News » Features

Migrant Lumber

The Libby mill closure took their jobs. \nThen their jobs took them to Bonner. \nVisiting home away from home \nwith the plywood industry’s \ndispossessed.

comment

The Bonner home of Jerry Skillings and Bob Fox is the perfect pad for a Super Bowl party. It’s a classic frat den: big and empty. No art on the walls, a moldy old couch in the corner, a bed—placed incongruously in the middle of the room—and a couple of recliners in front of the TV, so well used they’ve got grooves. Best of all, there are no women to interrupt the game. All that’s missing is the chips, the dips and the football fans.

But while the rest of county is gathered around sets and snacks, clutching beers and shouting at Super Bowl screens, Skillings and Fox are traveling down highway 200 toward Missoula. Neither calls Bonner home, it’s only a town where there’s work. And the perfect animal house is not much more than a handy place to sleep, shower and shave between shifts.

Skillings and Fox are two of the 300 mill workers who lost their jobs last month when Stimson’s Libby plywood plant closed. Since then, they’ve missed most of the NFL playoffs commuting from Libby to Bonner over a month of Sundays—returning home only for 48 hours each weekend to visit their wives and children.

This Sunday they arrive back late, having opted to spend some extra time with their families, and miss the Bucs’ thrashing of the Raiders. They have a long week of work ahead and a three to four hour Friday drive before they can return home again, but in some ways, they consider themselves lucky. After all, they’re part of only a handful of laid-off workers who have found, at least for the meantime, steady work.

Rest stop
Bob Fox stares vacantly at a B movie on cable. It’s 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday and he has three hours to kill until his swing shift begins. Fox, who shares the house with Skillings and another deposed worker from Libby, says he’s worried, lonely and bored beyond belief.

“I’m not really a TV addict, but I really have nothing to do,” he says.

A month and a half ago, when the Libby mill was still running and Fox was still working minutes from home, he’d never waste a morning in front of the tube. Fox has converted a room off his house into a toasty-warm shop, where he used to spend cold winter days tinkering.

“I do a lot of carpentry and build things with both metal and wood,” says Fox. “I’ve always got to be doing something with my hands.”

In Bonner, he has no tools or material or space to work. All he has to keep his hands busy is a remote. He can’t even amuse himself with his housemates. Right now, all three work different shifts. Occasionally, during the rare down time they have together, they’ll go into Missoula for dinner.

“We went to that Golden Corral one night,” says Fox laughing. “But I told the guys that we can’t be doing this all the time or we’ll be broke.”

And so the three have to play the role of Betty Crocker on occasion.

“I don’t know if you’d call it cooking,” says Fox. “I don’t think warming up a can of chili and a hot dog constitutes cooking.”

At home, Fox’s wife does “99.9 percent” of the work in the kitchen.

“There I’d get off at five and be home at five-thirty and there’d be supper on the table and all that,” he says. “Here I get off and, well, there’s just nothing to do.”

A quick tour of the pantry is proof. True the frat house image, this house isn’t stocked with much more than soup, condiments, a table and a few old chairs. Fox says they are all dealing with the difficulties of bachelorhood.

“These guys are the type who’ve never been separated from their wives,” he says. “They are both real family guys.”

Even with the tedium, the commute and the distance from his family, Fox tries to be good-natured about his troubles. At least he and his housemates were able to come down to work in Bonner. Many couldn’t find local housing or couldn’t afford the weekly trek. With 20 job vacancies at the Bonner mill, only seven former Libby employees have been able to make the migration thus far.

The Libby supervisors had to compete for three positions with people they’d worked with side by side for years.

“There are supervisors that weren’t chosen to come to any of these jobs and are still in Libby,” says Fox. “I feel bad for those people because they need a job just like I do.”

While some ex-employees are bitter, they aren’t going on record with their gripes. They don’t want to burn any bridges they may have to cross again. Fox understands why some are upset but he says he isn’t angry with Stimson. He says he knows the company did all it could and that it’s at the whim of a topsy-turvy market.

Fox and his housemates were re-hired without losing their benefits or retirement savings. The two are working as line supervisors—Fox at the finish end and Skillings at quality control. It’s slightly different work than they did in Libby but at the same pay. Other Libby supervisors were offered positions, but at lower hourly wages. More than just a sting to their pride, the money cut made the move impossible.

“It would have closed the whole thing for us if this thing here didn’t come available,” says Fox, looking around at the bare, white walls and worn carpet. “It’s always been a college town and it’s always been two, three, four people that have had to rent something to afford it. That’s why the three of us are in here. Not that we want to live together but we don’t have the choice.”

Stimson owns more than 50 employee houses, all of which are full. Most aren’t the bachelor pads this one’s become—the majority are filled with husbands, wives and kids. The Libby workers are lucky that this house opened up in time for them.

“It’s nice but it’s not like home with the wife and kids,” says Skillings. About the only thing he can place in the plus column regarding the house is that it’s “plenty warm.”

Skillings and Fox own homes in Libby. Both are looking to sell, but they aren’t optimistic.

“A lot of people aren’t looking to relocate into Libby, because of the asbestos and all the other problems that they got with the economic woes,” says Fox.

Fox knows that he’s going to have to take a loss on the home he’s owned for 12 years. He estimates the fair-market value at around $85,000, but he’s guessing he’ll get about $60,000 for it. If he finds a buyer.

“When you buy a home you think it’s going to appreciate, not depreciate,” Fox says wryly.

The housing market is one of biggest obstacles preventing Libby workers from relocating to the Missoula area. If they take one of the job vacancies in Bonner, they have to find a place to live. With many owning homes that aren’t likely to sell, they have little hope of affording something in a city where the median home price is around $160,000.

Skillings says that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t bring his family down right now because there would be no one to take care of his Libby home.

“You don’t just close down a house in Libby in the middle of winter,” he says. “It’s just not possible.”

So what these modern migrants do is hope. Hope they can sell at almost any price, and hope they can figure out a way to make things work in the long run.

“I don’t think it’s very practical to be driving home 52 weeks a year,” says Fox. “This will be my fifth time going back, and I’m just thinking why am I doing this?”

Skillings and Fox have created self-imposed deadlines of late spring to be settled in Missoula. But Skillings and Fox understand that these deadlines aren’t binding. They’re just goals, something to hope for.

Rearview mirror

In what was once a booming town flooded with mining and timber dollars, the closing of the Stimson mill marks the departure of Libby’s last major private employer. Since the mill opened in 1962 it’s changed hands many times. From St. Regis to Champion to Stimson, each new company has signaled an upheaval. When the sixth-generation family-owned Stimson company took the reigns from Champion, it downsized operations—eliminating half of the plant’s jobs—but those who remained found steady work until South American and Russian imports began chipping away at the U.S. plywood market.

“Nobody was looking for a total closure. We’d close for a week at a time, maybe one week a month. We thought that might continue,” says Skillings. “But I guess none of us knew for certain.”

Still, when 300 mill workers—in a town of 2,800—filed out on the final day and the annual payroll of $15 million evaporated, it was just another catastrophe in a town riddled with tragedy. Libby is still reeling from the disaster left behind by W.R. Grace & Co. Dependent for years the Grace vermiculite mine, the town is now paying a horrific price for those jobs—federal health officials have identified more than 800 illnesses and deaths among miners and residents from asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Many say they are finished with Libby and its troubled economy, but others maintain hope. One group of citizens is investigating the possibility of the mill staying open under community or employee ownership. The group is looking at a financial plan based on marketing issues, building and equipment analysis, and maybe most importantly, timber supplies. Dan Larson, who managed the plant until 1993, says that an initial examination indicates a 50 percent chance the mill could reopen with success.

“The preliminary analysis looks like it’s feasible,” says Larson, who is one of a group of community leaders actively supporting the idea.

On Feb. 15, a final report will be issued. If the project gets a green light—and garners enough federal help—Larson hopes as many as 210 workers will be invited back to work. Larson knows many will have pursued schooling or other careers in the meantime, but is confident most will be anxious to return. The community has also looked at possibilities including turning the mill into a biomass plant, a stud mill, a small-diameter sawmill and even a mobile home manufacturing plant or golf course.

Skillings, Fox and many others would love to stay in Libby and work, but they’re skeptical about the prospects.

“I think it’s an honorable thing to do, but I worry about them getting false hopes,” says Fox. “I don’t know that they can develop a market to sell their product. I don’t know why they think they could make money when Stimson couldn’t. But I’ve had a little glimmer of hope in the back of my mind because I like it there. I thought maybe if they revive that mill, maybe I can go back. Maybe my house won’t sell and I can go back and do what I did.”

Fred Sturges, who is still the plant manager in Libby while it ships its remaining inventory, saw how hard it was to keep the business limping along.

“There was no light at the end of the tunnel as far as things getting better in the market,” he says. “It wasn’t a fault of the crew, what the crew could control they did control. The price of our product just kept deteriorating until the point where we couldn’t make any money.”

Sturges isn’t hopeful about the town making a success of the operation. Even if they do get it off the ground, he says he won’t be involved. After 40 years in the business, Sturges says he’s weary, and that the industry isn’t thriving and may never thrive again.

“The business just isn’t that fun anymore to try to run,” he says. “We’ve got to deal with issues other than just producing plywood now. I’m talking about workers’ comp issues and environmental issues.”

At 59, Sturges says he’s just going to “slide off into the Kootenai and hunt whitetails.”

Even if the mill proves economically feasible, the issue of clean up remains. Asbestos was used throughout the building, a deadly legacy of Grace’s vermiculite mine. It would also need 200-plus employees to staff the operation.

Larson says finding able bodies isn’t a problem, but others argue that many mill workers have become calloused to the industry. Those who can, those still young, are getting out.

“Last weekend I went back and talked to a lot of young guys,” says Fox. “They’re all in school.”

All those laid off have been granted Trade Adjustment Assistance [TAA] from the U.S. Department of Labor. TAA is a federal program that assists with job searches, relocation assistance and retraining.

Many have taken advantage of the educational opportunities by enrolling in Flathead Valley Community College or, in the case of Melissa Fleming, truck-driving school.

“You have to pick some kind of schooling that leads to a growing market,” says Fleming, explaining how TAA works.

Since the mill ceased operations last month, 11 of Fleming’s former coworkers have started at Sage Truck Driving School and more hope to start soon. Sage has had so much interest in the program that the company has come to Libby—setting up a satellite school at city hall. A week into school, Fleming hopes to be driving long-haul truck in a couple months and making more money than she could doing anything else in Libby.

Fleming never considered coming down to Bonner. At 37, she has decided she’ll never work in the wood industry again. She says she spent too many days wondering “if I’ll be working tomorrow.” While she survived the Stimson cuts, she doesn’t want to look for work in a “dying industry.”

“I think a lot of the other guys went down there because they have families or kids in school,” she says, echoing Skillings and Fox. She also thinks that age plays a factor in people’s decisions whether to say in the field or not.

Skillings and Fox are trapped in the middle ground between those who were ready to retire and those young enough to take the TAA money and go back to school. For both Sturges and Fleming the decision of what to do next was easy. Skillings and Fox, who are both in their 50s, were between five and ten years from retirement. Both had been in the industry for most of their adult lives. It was all they knew.

“We have to have several different options,” says Skillings of his future plans, but as of yet he’s only found one that might work: relocation.

“What are my options?” muses Fox. “I could go to school but by the time I got done with some schooling I’d be ready to retire. I thought, shoot, I better keep going with this. It’s what I do and what I know.”

The road ahead

By comparison, Stimson’s Bonner mill dwarfs the former operation in Libby. At one time, the Bonner mill was the biggest plywood facility in the world with almost 13 acres under a single roof. In this business big can be better, but it’s not the size that matters most, it’s the uniqueness of what a mill can produce.

The Bonner mill is flexible where the Libby mill wasn’t. Bonner can produce “niche market” plywood, which makes the mill “more competitive,” says plywood plant manager Bill Cady.

Sitting back and sipping coffee from a plastic cup, Cady exudes an air of confidence. He’s been with the Bonner mill for seven years and in the wood products business for more than thirty.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” says Cady chuckling, then, shifting his countenance from jovial to serious: “I think that we’re pretty fit.”

The Bonner mill also has the capabilities to expand, where Libby did not.

“When we get fully ramped up, and I mean really ramped, we’re looking at 60 new employees,” he says.

Cady hopes that all of them will come from Libby. In fact he’s counting on the Libby workers because they already have the highly-specialized skills he needs. Stimson has given preference to the Libby workers to fill its 20 vacancies, but that hasn’t made much of difference in attracting them.

“I think this mill has a pretty good chance because of the capabilities they have,” says Skillings. “They have as good a shot as anybody.”

But looking around the industry, it doesn’t look like any U.S. company is a sure bet.

“We are so market-driven and it just looks like this plywood industry is going to become a dinosaur,” says Fox.

Back at the house, Fox’s cable movie looks like it’s going to end happily. The stripper has given up stripping to be with the misunderstood, gentle dishwasher she loves. The saccharine moral is clear: money doesn’t matter if you’ve got love.

But Fox isn’t paying much attention to the ending. He hasn’t been paying much attention to any part of the film—during most of it he’s stared beyond the screen through the window at the new snow and the massive corrugated-metal walls of Stimson’s plywood plant. He says that he’s thinking about the drive home and how the snow will add minutes to the time he has to spend away from his wife.

Keep dreaming

Libby shrugs off its image and runs the numbers

by David Madison

There is no coffee shop with comfortable couches and copies of The New Yorker. There is no brewpub offering ales named after wild animals and mountain peaks. But somewhere underneath a growing pile of negative publicity, there is a dream town struggling to emerge from the barrage of bad press that continues to define Libby, Mont.

Part mountain getaway, part EPA Superfund site, Libby is a schizophrenic martyr to a cause that appears to have run its course. The extractive industries that built the town have left it poisoned and nervously positioned on the brink of an uncertain future. The vermiculite mine is blamed for an outbreak of asbestosis, and the lumber mill has closed its doors, possibly for good.

According to most news reports, the town’s future appears to dwell in a dark place reserved for the likes of Three Mile Island and Love Canal. But many still living and thriving in Libby say the media has missed the real story—the one many small towns want to tell about themselves. It’s a tale spun out by the likes of Outside magazine in its annual profiles of the “top 10 dream towns.” Libby has yet to make the list, but if it ever does, it might mark the greatest PR comeback in Mountain West history.

A hamlet of 2,800 situated along the Kootenai River, Libby sits at the southern base of the Yaak region. Its winters can be mild, but socked in. Its summers are often glorious, but increasingly crowded. There are new faces at the trailhead and new footprints along the fishermen’s paths.

Ask realtor Alice Hayes “how’s business?” and she’ll tell you that in 2002, the company she works for had its best year ever.

“People are coming here saying they used to live in a nice little town, but it outgrew them and they’ve come to Libby trying to find another nice place,” says Hayes. “The educated people realize they’re not going to come here and drop dead.”

The local headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service and the local hospital keep a modest flow of professionals coming into the area. And downtown Libby—which boasts fewer empty storefronts than either Kalispell or Columbia Falls—does a steady business serving the town and outlining areas. Libby’s two health food stores act as supply depots for many residents of the lonely and forested Yaak. About 95 percent of Lincoln County is publicly owned. When those living amid the towering pines want to shake off their cabin fever, they go to Libby.

A short walk away from the Dome Theatre and the Libby Café, up historic Louisiana Avenue, there’s a Victorian bungalow for sale for $117,500. By Missoula or Whitefish standards, the blue charmer with built-in bookcases and a picture-book deck off the kitchen is a steal.

But this isn’t Missoula or Whitefish. “Now, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be low-priced just because it’s in [contaminated] Libby,” says local real estate appraiser Verle Howell. “Our prices have never been high.”

Howell says he expected Libby’s unflattering designation as a Superfund site to take a bite out of the local housing market. And while in some cases, homeowners have ended up selling for less than they expected, overall the market has remained stable. “What happened with the EPA coming in here, we could have lost 20 percent of market value. That didn’t happen,” says Howell, rattling off numbers to back his point. He says that even amid the constant flow of bad publicity, the average time a house sits on the market is down from around 280 days to 247 days. Those homes, on average, are bringing sellers 93 percent of their asking price. Some homes which sold for $100,000 three years ago might still sell for $100,000 today, Howell says. But other properties, particularly those located along the Kootenai River or outside of town on a spread of land, are seeing healthy jumps in value.

As for in-town homes in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, their collective future depends on what happens with the lumber mill. If it remains closed, the market for those homes could soften, but not drastically, says Howell.

Many in Libby hope the market will swing the other way with the help of a new ski area in town. For the last 13 years, a group of locals has pushed for the development of the Treasure Mountain Winter Sports Area at the edge of the Cabinet Wilderness. The project targets a 1,700-acre tract of land near Flower Creek south of town. The ski area would have a vertical rise of 2,700 feet with the potential to increase to 3,500 feet—1,000 feet more than Whitefish’s Big Mountain Resort.

Treasure Mountain would also have a summit elevation—7,694 feet—that’s higher than Big Mountain’s. And according to a Forest Service report, the new resort could “generate cumulative positive cash flow.”

However, Treasure Mountain is located in a designated roadless area. During his last days in office, President Bill Clinton protected designated roadless areas from new development and in the process, scuttled Libby’s push to become Northwest Montana’s first Superfund site-turned-ski destination. For now, the town will have to content itself with nearby Turner Mountain. It just recently built its first chairlift and only opens Friday through Sunday. The ski hill is as low-key as Libby, which continues to self-promote and pray. The town hopes the law of supply and demand will eventually lift it to a new level.

“As Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell have become more and more expensive, as Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint have expanded, it’s going to be places like Libby and Bonners Ferry, Idaho,” says Howell, after he’s run the numbers and sighed aloud about snags in the Treasure Mountain plan. “We have the last of the tranquility, the last of that primrose dream.”

Add a comment