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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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L-P Will Close Post Falls Mill Portland-Based Lumber Firm Will Lay Off 113 Employees

Eric Torbenson Ken Olsen Contributed Staff writer

Louisiana-Pacific Corp.’s sawmill, as much a part of this town as the river falls it has perched above for decades, will lock its gates in two months and send 113 workers home jobless.

The Portland-based lumber giant announced the closure Tuesday and passed out the 60-day plant-closing notices required by federal law.

Louisana-Pacific, which has been mired in controversy recently because of lawsuits over faulty siding and air emissions, blamed dwindling supplies of federal timber and a weak lumber market for the closure.

The shutdown jolted Post Falls residents and some wood products analysts. But workers at the mill said they knew it was coming.

“I don’t think it was a total surprise to any of us,” said Jeff Mills, maintenance head at the plant and a worker there for 25 years.

“You look outside at the number of logs we had out there, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we weren’t going to be able to continue with that many logs to work with.”

Mill workers gathered for a general operations meeting Tuesday morning to hear the news, Mills said. “It was handled real well - nothing was held back. I been here since 1970, when it was Georgia-Pacific and not yet Louisiana-Pacific, and this company’s always done right by me.”

Business owners around the mill who have counted on the workers’ business said they hoped growth in Post Falls would keep their registers ringing.

“They’ve said they were going to shut it down every year for the last 16 years,” said Dale Brown, owner of the Handy Mart convenience store across from the huge mill yard. “But it’s a tragedy, a real tragedy for us to lose those high-paying jobs.”

Acquired in the late 1960s by Georgia-Pacific, which became L-P, the Post Falls sawmill was a fixture in the North Idaho mill economy for decades, said Jim Beldin, L-P spokesman at the Hayden Lake Northwest Division office.

While the 113 men and women there represented something close to the mill’s full employment, the facility had cut back to one shift and reduced many workers’ hours early this year, Beldin said.

Sawmills across the region have cut shifts and laid off workers while trying to cope with depressed lumber prices and scarce supply.

The land the plant sits on remains quite valuable, industry insiders say, more valuable perhaps as something other than a sawmill. The mill lies next to Templin’s Resort complex.

“Maybe the corporate decision is that the value of that property is higher in a subdivision than a lumber mill,” said Mark Solomon of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.

L-P has also been looking for a place to dispose of the ash from the mill’s boilers. One idea was to build a landfill on the mill property for the material.

The company will try to place as many workers as possible at other L-P facilities in the region, though it’s too early to know how many other jobs might exist, Beldin said.

Like many local timber companies that have closed mills and laid off workers, L-P also will try to get special unemployment assistance through a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Previously laid-off L-P workers are now eligible for more benefits and job training through the program.

Along with the 113 jobs that averaged nearly $11 an hour in pay, Post Falls will also lose one of its biggest taxpayers. Based on net taxable values, L-P is one of the five biggest taxpayers in Kootenai County, though that includes taxes for Hayden Lake headquarters and for a wafer board plant at Chilco.

Despite fending off a flurry of lawsuits over the quality of its Inner-Seal siding, L-P is still a very strong company financially, said Larry Katz, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities in Portland.

The settlements in those suits could total as much as $250 million, but the company has little debt compared to other timber companies and will remain strong financially, Katz said.

The layoffs will likely further slow an already decelerating North Idaho economy.

“Something like this always sends chills down your spine,” said Kathryn Tacke, a labor analyst for the Idaho Department of Employment.

Those chills will be felt to a lesser degree in Spokane County. Many of the workers were from the Spokane area, Beldin said.

The closure represents the death of another branch in a weakening overall industry in the Inland Northwest. Many think more closures will follow.

Beldin said that federal salvage timber sales have never produced the millions of board feet promised for mills. “I think that would have helped us,” Beldin said, but the long-term outlook for the kinds of logs the mill processed was bleak.

“We once had six big mills on Lake Coeur d’Alene and the river,” said Ken Kohli of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association. “When Post Falls closes we’ll have three. You wonder how many more blows we’ll have to take before the federal government realizes that we need a predictable flow of timber off public forests.”

Environmentalists say the timber is out there, but that big lumber companies just don’t want it. Timber companies say they lose money on sales that require helicopters to get logs out.

“The most recent information we’ve received is the Panhandle (National Forests) intend to offer 115 million board feet of timber,” Solomon said.

Mills, with more than a quarter-century of experience in the industry, he’ll try to get a new job in the field. His skills in maintenance are useful in many other industries.

“There’s other mill jobs if you want to go to Washington, Oregon or Montana,” he said. “But it’s not going to be easy if you’re looking to stay here. I think it hurts more for the younger people we had working at the mill.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo Graphic: Falling stock

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Eric Torbenson Staff writer Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.

Cut in the Spokane edition.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Eric Torbenson Staff writer Staff writer Ken Olsen contributed to this report.

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