April 12, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
|Lynn Jungswirth, center, was instrumental in reviving her town in California when it faced the loss of its logging-based economy. At the invitation of the Forest Service and the Seeley Lake Community Council, Jungswirth visited with groups here in a series of meetings designed to alert people and organizations to alternative actions. At left is Cheri Thompson, president of the council. At right is Tim Love, Seeley Lake District Ranger. Donna Love photo|
(Editor's comment: The Forest Service and the Community Council hosted a two-day conference about sustaining a town when faced with the loss of an industry such as Pyramid Lumber. Pyramid announced in November it would be closing the door due to economic hardships, but after a financial restructuring, the mill will remain open.
When the Pyramid announcement came, community members began working to find solutions to the jobs that would be lost as well as the consequences of losing a large part of the workforce and students. The Council brought in Lynn Jungswirth from Hayfork, California, who was instrumental in putting their community back together after the mill there closed in 1996. Following is a summary of the six meetings held April 3rd and 4th.)
Story by Donna Love
The Council specifically picked Lynn Jungswirth to speak at the two-day conference because of her community's struggle after loosing its lumber mill. In Seeley when Pyramid Lumber didn't close, the urgency of the situation lessened, but Jungswirth warns that exploring opportunities before it reaches a crisis stage is a key to healthy transition. She said attracting industry is hard to do after you lose your work force.
Hayfork, California boasted a population of 2,700 citizens. Eighty percent of the land in their county of Trinity was in the National Forest System.
The town's history is similar to Seeley Lake's. Like Seeley Lake, Hayfork is not incorporated and is run by a series of Boards.
The Hayfork mill, Sierra Pacific, was the town's major employer. It employed 150 workers, supported up to 50 loggers, and provided another 100 jobs in the form of services to the mill. In it's "hay-day", 87 Forest Service employees and their families also lived in the area.
According to Jungswirth, the mill struggled to stay open in the 1980's, but the timber harvested after the fire season of 1987 kept it open. Threats of the mill closing were put on hold. The citizens were relieved and went about life as usual.
The first major blow to the community happened in 1990 when a federal court told the Forest Service "all logging on the Northwest Forest System (Oregon, Washington and California) will stop until a plan for managing the Spotted Owl is developed."
The forests completely shut down and loggers were the first effected. Jungswirth's husband was a logger and their friends were loggers. She saw that "timber just wasn't going to do it" for her community anymore. She wanted to help, but didn't know how.
What she came up with was a plan to create a 501C3 non-profit center run by grants that would help her community and have the ability to create jobs. She learned how to "work the system" and she said she learned how to "beg." She learned how to write grants. She said that there is an imperative advantage to having someone in the community as a grant writer because they have a stake in the community. She said outside grant writers simply don't have a stake in the long-term, big picture.
In 1992 she rented a vacant store and called her center, "The Watershed Research and Training Center." The Center became a national model for the type of program that can be used to help "Communities in Transition."
It was an endeavor born out of foresight and need. She said that in 1992 the Spotted Owl Plan became law and the mill "packed up and left town" for good in 1996.
Jungswirth told the Seeley Lake business community that a town in trouble must put aside internal fights to present a united front in order to capture sources of funding that will provide the necessary infrastructure to a community in transition. Major contributors will only work with a community that pulls together.
One of the first projects Hayfork faced was acquiring a sewer system. They needed the system to attract new businesses, to provide low-income housing, and care facilities for their elderly.
Getting the sewer system was no easy task. About half the town wanted the system and the other half didn't.
Through her Center and armed with a new magical word, "watershed," she said she came up with grants and state money to fund the sewer system.
It costs $16.00 a month per family. Free hook-up fees of $1,500 per home were provided to those who could not afford it. With the alternative funding, the sewer system went in without the need for a new bond issue.
During a question and answer session, Jungswirth asked what the plan for Seeley Lake was in the event that the mill closed. Tourism was offered as a possible solution.
Jungswirth expressed that that was not the best answer. She said that a tourist economy is pear-shaped. Only a few on the top make decent wages and the rest are lower end wage earners.
Jungswirth demonstrated that a football shaped community is the optimum. Healthy communities have a few rich at one end and a few poor at the other with the bulk of the people in the middle earning decent wages.
Jungswirth presented slide shows at two of the meetings and discussed the effects the mill closure had on her community.
The first and most visible impact was the drop in population. The community of 2,700 dwindled to 1,400 people. The first to leave were the young families and singles that needed to build a new future.
Next to go were the educated, such as the teachers and forest service employees who offer a lot to the community.
Some families moved. She said many school age children didn't want to move, so dad went on the road to find a job, leaving mom home with the kids.
Many of the retired elderly suffered because their children moved away. No one was there to help fix the roof or take them shopping.
Two of the four grocery stores and two of the four gas stations closed. The school population dropped from 400 to 200 students. Vacant shops dotted downtown. Bars closed and, Jungswirth laughed, "You know it's bad when bars close," she said.
Left behind were families that financially couldn't move, "families who had worked in the mill forever and didn't want to move," the elderly, and anyone who waited too long to move so now they couldn't afford to.
As could be expected, Hayfork experienced a rise in domestic abuse, alcoholism, drug use, "cranky teens" and stress-related illnesses.
The community rallied together to help the most destitute, but selling stuff back and forth to each other at rummage sales and spaghetti feeds only works for a short time, she said. And after so much hard work a friend told her, "All we are doing is making poverty tolerable, and that's not what we really want."
And many were in poverty. During the 1990's the west overtook Appalachia in poverty rate growth.
Jobs, real jobs, needed to be found. Solutions offered by outsiders included putting in a prison or a "major call center." The community rejected those solutions.
She felt that the answer lay in utilizing the skills of the workers. She read the Forest Plan to find out what the Forest Service was going to need.
What the Plan called for was ecosystem management. She knew what that meant. For years she had watched researchers and specialists come and go through the community doing surveys and counting things. She thought, "We don't need outsiders to count our things. We can count them ourselves."
She contacted the local community college and proposed a training program that taught how to do resource surveys. Her only stipulation was that it be a field course since "her guys" learned best by hands-on instruction.
The first class had two instructors and twenty students. The training included how to do resource surveys on everything from forest health to wildlife and fisheries. Grants provided money for the families to live on while retraining.
The students found it easier than imagined. When they counted bugs she said the guys laughed. They knew the kinds of bugs they were counting; they just didn't know the scientific names. Up to this time they had just called them "bait."
The loggers loved the program because they were back in the woods and the environmental community could go along with it because no one was talking about cutting trees. Now they monitor bats, fisheries spotted owls and more.
Jungswirth explained some differences she saw between Hayfork and Seeley Lake.
Hayfork had no other real source of income except the mill. Seeley has a few other manufacturing businesses such as log home builders, post and poles and some agriculture.
She also sees the influence of tourism dollars. Hayfork is just learning that "people will pay you to take them fishing."
She said that Hayfork has mostly "trailer-house retirees," and Seeley Lake has a lot of "trophy home retirees". She said she could tell that the retirement community took an active roll in the community by using their resources and knowledge to support the infrastructure to make it a great place to live.
Motioning around her, she said it was evident that Seeley Lake was ahead of Hayfork in the care they give their schools. Hayfork hadn't felt it important to do any renovations on their school for a long time so when the mill closed the school was left in a deteriorated state without needed funding.
When asked to predict the future of Seeley's mill, Jungswirth said, "You have the best chance for beating the odds." She sited several reasons.
The mill is small. It only takes 30 to 40 million board feet to sustain it and it has recently obtained reinvestment dollars needed to purchase new equipment.
The mill is locally owned so they are community members who have a stake in its success and a tie to the community. It has its own kiln. It gets its timber from a diversity of places and it has employee loyalty.
She felt that something the community should do is to keep the wood in the community for as long as possible. In other words, have manufacturing businesses in the community that uses the wood from the mill to make products such as cabinets, window sills, picture frames, porch or balcony kits, etc.
The old mill town way of "wackum, stackum, rackum and packum" no longer supports a community. The money today is in making a usable product out of the wood. It keeps the mill busy and it employs community people.
She discussed the practical side of developing new jobs for timber-based employees.
Her "Watershed Center" developed a small timber harvesting company to handle "Stewardship Contracts" that the Forest Service offered.
One of them included taking out roads and pulling culverts. She thought "that sounds like something our big yellow equipment could do" so she got the Forest Service to hire "her guys."
Watershed management also needed streams refurbished. That included relocating streambeds and moving big rocks to upgrade drainages. Another job for her "yellow equipment."
She knew the National Fire Plan called for a county wide fire plan so some retrained to map where the roads and homes were.
It also called for fuel reduction by thinning. She set the unemployed mill workers to work figuring out how to make equipment that could fell "stems" (four and five inch diameter trees that they wouldn't let her call trees because they were so small) and pull that out of the forest.
At first the environmentalists were against the thinning, but a recent fire season that threatened many of their homes changed their minds, she said.
With a little ingenuity on the mill workers part they also found a way to manufacture the wood they pulled into useable products. They discovered that suppressed Douglas fir makes beautiful shelving, flooring and furniture. They now have a little mill using the "stems" they cut for fuel reduction and a small furniture factory. A gasification plant small enough to fit in the back of a pick-up runs the mill.
In all, the "Watershed Center" has put seventy-five people back to work and gained national recognition as a leader in community-based forestry.
Jungswirth commended Seeley on the work that has been done so far within the community. She also urged the community to continue to work together because a united community has power to find the resources to make things work. She also emphasized the importance of planning prior to a crisis.