When the Sawmills Close

The Methow Valley is broad like the back of a lumberjack. On each muscular shoulder thrive millions of ponderosa pines, nestled between dry sagebrush country and the moister dominion of Douglas firs in the high North Cascades. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest flanks the small rural towns of Winthrop and Twisp, whose communities have relied for decades on the forest’s abundant natural resources. In the 1990s, environmental groups concerned about irresponsible logging practices in the Pacific Northwest began crusading against timber harvest on public lands. Many sawmills, including the local Twisp mill, closed their doors as the number of available federal logging permits plummeted. 

“Environmentalists rejoice when sawmills close,” said Mike Borowski, Timber Contract Administrator and Forester for the Okanogan National Forest District, “but it just means that the cost of hauling lumber goes up.” Borowski has worked in the Okanogan District for over a decade. He believes conscientious forest management depends on the ability for commercial timber companies to thin trees, and explained that many environmental entities did not anticipate the far-reaching consequences of mill closures. Timber must now be transported to the nearest mill in Kettle Falls, 140 miles away. As a result, local loggers have lost the ability to compete with corporate bidders for federal contracts. Rural families, unable to find jobs, abandon their lifelong homes for more metropolitan areas, leaving behind an unstable economy. To stay afloat in the wake of change, both forests and communities must balance both ecological needs for resource protection and economic needs for resource development.