JD Lumber Inc. is selling its sawmill in Priest River to competitor Riley Creek Lumber Co., creating uncertainty about the future of 216 jobs in the North Idaho mill town.
Employees were notified of the sale late Friday afternoon. The mill in Bonner County will close at the end of September, and it’s unclear whether the new owners will reopen it.
“We don’t plan to operate the Priest River mill this winter,” said Marc Brinkmeyer, Riley Creek’s owner. “By next spring, we will complete an evaluation of the mill regarding future operations.”
Riley Creek Lumber also owns sawmills in three other North Idaho communities: Chilco, Moyie Springs and Laclede. The Moyie Springs and Laclede mills operate with only one shift but will resume a second shift in the fall, according to Brinkmeyer.
Sawmills are struggling nationwide. The downturn in the U.S. housing market has led to a sharp fall-off in lumber prices, which are near historic lows. Many mills have closed or eliminated shifts.
Rumors of possible sales and closures had been flying in western Bonner County, which remains one of Idaho’s most timber-dependent economies. Still, the news came as a jolt to JD Lumber workers.
“It took all of us by surprise,” said Mike Radan, who works as a lumber scaler at the mill. “I was expecting a change to take place but not by Riley Creek.”
Community leaders were also were caught off guard.
“I thought JD would be there for a while because they’re more locally owned,” said Joe Young, a Bonner County commissioner. “I thought JD would be the last to go.”
JD Lumber’s management did not return phone calls for comment this week. Jeff Weimer is president of the privately held firm, which was founded in 1980. According to a company profile on business Web site Goliath, JD Lumber had estimated revenues of $47.5 million last year.
The sale of the mill does not include JD Lumber’s timberlands or forestry operations.
Priest River, population 1,925, relies heavily on those sawmill jobs, Young added. “It’s not a good thing. Not a good thing at all.”
In Bonner County, sawmill workers earned an average of $47,017 last year, compared to the county’s average wage of $37,845.
Priest River City Council member Doug Wagner said the closure will have a widespread effect, hurting loggers, chip-truck drivers and suppliers of fuel.
“It’s not just the 200 employees of the mill, it’s other companies involved in the mill,” Wagner said. “It’s going to be rough, tough times here soon when their insurance runs out.”
Radan, a fourth-generation timber worker, said employees were cautioned to be smart about future jobs.
“The question is, how long is the timber industry going to be here?” he said.