John Day mill pares back to one shift

Posted by Renee Magyar on January 7, 2015

The Blue Mountain Eagle reported on recent layoffs, on the heels of a newly added shift.

A sawmill operator at Malheur Lumber Company in John Day, Oregon. Photo by: Sustainable Northwest

Log supply is an ongoing challenge for rural mills, and layoffs are difficult for everyone involved. The stewardship contract on the Malheur National Forest helps provide a more reliable supply of saw logs, but the contract wasn't intended to support only one business. This is certainly an unexpected bump in the road, but we're optimistic that businesses will adapt to a predictable base of supply. The stewardship contract is an important tool for sustainable forest management, and we'll continue to do what we can to make the planning process as efficient as possible. 

Read Blue Mountain Eagle's recent coverage on their website

By Scotta Callister, Blue Mountain Eagle

JOHN DAY – Ochoco Lumber Co. is laying off the second shift at its Malheur Lumber Co. sawmill in John Day, some seven months after the swing crew was hired.

Bruce Daucsavage, Ochoco Lumber president, cited a lack of logs for the mill as the problem.

Daucsavage called the decision to lay off some workers “beyond disappointing,” but also termed it a temporary move.

He said Ochoco will work to restore those jobs.

“Our main goal is to keep the one shift going,” he said. “And then we want to put these folks back to work again.”

The exact number of workers affected was not available, as mill officials refined their plans.

Last month the company had 132 employees in John Day. That’s up from about 90 last May, before the swing shift was added.

Daucsavage said he’s working to confirm availability of additional timber the company has under contract.

He said supply issues have been building over the past five months, as anticipated log deliveries didn’t materialize. He declined to specify what contracts were involved.

News of the layoffs triggered ripples of concern about the status of the Malheur National Forest’s 10-year stewardship contract, but forest officials and industry observers told the Eagle the program is sound and operating as intended.

Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin said the contractor, Iron Triangle, is “performing exceptionally well under the contract” and has met all the timelines and requirements to date.

Beverlin also clarified that the stewardship work was never intended to fully supply the decks of any one mill, but to provide a predictable base operators could count on and bolster with additional timber buys.

“We can’t promise a specific amount, a volume or type of timber to a specific mill,” he said.

With forest health as the goal, the contract is rolling out a series of “task orders” or landscape-scale projects that produce a range of materials, from large timber to small wood and biomass – each type suited to specific mill operations.

The process has provided timber for the Malheur Lumber log decks. Beverlin said 90 percent of the large sawlogs in the first task order went to the John Day mill.

“That’s a direct benefit to the community,” he said.

The addition of a second shift – the first such expansion at Malheur Lumber since 1998 – was a success story for a mill that was on the verge of closure in 2012 but rebounded.

Last year’s expansion came as a sign of confidence that the stewardship contract and accelerated restoration would provide more certainty for the local timber industry. For the company, the new hires would help with the volume expected from fire salvage out of the area and cross train for jobs elsewhere onsite, including a new small-log plant planned for the mill. The new plant would allow the mill to process some of the huge volume of smaller wood produced by forest restoration work – wood not suited for the existing sawmill.

The company said at the time the small-log operation would be up and running this winter, perhaps by the end of 2014.

However, Daucsavage confirmed this week that the small-log plant is on hold as the company deals with permitting issues with the state Department of Environmental Quality.

He said the company still plans to take on small wood but also needs an ample supply of large timber for the sawmill.

He noted the company has invested $1 million in the plant this year, making improvements in the biomass plant, addressing DEQ issues, and upgrading equipment.

Beverlin said news of the layoffs was disappointing for the community and for the Forest Service, which wants to support local jobs and economic growth.

He said he wasn’t familiar with the issues regarding the small-log mill, but he’s hopeful that Malheur Lumber will resolve them and start up the plant.

He said the local infrastructure is a critical need.

“We need the local infrastructure here,” he said. “We need them here to process a wide variety of materials that are coming from the forest.”

Beverlin said the available volume, especially for the smaller materials, is abundant.

He said the forest has been meeting its targets for harvest, which includes everything from biomass to large timber. The forest hit 55 million board feet in 2013, more than 65 million board feet in 2014, and is on pace to exceed that in 2015.

“And we continue to work with our partners to investigate ways to locally process biomass and small-diameter sawlogs, as this remains the critical issue for ecological and economical forest restoration activities on the Malheur and Eastern Oregon as a whole,” he said.