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After 90 Years, A Southern Oregon Mill Closes

Amelia Templeton

Last week, Rough and Ready lumber started shutting down its sawmill in the Southern Oregon town of Cave Junction. It’s a story that’s repeated itself in timber towns across the northwest. In 1980 there were 390 mills operating in Oregon. Today there are 103. 

Last week, the employees of Rough and Ready Lumber were called in to a staff meeting. Most of them walked out without their jobs.  But the mill isn’t shuttered quite yet. There are tall stacks of sugar pine lumber and six inch timbers to take care of. A dozen workers sort the wood and load it on to carts.

Cathy Hoskins runs a machine that wraps stacks of lumber in paper stamped with the Rough and Ready logo.

“They were a good outfit to work for," she says. "I hope this is just a bad dream, we’ll wake up, and maybe in a couple months we’ll start her up again.”

Hoskins has worked here since 1988. When this stockpile of lumber that’s already been cut runs out, sometime in May, Rough and Ready will close. All told 85 people are losing their jobs.

“Every employee I talked to came up and said are you okay?" says Jennifer Phillippi, the mill's owner.  They're asking me how I am." 

The mill has been in Phillippi's family for 90 years. Her grandfather started the mill in 1922.

“My whole life, my dad and his brothers and his grandparents worked really hard and had a lot of stress but they just kept it going," she says. "And so here I am, the last generation, and I’m letting it go. It’s hard to swallow.”

The Rough and Ready mill makes high-end speciality lumber for windows and doors. Phillippi says there’s plenty of demand for the mill’s products. In fact, they should be expanding.

The trouble is, for the last 10 years this mill has struggled to buy enough logs to stay open. So Rough and Ready has been running at half capacity, employing just a single shift of workers instead of two shifts. And it can’t afford to operate that way any longer.

Lumber graph.jpg
Credit Bonnie Stewart

“We have all these fixed costs and if we don’t have enough sales to spread those costs against there’s no margin," Phillippi says. "And so, it’s just night and day if we’re running one shift or two shifts.”

The Rough and Ready mill sits in a river valley in the middle of the Rogue River Siskiyou national forest. For most of the Rough and Ready’s history, it milled logs that were cut down on the surrounding federal forest land.

Now much of that federal forest has been set aside for conservation. To protect habitat for salmon and owls. For Phillippi, it’s hard to fathom how a forest that supported 22 sawmills back in 1975 can’t keep her mill open today.

“We’re sitting in a forest that grows a billion board feet a year and we need 50 million," she says. "So for it to not be able to support just one sawmill in two counties is just senseless in my mind.”

Critics in the environmental movement say Rough and Ready’s has struggled because it needs large logs. Most of the trees cut down on federal lands come from thinning projects. Thinning yields 40-year-old trees that make skinny logs with a lot of knots. And that’s not what Ready is set up to mill. It uses on average logs that are about 90 years old.

Steve Pedery, with the conservation group Oregon Wild, says mills have to adapt to a new reality.

“If the business model requires the conservation policies of the last twenty years to be rolled back, that’s going to be controversial and it’s going to be hard to keep that mill open,” Pedery says.

With the mill closing, Taylor’s Sausage Plant and Country Store is now the largest employer in Cave Junction. Mariah Carter works behind the counter here, dishing up sausages for tourists. Her fiancé Travis is losing his job at the mill. Carter says she lived through all this before, when she was a kid.

“Dad worked for three different mills in Oregon," Carter says. "He worked for Roseburg Lumber, three years ago. years ago he worked for International Paper in North Bend. And he worked for Douglas County. So it’s not the first time I’ve experienced this at all.”

Carter says she’s not worried for herself or her fiancée. She has her faith and knows how to tighten her belt.

“God has a plan and, like, it’s just too many people losing their jobs at one time for God not to have a plan.”

She know that her fiance can collect unemployment, and that a displaced worker program will help him pay for two more years of school.

But she doesn’t know if the town of Cave Junction itself can survive the loss.

“Five to 10 years, ghost town. We’d be like a retirement town, at best.”

Marajuana growing is already one of the most reliable ways to earn a living in Cave Junction. Carter says several laid off mill workers came into the country store this morning. They were joking, maybe we’ll just grow pot.

At least, Carter thinks they were joking.

Copyright 2013 EarthFix