Central Valley

Moving beyond logging — Once the sawmill goes, reliance on tourism could become stronger

TUOLUMNE COUNTY — For decades, visitors have enjoyed the peace of the Tuolumne County woods while loggers a few miles away sent trees crashing to the ground.

Tourism and the timber industry long have coexisted in the county, even with the controversy that the cutting sometimes brought.

"The resort has been here since 1922, and we've always had logging," said Laurie Cashman, general manager of the Pinecrest Lake Resort, which has old logging photos in its restaurant.

In recent years, timber's part in the county economy has declined, and it will suffer a major hit with the loss of the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill at Standard.

The closure, tentatively set for Friday, could mean more reliance than ever on tourism.

"The tourist industry, obviously, is one of the largest categories of business here in Tuolumne County at this point in time," said George Segarini, executive director of the county

chamber of commerce.

The county has a wealth of attractions — Gold Rush towns in the foothills, a national forest dotted with campgrounds and reservoirs, and a large chunk of Yo- semite National Park.

Several million people live within a three-hour drive of the county, including the Northern San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area. A smaller number of visitors make their way from other states and nations.

Travel-related spending in the county totaled $164 million in 2007, up from $144 million in 2003, according to a study done for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau. The figure does not include the Black Oak Casino.

The spending by visitors was 18 times the gross value of timber from the county's public and private forests in 2007. Although the logs gained value upon being sawed into lumber, the total still was far less than tourist spending.

10th of jobs in tourism

Tourism employed 2,360 people in the county last year, nearly a 10th of its jobs, according to the California Employment Development Department.

But tourism has its downside — the low wages for many of the people working in restaurants, lodgings and other places that serve the visitors.

The state agency says a typical motel desk clerk makes $9.89 an hour and a waitress $8.56, though tips can help out the latter. Compare that with the $26.26 per-hour wage for a typical timber faller or the $14.88 for a sawmill machine operator.

"These are family-wage jobs, which we don't have a lot of in the county," Segarini said.

Nanci Sikes, executive director of the visitors bureau, said many people do make a good living as owners of small businesses serving tourists.

"A lot of these are entre- preneurs — the bed-and-breakfasts, the small hotels," she said. "They're doing what they love, and the profit is theirs."

The county attracted visitors even before Yosemite was established in 1890, and before automobiles and growing incomes made vacations possible for many Americans.

As the 20th century went on, the county drew a steady stream of families, scout troops, church groups and other fun-seekers. They camped, fished, hiked and boated — and they laid down cash at restaurants, service stations and stores.

"I think tourism has always been a really important part of the economy," said Cashman, whose resort employs about 75 people at the summer peak. "If we don't have snow and Dodge Ridge doesn't open, the whole county would suffer. If Pinecrest Lake isn't full, the whole county would suffer."

Tourism, like logging, is a primary industry: It takes advantage of natural wealth — in this case scenic beauty — and gets people from outside to spend money in the county. This money in turn ripples out to other businesses as people in tourism spend their paychecks.

Little impact on environment

Many advocates for tourism see it as a reliable source of income with little effect on the environment. It stands apart from major industries of the past — mining gold, building dams, cutting trees — that relied on working the land.

After the Standard mill closure, affecting 146 workers there and about that many contract loggers and truckers, the timber industry will be reduced to a 145-employee cedar fencing plant in Chinese Camp and the loggers and truckers who serve it.

"It's pretty obvious that some of these families are going to be moving somewhere else," Segarini said, "but from what I can tell, most of these families want to find jobs locally."

Schools might be affected

The loss of jobs could mean a continuing drop in school enrollment in a county that has more retirees than children and teens.

Black Oak School in Twain Harte closed last year, less than a decade after opening. Sullivan Creek School, three miles to the west, shut down in June.

"If the families have to move out of the county to find jobs, that definitely affects schools," said Laura Breaux of Summerville Elementary School in Tuolumne, during a forest tour for teachers last month.

Timber's latest contraction comes amid losses in the county's retail and construction sectors. Mervyn's and Gottschalks stores closed after the chains went bankrupt. Home building has plunged to the point that no new houses were sold in May or June, according to MDA Data- Quick.

County government would cut about 100 of its 800 positions under the proposed budget for the new fiscal year.

The job market is even worse in Stanislaus and other valley counties, should Tuolumne County residents want to move or commute to them.

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The county does have employers that are holding up well. The Sierra Conservation Center, a state prison west of Jamestown, has 1,236 people on its staff. Sonora Regional Medical Center employs 1,150 in its new complex. The casino has about 800.

The county also has had some success at drawing small high-tech companies, along with telecommuters working from home for distant employers. And the economy gets a boost from the many retirees, who spend some of their pensions at county businesses.

But advocates for the timber industry said it will be tough to replace its well-paying jobs. Charlotte Hague, a board member with the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment, cited one type of logging equipment.

"When you have a worker in the woods who for 35 years has run a skidder (heavy equipment used for pulling cut trees out of a forest), and they are an artist at running a skidder, and you say we'll retrain you on a slick computer system — this is not going to work," she said.

Timber people do not want to fade into Tuolumne County's history. They see themselves as part of its future — as stewards of the very landscape that draws people there.

They want to thin the over-dense forests to keep intense fires from wiping them out. This in turn could keep soil from eroding from the denuded slopes into streams and reservoirs.

The U.S. Forest Service is moving into what it calls "stewardship contracts" with the timber industry. Instead of just paying for the right to remove trees, the companies are paid by the government to restore trampled meadows, repair eroding dirt roads and do other work.

The industry supports this trend, though it would prefer a higher proportion of large trees logged to make it all profitable.

Public subsidies could be needed for some of the work, at least for a while, said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council in Truckee. They would be worth it, he said, because of the benefits of fire-resistant forests to wildlife, watersheds and recreation.

Frisch said the logging would reduce the state's reliance on wood products from elsewhere.

"If we bought our timber from California, we could be using the revenue to manage our forests," he said. "It doesn't make sense that you're paying to ship an incredibly dense product from Siberia to California."

Arguments for thinning

Advocates of aggressive thinning say it would increase the water supply, at least slightly, because fewer trees would draw on the moisture. This could boost hydroelectric power, a cheap source for consumers in Stanislaus County and beyond.

The timber industry also argues that it can help fight the climate change believed to be happening because of the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Trees absorb carbon as they grow, and this is especially true when forests are thinned and the remaining trees can grow faster, the industry says. Carbon also is captured in products made from the wood removed from the forest, including lumber and furniture.

Although the Standard mill will close, its equipment will stay in place in case of an improvement in housing demand and the log supply.

It's been nearly 100 years since the saws started spinning. If timber people get their way, the plant will help do the work of a new century.

"The mill has been there as long as anyone can remember," said Hague, the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment board member. "It's a part of our culture, our heritage. We live near a national forest. We need a mill."

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.