Layoffs at California sawmill change way of life

Even at 3 a.m., when his shift begins, Don Tidwell savors the smell of his job.

In the darkness and in the daylight, the odor clings to the buildings and ground and mountain air, saturating the senses.

"Sugar pine smell," explains Tidwell, a 32-year-old father of four. "You know, fresh lumber-mill smell."

That simple workplace pleasure has come to an abrupt end for Tidwell and 149 other men and women, who lost their jobs at the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill in Quincy.

Monday's official closure of the small-log mill in Quincy, 146 miles northeast of Sacramento, is part of a wave of mill closures, layoffs and shift reductions in California announced by the timber giant since Jan. 1.

While the Anderson-based company will completely shutter its mills in Camino and Sonora this summer – costing another 310 jobs – the sawmill in the remote mountain town of Quincy will only partially close. Effective Monday, the section of the mill that cuts small-diameter logs will cease operations.

Who and what is to blame for the cascading job losses is a contentious debate involving the timber industry, environmentalists, the federal government and the people of Plumas County.

This much is undisputed: The loss of 150 jobs from the county's largest private employer is hitting an isolated mountain region that already has one of the state's highest unemployment rates, at 20.1 percent. Suddenly, the work force of about 320 – now cut nearly in half – must face the harsh realities of an economic downturn and a seniority system that decides who will stay, and who will go.

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