Lawmakers, local leaders seek stimulus money for sawmills

WASHINGTON — The pending closure of a sawmill near the mountain town of Sonora is driving lawmakers and local leaders to search desperately for a federal fix.

Some hope money can be peeled off from a big economic stimulus package. Others are suggesting the government itself can buy more boards, or they are resurrecting long-running efforts to ease environmental regulations.

"We're not looking for a handout," Sonora-based forester Mike Albrecht said Tuesday. "We're not looking for free money."

Albrecht is president of the pro-logging Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and the Environment, which convened a sawmill brainstorming session late Tuesday afternoon. The closed-door session held inside Sonora's city fire station was scheduled to bring together federal, state and local representatives, each with their own ideas to salvage the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmills now slated for closure.

A $787 billion economic stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in February provides one potential target. The Forest Service is doling out at least $980 million of the total, with many of the funding decisions still in the works.

"Maybe we could access some of the stimulus money to keep something going," said Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

Radanovich joined other House Republicans in voting against the stimulus bill, but on Tuesday he said "it's a reality" that now offers potential help.

The Sonora session was to be the first of its kind since Sierra Pacific announced late last month that it would close its Standard sawmill, throwing 146 employees out of work in mid-July. The Redding-based company also plans to close its Camino mill in El Dorado County, costing 164 workers their jobs.

Although Sierra Pacific plans to retain its smaller Chinese Camp sawmill elsewhere in Tuolumne County, the company earlier this year also announced plans to lay off 150 people in May when it closes its Quincy sawmill in Plumas County. The nation's second-largest lumber producer, Sierra Pacific has been hit hard by the recession.

"The downturn in new home construction has reduced both the demand for lumber and the prices (Sierra Pacific) receives for its finished product," company spokesman Mark Pawlicki said last month.

Lawmakers of various stripes have been tossing out ideas ever since the sawmill closure announcements. State Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, immediately suggested legislation offering incentives for builders to buy California lumber. Currently, Albrecht noted, the state imports 70 percent of the lumber used in construction.

Cogdill's federal counterparts, in turn, have been eying potential funding sources within the economic stimulus package.

The Forest Service has stated that "wildland fire management" and "capital improvement and maintenance" will be the primary focus for projects. So far, the agency has distributed 10 percent of its total.

The California projects announced to date include $750,000 for forest trail work in rural Fresno and Madera counties, $120,000 for "biomass removal" and tree thinning in the Stanislaus National Forest, and $750,000 for grants aiding small logging-related businesses in the southern Sierra Nevada forests.

The $750,000 is subsidizing the truckers who take small sawlogs to a Sierra Forest Products mill in Terra Bella, Janice Gauthier, public affairs director for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region, said Tuesday.

The next Forest Service funding announcements are expected to be made public as early as next week. Approximately $780 million will be allocated.

"There is more to come, certainly," Gauthier said.

Separately, conservative lawmakers including Radanovich and Cogdill are citing the sawmill closures as reason to boost timber harvesting by loosening environmental rules, including the Endangered Species Act. Unlike short-term funding, these legislative proposals face extremely high political hurdles.

Radanovich was among those slated to attend the 5 p.m. Sonora sawmill session, along with Tuolumne County educators and administrators, Forest Service officials and representatives from the offices of Cogdill and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among others.