With mill revamp, Sierra Pacific takes the high road

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Over the past four years, you could almost set your clock by the winter and early spring layoffs at Sierra Pacific Industries' Chinese Camp mill.

? In 2003, 37 of the mill's workers were laid off for a month.

? In 2004, 35 were laid off for several weeks and others were transferred to company's Standard Mill.

? In 2005, 30 employees were temporarily laid off. Company officials blamed a shortage of logs from national forest land.

? In 2006, about 60 workers were laid off for two weeks in April. Weather hindering the shipment of logs was cited.

"We couldn't continue just limping along like that," said SPI spokesman Mark Luster last week.

The words could have been the preamble to an announcement that the Chinese Camp Mill would be shut down. But instead Luster was heralding a multi-million dollar retooling of the mill for production of cedar fencing.

Instead of putting the mill's mostly veteran workforce on the streets, SPI is shipping incense cedar logs from throughout California to Chinese Camp and hours of operation at the mill will actually increase from 60 to 80.

The conversion took nearly four months and involves state-of-the-art equipment, including lasers and scanners that assure cuts accurate to within a thousandth of an inch.

The Chinese Camp mill reopened on Dec. 11 and will ultimately have three production lines. That's good news for mill's employees, who in recent years have not enjoyed a lot of job security. The annual layoffs, if SPI's supply-and-demand analyses are correct, should be a thing of the past.

But the Redding-based timber giant didn't invest its time, effort and cash to help 120 mill workers. This was not a charity case.

Instead it was a response to market conditions that made operation of Chinese Camp as a small log mill untenable.

SPI doubled the mill's small log capacity in 1996, shortly after it had purchased Fibreboard Wood Products Corp. and its Tuolumne County holdings. It reasoned then that fewer large logs would be coming off U.S. Forest Service land and that the small log output of federal lands and its own forests could keep Chinese Camp operating.

By 2004 it was clear this was not the case. Both SPI and its workers pointed fingers at the Stanislaus National Forest, which responded with a plan to increase timber harvests. But SPI, not prepared to wait for the forest plan to reach its goals and aware of increased demand for cedar fencing, decided to go in a different, more profitable direction.

It also happened to be good direction for the workers at Chinese Camp and for the county economy. George Segarini, executive director of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce, thanked SPI for its "commitment" to the community.

The company should commended. And that its commitment will likely bring a profit is makes it a better deal for both SPI and the community.

Please, share your thoughts on the issue. Write to letters@uniondemocrat.com .

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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