In Idaho’s rural timber counties, the housing slump didn’t start the depression.
For residents of Benewah, Boundary, Clearwater, Shoshone, Idaho and Adams County, the slump began in the 1990s and the economy never really recovered. The backwoods, backwater economy was tied to the timber industry. First the industry cut jobs by making its mills efficient. Then environmentalists tied up timber sales with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
Finally, the Canadian timber industry, aided by its government, made it impossible for remaining mills to compete. The housing slump put the nail in the coffin.
Visit towns like Elk City in the past decade and you saw the hope dying as the jobs went away. Republican Sen. Larry Craig offered some hope that he would find a way to revive the industry with timber sales to thin the forests and make them more fire resistant.
But at the same time, he supported efforts to make the Forest Service smaller, which led to laying off and moving federal employees from Orofino, Salmon, St. Anthony and Bonners Ferry. He couldn’t turn the environmentalist tide nor stop the Canadians. He also couldn't provide an alternate vision for these towns and it was one of his great failures.
So today Benewah and Clearwater counties’ unemployment exceeds 12 percent. Shoshone County is at 10 percent and Boundary County is at more than 9 percent.
The closure of Tamarack Resort in Valley County underscores the false promise that tourism offered to these rural counties. While Tamarack will likely live on in some form and tourism will always be a part of the economy of Idaho’s backwoods, the vision that it was a panacea died with resort's closure.
So what will lift these counties up?
In the short term, it will be the stimulus bill. Lost in the debate over Idaho’s stimulus allocation is the funding that will come to federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The Forest Service alone will get $1 billion and nearly 20 million acres of Idaho, mostly in the poverty-stricken north, is national forest. Craig did leave these counties a 75 percent increase in funds for schools and counties in one of his last major votes.
So together these rural counties are going to see an influx of dollars like they haven’t since the 1980s. The Forest Service is planning $650 million in construction projects nationwide that will be announced over the next month. Another $250 million is going for wildfire prevention, one of the few stimulus provisions Sen. Mike Crapo supported.
Overall, the agency predicts it will create 30,000 jobs.
Idaho is certainly going to get its share. The man in charge of stimulus work for the Forest Service is David Dillard, a former district ranger in Ashton.
The money will be spent for removal of brush from overgrown forests, watershed and stream restoration projects, construction and reconstruction of timber bridges, and road and trail maintenance. These will be jobs in Idaho's forest communities.
"As we implement this legislation, we will not increase the federal workforce,” Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell said in a press release. “We will spend all funds on targeted ready projects; and we will begin our work promptly and complete it within two to three years for most activities."
I suspect the Forest Service will have to hire as contractors some of its retired employees to help it write all the contracts it is going to have. In addition the BLM will have $350 million in stimulus funds.
This influx won’t turn around the economies of these struggling counties. Perhaps the development of biomass energy projects, with help from the stimulus, could provide lasting jobs but most of this work will be done by 2011.
How the Forest Service proceeds afterward will tell whether its effects will last. Will the trees that remain offer sustainable jobs for the future?
It will only happen with a new national consensus.
Just as these towns benefit from the mass of firefighters that invade when a big fire burns, rural Idaho is going to see money like it hasn’t for a long time. Will it leave a blackened landscape with no hope when its gone?
Or will it spark a recovery like a reborn forest? The answer lies in the Obama administration and its vision for the future of the nation's forests.