Union Democrat staff

The nation's banks and auto companies are getting billions in bailout and stimulus cash. States, counties and cities are in line for hundreds of millions more. Heck, a $410 billion spending bill passed early this year included $7.7 billion in earmarks, including a $1.8 million grant to research swine odors in Iowa and other pet projects of legislators across the country.

So seeking economic stimulus money to keep Sierra Pacific Industries' Standard lumber mill operating beyond its planned July closure date seems to make a lot of sense.

"As much sense as bailing out the auto industry - more sense," reckoned Melinda Fleming, executive director of the Tuolumne County Alliance for Resources and Environment.

So TuCARE members will later this month meet with Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to discuss a possible infusion of stimulus money to keep the Standard saws humming.

A far-fetched long shot?

Not exactly: Sure, a few lawmakers in Washington might scoff at the 146 jobs that will be lost when the SPI mill closes. After all, aren't nearly 10 million Americans out of work?

Yes, we could then point out that mill-caused job loss will triple to nearly 450 when logging crews, contracted workers and others who sell and service SPI are added in. But haven't the big three automakers shed tens of thousands of jobs in Michigan?

OK, try this: Based on population, the loss of 450 jobs in Tuolumne County is like Detroit losing nearly 10,000. Or Michigan losing 75,000.

Bottom line: Logging is to the Mother Lode what auto manufacturing is to Michigan and Detroit. These two industries may not be what they once were, but every closed plant or mill cuts deep. These idled operations take with them some of the communities' best-paying jobs and, across the board, leave area economies in poorer shape.

Just as those 146 Tuolumne County jobs might seem paltry to lawmakers dealing in billions and even trillions of dollars, so might the relatively small investment in stimulus funds it might take to bring them back.

What's more, Congressman Radanovich has a precedent: The Sierra Forest Products Mill, north of Bakersfield in the Tulare County town of Terra Bella, already enjoys federal subsidies aimed at decreasing its log-hauling costs and keeping it competitive.

So it's worth a shot. And if Radanovich and TuCARE can somehow convince Feinstein to go along with the idea, well we might be talking about some real money.

With Mother Lode unemployment climbing toward 15 percent, and with the closure of Sonora's Mervyns and Gottschalks stores further weakening the economy, a little stimulus would certainly be welcome.

Still, it's best to prepare for the worst.

So Mother Lode Job Training should be commended for readying a "rapid response" program aimed at helping mill workers and others laid off by closing or downsizing businesses find, apply and, in some cases, train for new jobs. SPI and the millworkers' union are also working on severance packages anticipating the still-likely July closure of the Standard Mill.