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Soggy Roads Idle Log Trucks Mild Temperatures, Rains Turn Logging Roads Into Mud Pits; Mills Facing Shutdowns

Ski resort operators aren’t the only ones praying for snow. Loggers and sawmill owners also are desperate for a white Christmas - or at least some frigid, finger-numbing weather.

December rains and mild temperatures have softened roads, turning them into soggy sponges or inaccessible mud pits.

Although temperatures have dipped in recent days, it’s still not cold enough to freeze up saturated logging roads.

And that has forced loggers to idle their big rigs and sawmill owners to dip into log stockpiles meant to carry them through the wet spring.

“We have been mudded off everything,” said Dave Slaughter, coowner of J.D. Lumber in Priest River, Idaho. “There are truckers out there who would love to bring us some logs, but they can’t work right now.”

The mill, which employs 140 people, has enough logs to operate for only a month.

Slaughter has resorted to pleas in newspaper ads. “MORE LOGS,” one reads. “We still need the weather to cooperate and WE STILL NEED YOUR LOGS.”

Slaughter admits it’s unusual to be so blunt and open about the mill’s status, but it has paid off. Last week, the mill started off with only two days’ worth of logs. But after the ad appeared, enough timber arrived, mostly from private landowners, to feed the mill for three weeks.

“We are not being bashful about it,” Slaughter said. “We are just trying to keep the mill running and our people working. Everybody’s log decks are shrinking right now, and there are a lot of loggers out of work.”

Sawmills typically begin stockpiling logs in October. The reserves keep mills running when the spring thaw and rains lock loggers out of the woods. But many of the mills weren’t able to horde enough timber this year because the ground never froze.

“In November there wasn’t anything going on, and it’s a disaster right now,” said Jim English, vice president of Idaho Forest Industries in Coeur d’Alene. “We need that ground to get hard. We need a freeze real bad.”

The IFI mill has enough logs for now, but will be in trouble in about two months if the mild weather continues, English said.

“I’m sure every sawmill in North Idaho is in the same situation. We are all hurting,” he said. “There’s lots of product (trees) down, but no one can get it out. Some smaller mills that don’t have enough logs might have to shut down.”

Mills are swapping with each other for different species of timber to keep operating. Loggers have even asked for advances from the mills so they can pay their crews.

“Normally this time of year we are going gangbusters moving logs, it’s better than summer. But with the weather like it is we can’t do anything,” said Sue Ross, co-owner of R&R; logging in Sandpoint. “It’s really hurting us.”

This week Ross’ company was hauling timber off land south of Sandpoint. That ended when Bonner County put weight limits on five roads to keep heavy truck traffic from tearing them up.

Road Supervisor Red Reibe said he took a verbal beating from some truckers after putting up the load limit signs. He understands it’s a critical time to shut down loggers, but said it was unavoidable.

“I’m praying for a freeze up as much as they are, but we are experiencing the exact same conditions now as we would in early spring.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo