In Idaho Lumber Country, Trump Voters Wait To See If He Can Jumpstart Jobs | KERA News

In Idaho Lumber Country, Trump Voters Wait To See If He Can Jumpstart Jobs

Dec 1, 2016
Originally published on December 1, 2016 10:13 pm

A few weeks before the election, the Tri-Pro lumber mill in north Idaho shut down. It was the second mill to close in the area in six months, putting more than a hundred people out of work.

While that's big economic loss for any community, it was especially tough for the tight-knit town of Orofino and its 3,000 or so residents.

"It's going to be a struggle, quite honestly," says Mike Reggear, the supply manager and only employee left on the Tri-Pro payroll.

The mill officially closed Oct. 4, after operating on the site in one incarnation or another for nearly 60 years. The shuttered lumberyard is now eerily quiet as Reggear ties up some loose ends; the old mill, kilns and saws are ready to be hauled out.

"There were living-wage jobs [with good benefits] that have now been lost," Reggear says, shaking his head.

The story behind Tri-Pro's closure is an all-too-familiar one lately in north Idaho: Reggear says there just wasn't a steady enough supply of logs available locally to keep the sawmill running and profitable. The amount of federal land open to logging has dwindled since the 1980s, and imports from Canada are cheaper.

But just like any economic story in rural America today, it's more complicated than that. And even in Idaho's deeply conservative timber country, there are mixed feelings over whether President-elect Donald Trump can do much to turn things around.

Changing Times

Timber towns like Orofino, situated along railroad lines and rivers, were put on the map more than a hundred years ago when it seemed like there was a limitless supply of timber in the Northwest woods. The federal government — and specifically the U.S. Forest Service, run as an extension of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — was in the business of actively promoting logging.

The environmental mood of the country is significantly different today. So is the economy — mechanization, for instance, has meant that fewer people are needed to log in the woods or work in the mills.

At best, logging is a seasonal occupation, says Jerry Spencer, "so you try to diversify a little bit — because you can't live on [work] eight months a year."

One night over Coors Lights at the Ponderosa Restaurant, Spencer says he feels lucky he still can find work as an independent contractor, logging in the woods when he can.

Spencer and one of his buddies had been splitting time between north Idaho and the oil fields in North Dakota and Wyoming, where they drove trucks. Then oil prices tanked.

He's not too eager to talk politics, but Spencer says he's glad Donald Trump won.

"I'm Republican, almost everybody in this county's Republican," he says. "It's a logging, resource-based county and that's how it is."

Now that the election is over, Spencer says he's hopeful things can get better — "but I'm not going to bet on it, just yet."

The main reason for his pessimism, he says, is that even if Trump were to open up more federal land to logging, there are hardly any mills left here to handle all that wood.

Still, the president-elect's talk of returning to a time when natural resources — mining, timber and oil — were king resonates here.

"Those resources is what built this country," Spencer says. "You can say what you want, but it was all built off of mining, timber, oil ... the United States wasn't built off of tech companies."

Urban-Rural Divide

In the rural West, it's not unusual to hear jabs like that directed at city dwellers. But the divide seems even more pronounced since the election.

Folks in Orofino are proud of their heritage as loggers and miners, but today, Clearwater County routinely has one of the highest unemployment rates in Idaho.

In Orofino's quaint, small downtown, there are for-lease signs in empty store fronts. Locals will tell you they have to work two or three jobs — at the school, the Best Western, or for one of the local outfitters. Some are forced to commute 40 miles downriver to Lewiston.

Still, when it comes to the latest mill closure, many of the same locals grudgingly say they saw this coming for years.

"The first thing you do is cuss and kick the ground and rant a little bit, but the second is, you pull yourself up by those bootstraps and figure, OK, where do we go from here?" says Chris St. Germaine.

In the 1980s, St. Germaine moved to Orofino to take a job with the U.S. Forest Service after ski-bumming her way across the West. Today she runs the county's one-person Office of Economic Development.

St. Germaine's arrival in Orofino coincided with the time that the amount of federal lands available for logging started shrinking. The local timber economy subsisted because of logging on private lands, but even that has flat-lined. So St. Germaine and other civic leaders are pushing to diversify.

Despite the mill closures, it hasn't been all doom and gloom: A rifle scope manufacturer opened recently, as did a company that makes jet boats. The hope is to draw more companies that cater to the fishing and hunting economy, and retrain mill workers.

"Clearwater County is a place where you can build it here, and test it out your back door," St. Germaine says.

An Industry 'Strangled'

But these are all long-term projects that likely won't help people like Pat Goetz, who is scrambling to find jobs right now.

After working mostly as a bookkeeper in the timber industry since 1986, Goetz was laid off when Tri-Pro closed. So far the only jobs she's seeing advertised are minimum wage.

"Once you take timber out of the equation in counties like Idaho County, Clearwater County, there isn't much else," she says.

Losing her health insurance was the biggest shock. At 63, she's not yet eligible for Medicare, and she's not sure whether she can afford to go on the exchanges to buy a replacement plan.

Goetz says she gets depressed watching, as she puts it, an industry being strangled to death.

"Young kids have to go somewhere else in order to make a living," Goetz says. "My children had to move out."

Like a lot of people in town, Goetz also didn't think twice about voting for Donald Trump. She's hoping he can help bring back timber towns like hers.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A few weeks before the election, the Tri-Pro Lumber Mill in North Idaho shut down. It was the second timber mill to close in the area in six months. Now, this part of the country is a Republican stronghold, and as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, there are mixed feelings there on whether President-elect Trump can help the industry recover.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Two mill closures putting a hundred people out of work is a big deal for any community, but it's especially a shock for a small, tight-knit town like Orofino, Idaho, population 3,000.

MIKE REGGEAR: Yeah, as of October 4 - was the closure date to the saw mill.

SIEGLER: So most of the offices have emptied out apart from yours, and...

REGGEAR: Correct.

SIEGLER: The only employee left on the Tri-Pro payroll is Mike Reggear, the manager. He's tying up some loose ends. The shuttered lumber yard is eerily quiet - the old mill, the kilns, the saws ready to be hauled out.

REGGEAR: You know, it's - (laughter) it's going to be a struggle, quite honestly. It really is. I mean they were living-wage jobs that now have been lost.

SIEGLER: The story behind Tri-Pro's closure is an all too familiar one lately in North Idaho. Reggear says there just weren't enough local logs available to keep the saw mill running and profitable. Imports from Canada are cheaper, and the amount of federal land around here open to logging has dropped tenfold since the 1980s. But just like any economic story in rural America right now, it's more complicated than that.

Timber towns like Orofino that are situated along railroad lines and rivers were put on the map more than a hundred years ago when it seemed like there was a limitless supply of timber in these woods and the federal government actively promoted logging. But the environmental mood of the country is a lot different today, and so is the economy. Mechanization has meant that fewer people are needed to log the woods and work in the mills.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGLER: One night over Coors Lights at the Ponderosa Restaurant in town, Jerry Spencer says he feels lucky he can still find work as a logger around here.

JERRY SPENCER: Logging anymore's about an eight-month-a-year deal, so we try to diversify a little bit because - can't live on eight months a year.

SIEGLER: Spencer and a buddy had been splitting time between here and the oil fields over in North Dakota until oil prices tanked. He's not that eager to talk politics, but he's glad Donald Trump won.

SPENCER: I really hope that things are going to be better, but I'm not going to bet on it just yet, you know? I'm Republican. Almost everybody in this county is Republican. It's logging, resource-based county, and that's just how it is.

SIEGLER: Spencer isn't that optimistic because he says that even if Trump were to open up more federal land to timber companies, there's hardly any infrastructure left. But he says the president-elect's talk about returning to a time when natural resources were king resonates here.

SPENCER: Those resources is what built this country. I mean you say what you want, but it was all built off of mining, timber, oil. You know, the United States wasn't built off of tech companies.

SIEGLER: Folks around Orofino are proud of their heritage as loggers and miners. Today, Clearwater County has one of the highest unemployment rates in Idaho.

In the small downtown, there are for-lease signs and empty storefronts. A lot of people work two or three jobs at the school, the Best Western or for one of the outfitters where they have to commute 40 miles downriver to Lewiston. But when it comes to the latest mill closure, most folks will tell you everyone's seen this coming for years.

CHRIS ST GERMAINE: Well, the first thing you do is, you know, cuss and kick the ground and rant a little bit, but the second is, you pull yourself up by those bootstraps and figure, OK, where do we go from here?

SIEGLER: Chris St. Germaine moved to Orofino to take a job with the Forest Service in the '80s. She now runs the county's one-person Office of Economic Development where she's trying to figure out how to diversify the economy.

And it hasn't been all doom and gloom. A new rifle scope manufacturer opened up. So did a jet boat company. The hope is to draw more manufacturers that cater to the fishing and hunting economy.

ST GERMAINE: Drift boating is something that I think that would go over very well here. And there's a lot of drift boats on the river today if you look because they're fishing for steelhead and salmon.

SIEGLER: But this is all long-term stuff, and it's not going to help people like Pat Goetz, who's trying to figure out what she can do for work right now.

PAT GOETZ: Good question (laughter) - I don't know.

SIEGLER: She lost her job and - worse, she says - her health insurance when the mill shut down. So far, she says the only job she's seeing advertised are minimum wage.

GOETZ: Once you take timber out of the equation in counties like Idaho County, Clearwater County, there isn't much else.

SIEGLER: Goetz is 63. She's not yet eligible for Medicare, and she's not sure if she can afford the cost of health care on the exchanges. She also didn't think twice about voting for Trump. She's hoping he can bring back timber towns like hers.

GOETZ: Young kids have to go somewhere else in order to make a living. My children had to move out. My youngest daughter did and her husband.

SIEGLER: Goetz says she gets depressed watching, as she puts it, an industry that's being strangled to death. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Orofino, Idaho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.