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Wood Products Sector Makes A Slow Turn Upward

The industry, which has been battered by the housing market, is making small but "significant" steps to keep plants open and retain workers.

WILLAMINA, Ore. (AP) — The international markets didn't register a ripple, but on April 9 Arnie Swan drove 25 minutes from his home and reported to work at Boise Cascade's veneer plant.

He's a new hire, not a worker called back from one of the layoffs and shutdowns that have dogged the wood products industry for a generation. His is one of two added positions at the plant. And in the past year the company replaced six other workers who retired, rather than let the positions go dark.

It may sound modest, but plant Superintendent Mike Henderson calls the hirings a "significant pickup." The plant's 50 employees produce thin layers of veneer, which are trucked to Medford and pressed together to make plywood and beams used in housing and other construction. No one is calling it a boom, but a slow rebound from the recession may be unfolding in the decimated wood products industry. That's why the company replaced the retired workers and approved the new hires.

"I wanted to have some experienced hands on board so we're ready when things turn around," Henderson said.

Industry observers see signs of improvement. While single-family home construction lags, wood products are increasingly used in multi-family projects and multi-story commercial buildings, said Tom Partin, president of the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council, which advocates on behalf of manufacturers.

Northwest mills aggressively sought new markets in Europe and Asia, Partin said. Also, raw log shipments from the Northwest to China and Japan have slowed, which makes more timber available to domestic mills.

"We're not seeing anything earth shattering as far as the market is concerned," he said, "but there's an optimism there that hasn't been there for maybe three years."

Bad luck elsewhere benefited Northwest veneer and plywood mills. Tim Cochran, with the wood products journal Random Lengths, said Boise Cascade capitalized when Georgia Pacific closed pine plywood mills in the southeast. In addition, a January fire destroyed a plywood mill in Chile that exported much of its product to the U.S. and Mexico.

"It's all about baby steps," Cochran said. "The comeback is ever so slow, but we are coming back."

Oregon Employment Department reports appear to support that view. The state counted 18,100 wood products manufacturing jobs in March 2012, down 1,300 from 2011. But department economist Amy Vander Vliet said that sector is projected to add 2,800 jobs by 2020.

In 1990, federal restrictions severely reduced logging and mill modernization whittled the workforce, Oregon had more than 47,000 workers in wood products manufacturing.

Arnie Swan, the new hire at Willamina, is pleased to be among those employed today. He's 52, and taught high school biology for a time before spending 16 years as a drug and alcohol counselor at Union Gospel Mission in Salem. He left that job and spent a couple months receiving unemployment checks before snagging the Boise Cascade job.

He thought about returning to teaching, but said jobs are scarce except for bi-lingual or special ed.

So for now he's "throwing veneer" on what's still called the greenchain, where newly milled material is sorted and stacked.

"I grew up with ranchers, loggers and millworkers," Swan said. "I actually like working with my hands; it's not an anomaly."

Swan said he needed a job that paid at least $15 an hour in order to make his mortgage payments, and he found one. The plant pays an average of $19 an hour, said Henderson, the superintendent. Swan's wage will increase to about $17 an hour when he passes a probationary period.

"It provides a good opportunity where I can make a living," Swan said. "They're good folks, easy to get along with."

Boise Cascade's veneer plant in Willamina won't be mistaken for a big player in the economic scheme of things, but in many ways reflects the careening fortunes of Oregon's timber industry.

The Hurl brothers founded it as a sawmill and veneer plant nearly 60 years ago, and from Highway 18 it looks like a throwback to the days when nearly every small Oregon town had a mill and nearly anybody could land a job. For decades, that was the case in Willamina, Sheridan, Shipley, Dallas and similar burgs southwest of Portland.

Boise Cascade, then an industry stalwart, bought the mill in 1972. In 2004 it sold out to Madison Dearborn Partners LLC, based in Chicago. Dearborn subsequently sold the paper, packaging and newsprint operations, keeping its wood products plants under the name Boise Cascade LLC. In 2005 the new entity shed Boise's nationwide timber holdings. Forest Capital Partners LLC, with headquarters in Portland and Boston, paid $1.65 billion for about 2 million acres in the southeast, Great Lakes and Northwest.

As an ironic result of the deals, Forest Capital now sells logs to Boise Cascade's veneer plant in Willamina. About half the logs feeding the plant come from timberland Boise itself formerly owned.

Henderson's worked at the plant 37 years in what used to be a familiar Oregon story. Newly married, he took a break from college to support his family. He started out driving a forklift and pulling veneer on the greenchain, and never left.

The automated process still fascinates him. Logs run through a de-barker and then are cut to eight-and-a-half foot lengths. A machine grabs the log at either end and spins it against lathe blades, which require sharpening every two hours. The process reduces a thick log to a dowel-shaped rod in seconds, peeling sheets of veneer one-eighth inch thick and up to 54 inches wide. Henderson compares it to unspooling a paper towel roll.

Henderson never regretted staying and is impressed at people entering the workforce. Workers such as Swan are focused and appreciative of a having a good job in a poor economy. Another worker, a forklift driver hired a year ago, is a former Marine who served in Afghanistan.

"It's been a good ride for me," Henderson said, "and I hope it is for these guys, too."

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