Union Democrat staff

Sierra Pacific Industries this week announced that it will close its Standard Mill in July, idling 146 workers. This figure could more than double when logging and trucking outfits that depend on the mill go out of business or cut payrolls to the bone.

And it won't end there: With millions of payroll dollars suddenly out of circulation, scores of Mother Lode businesses will lose customers and revenue. The multiplier effect - where dollars earned at the mill or in the woods remain in circulation and, spent again and again, invigorate the local economy - will grind to a halt.

The Stanislaus National Forest's fire clearing program, which last year relied on SPI to buy virtually all of its timber sales, will be hamstrung.

There's no way to sugarcoat it: Jobs paying coveted "family wages," which economic development experts want to lure here, will be lost. Workers with specialized skills and years on the job will suddenly find themselves without options and, perhaps, without a future in Tuolumne County.

The enormity of the loss has yet to set in. A sense of disbelief persists, followed by denial. But a knot in the pit of our stomachs confirms that the planned mill closure is real.

By human nature, some will look for reasons and for blame to assign. They're here in spades: A crippled economy, a collapsed housing market, too much cheap lumber from Canada and overseas, too many timber harvest regulations - take your pick.

Anyone who has lived here for a while also knows that the timber industry has been on the decline for decades. Tuolumne's West Side Mill and the town's box factory closed in the early 1960s. SPI in 1995 closed its Standard plywood plant, idling 186. Layoffs have plagued the firm's Standard and Chinese Camp mills ever since. And SPI has this year announced closure of its mills in Quincy and Camino, adding to 84 sawmills that have closed in California since 1989.

Meanwhile, annual timber cuts on the Stanislaus National Forest have plummeted from over 150 million board-feet in the mid-1980s to 20 million or less in the last few years.

Just as mining is no longer a cornerstone of our economy, timber's importance has been receding, giving way to tourism, service jobs and, until recently, housing. Which is of little comfort for those who will lose their jobs this summer.

It is also human nature to look for solutions, which in this case are much harder to find. But there are glimmers of hope:

• SPI isn't selling the Standard Mill or its equipment. Although making no promises, the company could reopen the mill if the economy turns around. SPI has also said it will help idled workers find jobs elsewhere in the firm, although opportunities will be few.

• The Stanislaus Forest has already received nearly $300,000 in federal stimulus funds and may get millions more for ready-to-go fire thinning and road projects that may fit the skills of laid-off workers.

• State Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, has said he will introduce legislation giving developers using California-milled lumber a tax break.

• SPI's Chinese Camp Mill, where up to 120 workers craft cedar fence boards, will remain open.

• Operations specializing in small log harvest will stay in business, as bark and wood chips are still needed for animal bedding at a new west county chip mill, power generation at Pacific Ultrapower's Chinese Camp-area burner and other uses.

Meanwhile, there will almost certainly be retraining opportunities for mill workers wanting to change careers. And the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, now with a newly hired executive director, will look into ways to regain the kind of well-paying jobs we just lost.

Although it is of little consolation in light of the Standard Mill's closure, our economy will revive, particularly if our community remains committed to that goal.