Ochoco Lumber closing Prineville, OR mill
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at teleport.com
Mon Jul 30 11:50:45 EST 2001
>From The Oregonian, July 29, 2001, p A17
END OF THE LINE
Ochoco Lumber will close its Prineville mill, forcing the work force
and town to confront new challenges
By STEVE LUNDGREN, Correspondent, The Oregonian
PRINEVILLE - Harvey Burnett figured he would see the end of Ochoco
Lumber; he just hoped it wouldn't come on his shift.
At age 60, the certified lumber grader expected to retire in a couple
of years from the place where he had worked for 31 years. But in may,
the company sent out 60-day layoff notices to its employees.
On Tuesday, the sawmill that for six decades has been as much a part
of Prineville as rimrock and rodeos will close, probably for good.
"We've just been hanging onto the old horse," Burnett said. "We knew
he would die eventually. We finally got there."
He doesn't know what he'll do. For Burnett and more than 80 other
employees, closing the mill means the end of some of the best-paying
jobs left in Prineville. They made an average of $35,000 a year in a
town where the average annual household income is $24,129.
For the community, the meaning goes deeper.
"Effectively, this signals that the primary lumber industry in
Prineville is over," said County Judge Scott Cooper. "We've known it's
been over for years, but this is the final straw."
That's a slight exaggeration. Crown Pacific still has a sawmill in
town that employs about 50. But the flow of federal timber that kept
Ochoco and other mills running has all but disappeared.
More to Cooper's point, Ochoco Lumber is the latest of the old guard:
the family-owned mills that shaped Prineville. Closing it is as much a
cultural as an economic blow to the community. Prineville always
identified itself as a timber and agricultural town. Although Les
Schwab tires, with headquarters in Prineville, is the largest
employer, much still bears the stamp of timber, especially Ochoco
The high school football stadium was built with money from local
mills, including Ochoco. It's named after Ward Rhoden, the founder of
another defunct mill. Hundreds of Crook County kids have gone to
college on scholarships from the Shelk family, founders of Ochoco
Lumber. The Shelks have underwritten cultural events and facilities
throughout Central Oregon, including the High Desert Museum in Bend.
"They gave a lot back to the community as an organization," said
Brenda Comini of the Crook County Commission on Children and Families.
"When you add up all the things, it's going to be a big loss to the
The timber industry came to Crook County in the 1870s, and a dozen
temporary mills came and went before four or five large mills became
established. Ochoco Lumber was one of those.
Started as a land and timber company in 1924, the company built the
mill in 1938. With the exception of a couple of strikes, it has
operated continuously since then, said John Shelk, majority owner in
the privately held corporation and the great-grandson of a founder.
As Shelk walks through the mill, he greets employees by first name
over the rumble of the conveyors; they respond in kind. Except for
college and a tour in Vietnam, Shelk has spent most of his life in and
around the mill. Shutting it down is not something he wanted to do,
but he is a businessman.
"You're losing money and you're running out of logs," he said.
"That's a pretty compelling reason to shut down."
Shelk is bitter about the need to close the mill. Nearly five years
ago when the company was experimenting with importing logs from as far
away as New Zealand, he said logic dictated closing the mill then. But
his family felt committed to the community, he said.
Small logs disappear
Shelk accuses the U.S. Forest Service and environmentalists of not
upholding what he saw as an agreement 10 years ago. It had become
apparent then big trees would not be available from federal land
because of growing concern for old-growth ecosystems. But the Forest
Service projected it would be selling smaller trees as it thinned east
side stands to improve forest health.
"We retooled to build a state-of-the-art mill that was capable of
handling the small logs that the Forest Service said would be
available," Shelk said.
At the time, a number of environmentalists agreed the "forest health"
sales of small-diameter timber would be acceptable. But in recent
years those who advocate no logging on federal land have become
"Pretty much on the Ochoco every one of our sales is appealed," said
Art Currier, Prineville District ranger on the Ochoco National Forest.
For example, the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and the League
of Wilderness Defenders this year submitted a 104-page appeal of the
sale of 54 trees cut by firefighters during a wildfire last summer,
even though the logs have been dead and stacked for nearly a year.
Timber sales on the Ochoco National Forest have fallen from 115
million board feet in 1991 to 6.4 million board feet in 2000,
according to Vicky Kemp, timber sale contracting officer for the
forest. Along with Shelk, Kemp though the Forest Service would be able
to sell smaller timber at a consistent, sustainable level. She
contends the Ochoco National Forest could produce 20 million to 30
million board feet of timber a year.
Ochoco Lumber was buying timber from private and some federal sales
as far as Wenatchee, Wash., and north Idaho. But increasing fuel
costs, combined with a drop in lumber prices as a result of foreign
competition, made that unprofitable.
The company owns timberlands, but it always has used timber from its
private lands to supplement the timber it buys from other sources,
including federal lands. Shelk said the company's land is sufficient
to feed the mill for less than three years if the company clear-cut
That's not something the company wants to do. For now, the Prineville
mill will be mothballed, not dismantled. Ochoco Lumber also has a mill
in John Day and one in Lithuania, so the company will continue. Should
the political climate change, and timber from federal land become more
available, Shelk said he hopes to reopen the Prineville mill.
Few familiar with the timber industry in Central Oregon expect that
will happen in the foreseeable future. "To sum it up in one word, it's
bleak," said Chuck Burley, a longtime timber industry consultant in
How the shutdown affects Prineville's economy is not clear. Kevin
Sicard, an economist for the Oregon Employment Division, said 402
people were employed this year in the primary wood products industry
in Crook County, including 166 people in logging. Some of those work
for Crown Pacific, which has its own timber supply and continues to
run one shift at its Prineville mill.
The secondary industries
Another question is how it will affect the region's manufacturers of
doors, windows and moldings; they historically located near the supply
of raw materials. Crook County has three such plants that employ about
950 workers. Two of those companies did not respond to The Oregonian's
inquiries for this story.
Few of the "remanufacturing operations" in Oregon are expanding, said
Paul Ehlinger, a timber consultant in Eugene.
"Sooner or later that will fade out because the raw material is
somewhere else," Ehinger said.
One of the expected victims of the mill's closure is the City of
Prineville Railroad, an 18-mile municipally owned railroad that since
1917 has shipped lumber and agricultural products from Prineville to
the main Burlington Northern-Santa Fe line near Redmond. It employs
seven people and historially brought in $800,000 to $1 million a year
in revenue to the city.
Ochoco Lumber accounted for about 40 percent of the railroad's
business. Without it, the railroad expects to lose about $23,000 a
year and might have to shut down, according to Jerry Price, the
"We don't know what we're going to do," Price said. "We're doing some
evaluating right now. It's going to have a ripple effect on just about
everything in town from the machine shops to real estate, even the
doctors and medical offices."
But no one is as uncertain of their future as the 85 employees who
are getting laid off, people such as Harvey Burnett, Dan Viles and Dan
"I'm 51 years old," said Viles, a lumber grader who has been with
Ochoco for 19 years. "The employment prospects aren't too good."
His wife, Teena, a planer lead person, also is getting laid off,
after 15 years. Warner, a forklift driver who's worked at the mill for
18 years, also sees few prospects, especially in the wood industry.
"These guys who get laid off at $35,000 a year, and they take their
skills somewhere else," Sicard said, "They're probably going to get a
Viles took a job aptitude test recently; it told him he would be a
good short-order cook or a brewmaster. Federal money is available for
retraining, but job prospects in Crook County are limited, leaving the
workers caught between forces outside their control.
"I feel like a mule that's been beaten, dragging this cart with more
and more government workers piling on it, and now they want me to do
it on half rations," Viles said. "I think I'm just going to lie down
in the middle of the road."
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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