Quincy Loses More Than a Mill

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One of Quincy, California's two lumber mills shut down yesterday, putting 150 people out of work. That’s a sizeable body blow for a rural county where the unemployment rate was already at 20 percent.

The impact, however, doesn’t stop there. Some say other western communities, even the Sierra forest itself, loses.

Sadly, with the housing construction slump, it might not be surprising to see a lumber mill close. The reason this mill closed has more to do with a legal battle over our national forests...a battle that pits an unusual coalition of loggers, lawmakers and local environmentalists against other environmental groups.

Quincy has a long history with the struggle over the forests that surround it. For generations, logging has been the major economic engine here, providing jobs, funding for local schools and other services.

But as others with different views moved here, tensions grew. Two decades ago, the town was split. There were charges of sabotage of logging equipment, accusations hurled.

"It had the symptom of what could be called a timber war," says longtime resident George Terhune. "people on both sides were so antagonistic to each other and blaming each other."

Not a promising climate for dialogue, but in a town this small, it's hard for opposing sides to avoid each other forever.

"Our kids were going to school together. We belonged to the same social clubs," says local attorney Michael Jackson, "and as we began to talk to each other we began to realize we could have a healthy town if we could find common ground."

And so, the two sides started talking, the group that emerged eventually took its name from the only neutral ground available for these conversations--the Quincy Library.

As unlikely as the Quincy Library Group or QLC might have seemed at the beginning, the end result was even more surprising and encouraging: a plan to thin the forest taking the small timber that increases fire danger processing it into lumber or biomass for power generation.

Enlisting the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein and the Clinton Administration, QLC's plan won the support of Congress and Sierra Pacific Industries built a mill to handle the smaller logs.

A promising start but as sales of timber for the project in the Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe National Forests have come up, they've been blocked by lawsuits filed by a coalition of environmental groups based in Sacramento.

While some blame the U.S. Forest Service for bungling the project, most Quincy residents point to the environmental coalition, the Sierra Forest Legacy.

"They're not from here," says local businesswoman Valerie Nellor," and when they've been asked to participate with community members to come up with solutions they don't bother."

For its part, Sierra Forest Legacy says it’s “unfortunate” they were forced to go to court. They blame the Bush Administration for locking them out of discussions for the past eight years and say they’re not to blame for the mill’s closure, the administration’s policies that led to the recession are.

Jackson, who still practices environmental law, says his counterparts on the other side are continuing to battle a timber industry they remember 20 years ago, refusing to recognize the industry has changed and the forest faces increasing risks.

Some members of the QLC admit even without the lawsuits the mill might have closed. No one knows, but without a reliable supply of small timber, the mill, launched a few years ago with so much promise and purpose is now closed. So, too is the project, so many worked on.

“It is frustrating,” says Jackson, “and it has sucked the heart right out of this town because we've done enough work to know it is the right thing to do in the forest."

So, a project that promised to be a model for others to follow is stalled and the forest remains vulnerable. That too, is an issue of concern in a community which has in recent years seen a number of big fires.

The Moonlight Fire 2 years ago blackened 65 thousand acres nearby is still a fresh memory. The stack of logs waiting to be processed in the remaining mill is a constant visual reminder. Most of them blackened, taken from nearby burn areas.

The failure of this once promising program has implications far beyond this community. It may have impacts across the West even at Lake Tahoe.

When fire raced through a South Lake Tahoe neighborhood in 2007 many were quick to point to the role played by a forest crowded with undergrowth. With the approach of each fire season Sierra residents begin to worry. So, there is a new urgency to find a solution to prevent other catastrophic fires.

Members of the Quincy Library Group believe their search for common ground came up with one and Tahoe and other forest communities also lost something yesterday.

“Tahoe is a loser in this. There's no question about it,” says Jackson. “If all the small log mills within a 100 miles of Tahoe go down, there's no market for anybody to do the work around the houses at Tahoe that needs to be done."

For the moment, the owners are leaving the mill in place, but no one expects that to last forever. The long term concern is if and when everyone is on the same page, the equipment needed to relaunch this effort won't be there.

It is one Quincy newswoman says “lose-lose-lose situation” and it's both ironic and, some would argue, tragic that an effort that finally brought environmentalist and loggers together to ensure a safer, healthier forest, has fallen victim to environmental litigation, however well-intentioned.