current on-site log deck was milled.

This is one time when a mill in the Northwest didnt close because of a lack of timber, said Diane Snyder, Wallowa Resources executive director.

Snyder praised Wallowa-Whitman National Forest District Ranger Meg Mitchells leadership and the recent innovative accomplishments made by her staff, including Joe Zinni, sales administrator, and Paul Survis, silviculturist.

Bridges said these public lands provided 140 million board feet in 1990 when he arrived. That supported three shifts at the Wallowa mill and two at the two Joseph mills.

By 1995 the federal government had reduced timber sales to virtually nothing in Wallowa County, and all three mills shut down. The Boise Cascade Corp. mill was dismantled and removed from Joseph.

In September 2000, Mitchell came to the county from Alaska. Under her leadership, instead of timber sales that are now out of favor, forest rehabilitation projects were initiated. This included the Carrol Creek Fire salvage southeast of Joseph, and the Buck and Lone Dog thinning projects north of Enterprise.

However, along with fire-fuel reduction, there was a timber component of 9 million board feet about three-fourths needed to retain a shift at Joseph Timber Co. for one year.

Mitchell credits her employees who put forth a fine effort, that withstood appeal.

Now, a thing of the past is hygrading, where the larger clearer timber was taken, Snyder said. Now, the older trees are left behind. Removed, instead, are the smaller trees that compete for nutrients and whose thick stands burn as devastating hot fires. Joseph Timber retooled to be able to utilize these small trees down to 5 inches in diameter.

Snyder said that more than 20 million board feet of timber dies annually in the Wallowa Valley. So, she encourages the Forest Service to expand in its new direction and get to some sustainable level of consistent supply, to which the workforce can adapt, rather than the old boom-and-bust cycle.

The remaining bright spot in the local timber industry seems to be Wallowa Forest Products at Wallowa, where a shift of 44 people has continued working since that mill reopened June 11.

We just put in a new optimized edger, said manager John Redfield, and were looking at the possibility of putting on a second shift.