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Falling timber industry hits backwoods US hard

Monday, August 24, 2009 | 8:49 a.m. CDT; updated 11:48 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 24, 2009

PINE HILL, Ala. — Dereck Autry always thought he would spend his entire career like his father at the Weyerhaeuser wood products mill outside this tiny town. It was steady work, and his dad told him: "You can raise a family there."

But after 10 years at the plant, the husband with two young sons was recently laid off — his dream now in splinters.

Autry, 37, was among 327 workers who lost their jobs when the mill shut down earlier this year, a victim of the recession and the slumping new housing market.

As demand for wood and paper products fell and the housing market tanked, Autry's story has been repeated in piney woods communities across the South and the Northwest timber lands.

"There are no other mills for the workers to go to. There is no other industry. They have very limited options. They are just suffering is what they are doing," said Bob Mion, a spokesman for the California Forestry Association.

An Associated Press analysis of the impact of the recession shows counties mostly dependent on timber-related work have been among the hardest hit.

The AP Economic Stress Index, a month-by-month analysis of foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment rates in more than 3,000 U.S. counties, showed the highest stress figure in Alabama was for Wilcox County, which includes Pine Hill.

Its current 25.06 mark, more than double from about two years ago, was caused largely by a sharp rise in unemployment — from 8.3 percent jobless in October 2007 to 24.4 percent in June.

In Plumas County, Calif., where a sawmill in Quincy closed this summer, the stress index rose to 16.80 (any number above 11 is considered stressed) from its October 2007 level of 6.93. The county's unemployment rate stood at 15.1 percent in June.

For the logging industry nationally, the unemployment rate for the second quarter of 2009 was a staggering 26.6 percent, up from 14.1 percent for the first quarter. Unemployment for the wood products industry for the second quarter was 17.7 percent.

The mill closings have forced Autry and others to abandon their craft. Autry is struggling to pay for the small mobile home where his family lives and is taking classes at a nearby community college. He has enrolled in a state-funded training program that is teaching him to be a nurse.

"There are no jobs in this area and I thought I was going to have to move," Autry said.

"Everyone was depressed. I was in a funk," Autry said. "I thought we were going to lose our little home. It was like, 'What are we going to do now?'"

Autry said he was helped by his wife working and unemployment benefits while enrolled in the nurse training program.

International Paper is still operating its nearby paper mill, but Pine Hill residents worry that it might close, too. When the Weyerhauser lumber mill shut its doors, many small logging and timber operations in the Pine Hill area went under, too.

Even as he learns a new career, Autry is not sure what the future holds.

"I grew up in this town. I love Pine Hill. I may still have to move. After I get my degree, there will be a lot of people with degrees in nursing around here. My parents are elderly. I cut their lawn. I hate the idea of not being able to see my parents every day," Autry said.

At Carolyn's Restaurant, the only full-service sit-down eatery in Pine Hill, owner Laura Maness said it's easy to see the effects of the recession.

"Both of my husband's uncles lost their jobs. It effects everybody, not only those 300 who lost their jobs. There were probably 300 wives and at least 300 children," Maness said.

The small town of Pine Hill, population about 1,000, has been dying for years as gas stations, restaurants and the town's only motel have closed along a state highway that parallels the railroad tracks through town.

One of the businesses that remains is Boggs Auto Parts and Hardware Store. Owner Ken Boggs said it's been tough going since the mill closed.

"Everything in town evolves around that mill. And when it closes it trickles down to everybody. It's tough on small businesses," Boggs said.

Some companies that closed in recent months had survived hard economic times in the past.

Chris Isaacson, the 51-year-old director of the Alabama Forestry Association, said the industry in Alabama is always susceptible to the economy's highs and lows. But he said the current slowdown in the industry "is as bad as I've seen in my lifetime."

Sitting on a bench in what's left of Pine Hill's downtown, 63-year-old Henry Jackson, who plans to retire next year from his job at the post office, reminisces.

"This used to be a bustling little old town. But so many places have closed up," Jackson said. "There are more unemployment checks than paychecks around here."

"If I was a little younger," he said, "I'd want to live somewhere else."

 


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