Life changes after mill closes

November 14, 2002 12:00 am
Wes Morgan started at Ellingson Lumber Co. in 1975 when he was 20. Two decades later, at age 40, he found himself unemployed. Today, seven years after the mill closed, he has completed his degree and gone into business for himself. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Wes Morgan started at Ellingson Lumber Co. in 1975 when he was 20. Two decades later, at age 40, he found himself unemployed. Today, seven years after the mill closed, he has completed his degree and gone into business for himself. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

For 21 years Wes Morgan watched the trucks pull into Ellingson Lumber Co., laden with thick ponderosa pines that still smelled strongly of sap.

He started in 1975, two years out of high school, and like most new hires was thrust into the glove-destroying gantlet of the green chain.

Morgan stayed and advanced, though, moving eventually to saw filer, one of the top jobs in any lumber mill.

His title changed, and so did his co-workers, but always there were the trucks.

In summer they carried logs coated with dust, and in winter the long, round loads sometimes were topped with a thin layer of snow.

But every day the trucks came, and Morgan figured that probably they always would.

Until one day, though Morgan didn't know it then, a truck bumped into the yard that was the last truck.

It was November 1995. Morgan had just turned 40. He was married, with two children and a mortgage, working at a job that fitted him as comfortably as a well-worn sheepskin slipper.

Except now the job was gone.

He didn't panic, though, not at first.

The mill had closed down before.

Once, in the early 1980s, Morgan was off work for most of the summer. That was a temporary closure, caused by ebbing prices for wood products, the sort of economic glitch that lasts only until the market starts its perpetual cycle anew.

But as 1995 turned to 1996, the Ellingson mill remained closed.

And then, in March, the company announced that the mill, the operation that to Morgan seemed perpetual, would not re-open. Ever.

That, Morgan says now, "was pretty much a surprise."

"I never thought it would happen," he said. "I thought there might be some cutbacks or layoffs, but (the mill) just never did start up again."

And one of the main reasons it did not — there simply weren't enough logs to keep the saws spinning — is one that in 1995 seemed almost farcical to Eastern Oregon millworkers like Morgan, for whom Western Oregon's spotted owl saga was too distant to worry much about.

"That was really hard to imagine, because timber supplies had been good," Morgan said.

Had been, but no longer were.

When Morgan started working at the Ellingson mill in the mid 1970s, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, based in Baker City, was selling an average of about 200 million board-feet of timber every year. The nearby Umatilla and Malheur national forests were selling similar amounts, and much of the volume consisted of the big old ponderosa pines Morgan was so accustomed to seeing stacked around the mill.

But starting in the early 1990s, the log sales for all three forests sank like a boulder in freshwater.

In 1993 and 1994 combined, for example, the Wallowa-Whitman sold 52 million board-feet of timber — less than one-quarter the total for several single years during Morgan's tenure at the Ellingson mill.

He knew the company withstood the drastic decline in Forest Service timber sales by buying more logs from private land.

But Morgan said he assumed the Forest Service's downward trend would reverse, that those trucks loaded with big pines from the Wallowa-Whitman and neighboring national forests soon would roll again.

"I always figured it would even out somewhere," he said.

But it did not.

And although Morgan's confidence in the timber supply was resilient, he also is a realist. Once his confidence had disappeared he did not wait to find out whether he had been mistaken after all.

Giving it all up, getting back up

Not long after the mill closed he and his wife, Cindy, sold the Baker City home where their children, Jason and Karissa, had grown up.

"We couldn't continue to live the way we had," Wes said. "We downsized."

That same November when Wes filed his last saw tooth, Cindy's health problems forced her to retire from the Forest Service.

The couple, along with Jason, who still lived at home, moved to Hereford, where Wes worked on a ranch in exchange for rent.

They had given up their careers, their hometown, their home.

"It was a crazy ride there for a while," Cindy said.

But the Morgans had a plan for smoothing that ride, and it depended in part on an unlikely ally: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

That deal, approved by Congress during President Clinton's first term, was designed to help American companies by opening overseas markets.

But not every business benefited.

Under NAFTA, a glut of timber from Canada, whose lumber industry is heavily subsidized by the government, and to a lesser extend from Mexico, flooded the U.S. market, driving down prices.

That, combined with the lack of logs from national forests, contributed to the closure of the Ellingson mill in Baker City.

But there was a bright spot.

NAFTA provided extra unemployment and other benefits for U.S. workers who lost their jobs in part because of the trade agreement.

Morgan, like most of the rest of his former co-workers, took advantage.

He enrolled at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario to study surveying, a subject that had always interested him.

While Morgan was working toward his two-year degree, NAFTA paid for his tuition, books and other expenses, including gas money for his dozens of trips between Hereford and Ontario.

He also received unemployment payments for most of the time he was in school.

"It was a good deal," Morgan said.

Still, he remembers how nervous he was when he walked into a classroom, as a student, for the first time in more than two decades.

And yet Morgan adapted to college as adeptly as the president of a prestigious fraternity.

"I just had a blast with the kids," he said. "I seemed to fit in."

Morgan adjusted to the academic life quickly, as well.

"Wes graduated with honors," Cindy said with a proud smile. "He loved school. I think that (mill) closure in some ways was the best thing that ever happened to Wes."

In fact, after two years he had not come close to quenching his thirst for knowledge.

"It really broadened my horizons," he said of his two years at Treasure Valley. "I would have studied even more if the money had been available, but I had to take what I could get in two years."

Earning his degree bolstered Morgan's confidence so much that after graduating he decided to start his own business.

He first job was maintaining fences. Then he secured a contract with the Burnt River Irrigation District, working on the Unity Dam.

Over the past several years the business has expanded, now split between his own Morgan Contracting, and Dam Maintenance Management, a company he started with Pat Sullivan of Hereford.

Morgan spends most of his time designing and installing devices that measure the amount of water flowing through dam spillways.

Unlike the struggling industry Morgan left in 1995, the water business is booming. Everyone wants to know how much there is, and how quickly they're using it.

"This one's going uphill as far as work," he said. "We've managed to pay the bills and stay afloat."

Just this spring the Morgans were able to return to Baker City and buy a new home here.

Seven years after the unimaginable happened, Morgan admits there are days when he misses the mill where he built a career over the years and decades.

But he does not wish he were working there today.

"The way it's worked out, I wouldn't go back," he said. "There's something about being your own boss, and working outdoors. I remember being at the mill and looking out the window and wishing I was outside."

Morgan also appreciates the variety his current job entails.

"There's something different every day," he said.

Working as a saw filer, the old hands at the mill used to joke, "was the same old grind every day."

The Morgans lives have changed in many ways since 1995, but if there's a moral to their tale they agree on what it would be.

"There's no guarantees," Cindy said.

"I always used to think there was security in having a job," Wes said.

He knows now that that security is uncertain, as ephemeral as the veils of dust that swirled behind those loaded log trucks he used to count on.

But he also knows he can endure.

November 1995 proved that.

"It was one of those things that could get you depressed if you let it," he said. "It wasn't the end of the world.

"I'm a survivor."