Eureka Log Haul: 'It's payback time!' -- Thousands rally to save Montana sawmill

May 17, 2001

By Sarah Foster

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EUREKA, Montana - When sawmill co-owner James Hurst hit on a plan for hauling several truckloads of shovels to Elko, Nevada, early last year to protest U.S. Forest Service road closings, he never expected his good deed to be repaid. There was really no need.

But that's what's happening today as the great Eureka Log Haul rolls into town. Thousands of rural westerners and supporters from across the country are expected to converge on this tiny community in northwest Montana, their pickup trucks loaded with 8-foot logs, all cut from private land, destined for the Owens and Hurst Lumber Mill -- the last family-owned sawmill in this once-thriving logging community five miles from the Canadian border, on Interstate 93. It's a way to thank and to pay back the originator of last year's famous Jarbidge Shovel Brigade.

With banners proclaiming "We are family," pickup trucks will begin arriving at 8:00 a.m., drive to the mill to drop off their cargoes, then participate in a parade and convoy to the Lincoln County Fairgrounds for a day of speeches and entertainment. The residents of little Eureka -- all 1,200 of them -- are rolling out the welcome mat to the world. They are opening their homes to the visitors because the motels are full. Free food is being provided.

Organizers of the event see it as a chance for people to show support for the mill and the industry of which it is a part and to focus nationwide attention on the plight of the nation's logging communities -- a situation created largely by the Forest Service's shutting down of timber harvest activities in the national forests.

"There are a lot of folks, including the previous administration, who would like to see nature be the overall manager of the forest, so a lot of forest management practices which should have been used in the forests have been discontinued," explained Bruce Vincent, one of the organizers and president of Communities for a Great Northwest in Libby, Mont. "Which is what the Log Haul is about," he added. "There are small family operations that can and should be operating for the health of the forest itself."

Vincent, 45, a fourth-generation logger, and his family own that kind of business, a small logging company in Libby. Not that long ago Vincent Lumber, like many contractors, cut the wood for the mills. Work has slowed to a trickle in recent years, as it has for the mills -- most of which have gone out of business.

Ten years ago in Eureka there were six mills, which depended on being able to purchase trees from the neighboring 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest. But beginning in the late 1980s, a series of harassing legal actions against the Forest Service by environmental groups forced the Service to cancel its sales of timber, causing the nearly complete collapse of the industry. One by one, five mills in Eureka closed their doors. Throughout the West other mills shut down, over 200 in the last decade. James Hurst was severely affected, and is barely hanging on for economic survival.

"We've been forced to purchase logs as far away as 500 miles," he says bitterly. "And within 15 miles of our operation there is dead and dying timber, downed timber. There's plenty of resources in the Kootenai National Forest to keep our mill and several others going. However, due to Clinton and Gore's policy and the Endangered Species Act, we're prevented from cleaning up the fire hazards in these forests. And by the same ticket people are being put out of work. There's plenty of wood, but we can't get it."

Unable to obtain sufficient lumber from the public lands, Hurst began driving to Canada for logs and buying small amounts from owners of private lands locally. But the supply wasn't sufficient and last January he was forced to lay off 40 employees.

"I had to lay them off permanently," said Hurst. "About 40 percent of my workforce. They didn't want to leave, and I didn't want to lay them off. Forty people may not sound like many, but our community is small. And those 40 employees have families, so you have to multiply that number three or four times to include wives and children to appreciate the full impact."

It was his expression of concern over what was happening on the public lands that propelled the quiet business owner into the national limelight last year. He had heard of a situation in Elko County, Nevada, where the Forest Service was refusing to repair a public road in Inyo-Humboldt National Forest, near the minute town of Jarbidge, and indeed had even blocked access with boulders and debris. Residents of the county were outraged and tried to open it, only to be blocked by court action.

As Hurst explained then to WorldNetDaily, when he learned about this he thought -- "BINGO! We've got a road closed. Can we tie part of the West together here? Those people had tried to open that road with shovels, but were stopped. I realized that what was going on there was what was going on here in Eureka -- but they don't know we're having those same problems, and we don't know about theirs."

Hurst contacted the county commissioners in Elko and offered to bring a few shovels as a symbolic gesture. He ended up bringing over 11,000 that people had donated. He called them Shovels for Solidarity. Some were used last July 4 to open the road in Jarbidge Canyon.

Four of Elko County's five commissioners are expected in Eureka, bringing with them 500 shovels, plus the 13-foot-high shovel -- embellished with the names of 9,000 sympathizers -- that has stood upright in front of the courthouse in the city of Elko since erected last year.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," says Mike Nannini, one of the four and a truck stop owner from Wells, Nevada. "We intend to do everything we can to help call attention to the need to revise federal forest policies."

Nannini credits Hurst with making it possible for the county to reclaim the Jarbidge Canyon road.

"We got our road back," he says, "But had it not been for Jim Hurst and his Shovels for Solidarity and the national attention we received, the Forest Service would have never backed down. The road would still be closed."

Event organizers Ed Eggleston and Bruce Vincent never thought the Log Haul would become so huge. They figured on perhaps 100 loads of logs from the south end of the county and another 100 loads from the Flathead area.

Today, "We're expecting anywhere from 5,000 people to as many as 10,000," said Eggleston.

Eggleston, 45, a nature photographer, who owns five acres of land near Libby, Mont., is credited with conceiving the idea of a Log Haul.

"I clean up my land every year," he said, explaining how he developed the plan. "For several years Jim [Hurst] has been buying 8-foot logs, so that's a nice way to get rid of our trees that get killed from heavy snows, blown over, or get disease in them. We've been selling to them for about five years. This year I read in the paper that they were having hard times, and I was so sick of watching mills close. I thought, if we lose this mill, we lose our ability to manage our places. The sad thing is that we manage private lands really well, and the Forest Service can't even manage their lands anymore -- and if we lose that mill, we lose our ability to manage."

So concerned was Eggleston about the possible closing of the only remaining sawmill, he considered giving the logs to Hurst.

"I thought, I'll just take my logs up there and give them to Jim, then I reasoned that if I did that, other people would," he continued. "I had no idea it would grow into this. We're guessing somewhere between 3,000 to 6,000 people will be here. It's hard to get a handle on the number, it's growing so fast. People are calling and coming in from all over."

Among the thousands of expected drivers will be Julie Smithson, 48, from London, Ohio. Smithson is spokesperson for the grassroots group Stewards of the Darby, which has been resisting efforts by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to turn over 50,000 acres of prime farmland in central Ohio, along Little Darby Creek, into a wildlife refuge.

Smithson organized a rally, which drew an estimated 2,000 people last Labor Day weekend. As WorldNetDaily reported, some of the Shovels for Solidarity were carried from Elko on a truck convoy to London for that event.

A professional truck driver for 22 years, Smithson recently retired from that career to devote herself to property rights activism and writing. When she received an e-mail from a California activist, she wanted to become involved.

Returning the favor

"I read on the Log Haul website the mill in Eureka belonged to Jim Hurst - of the "Grim Reaper" semi that hauled the famed Jarbidge shovels from Elko to Ohio for the farmland rally," she explains. "I decided that my participation in hauling a log was returning the favor -- and connecting the timber industry with the farmers, both of whom are resource providers."

Smithson is not driving a big rig to the Log Haul, but a pickup truck -- loaded with an 8-foot long, 18-inch diameter black walnut from the middle of the Little Darby Creek study area, for the proposed refuge. Rather than convoy, she'll drive alone to Montana, with "Wiggles" her blue-heeler dog riding shotgun in the passenger seat.

She planned not to decorate her truck until arrival in Kalispell, Mont., the staging area, or Eureka. Then she'll proudly display two 3' X 5' flags -- one, an American flag, the other a black-and-white POW flag -- "In honor of all those who should have come home from war, but were left behind by 'politically correct' conscious government decisions," she explains.

Asked what she hopes to accomplish, "I expect people to continue networking with one another -- to show America and the world who the real environmentalists and stewards of America's lands and waters are."

Indeed, the question of stewardship is the real theme of the rally. Attendees are angry and disgusted that usable timber from the fires which savaged the West last summer cannot be salvaged at once.

According to an official at the Rexford Ranger Station on the Kootenai National Forest, not until September will the Service complete the required environmental impact statement on a proposal for salvage harvesting a 4,003-acre area, part of a much larger 16,000-acre area that was burned last August. Even when completed, the plan could still be challenged by environmental groups, postponing any harvesting until December.

The official, who did not chose to give his name, told WorldNetDaily that "Given the appeal regulations and procedures we have to follow, we will probably be looking at some time late this fall or early winter before harvesting can begin."

The official admitted there was a possibility of deterioration, which would remove it from economic value. "Typically the smaller diameter material (under 11 inches in diameter at breast height and smaller) and material that burned in higher intensity fires loses its value quicker," he said.

That's not good enough say critics of Forest Service policy. In order to manage the forest, trees have to be cut and removed. Bruce Vincent predicts that unless something is done, there will be more fires this summer.

Speaking about last year's conflagrations, Vincent predicts, "We haven't seen anything yet. If we continue the management that we've seen over the last eight years to continue another eight years, then the natural system will kick in. Fire is a natural part of the system. We tried to show this back in 1988. We told the managers of the Bitterroot National Forest, if you don't manage the trees to remove some of the fuel -- the dead trees, the trees that were diseased and should have been killed by fire -- then someday your valley will be looking at a future of flame.

"That was 10 years ago -- and the Bitterroot was where the fires were huge last summer," he noted. "That's where the evening news went every night; it was the Bitterroot Valley that burned."

Ed Eggleston, though not a logger but a photographer, is no less outraged. A Native American he is horrified at the destruction of the forests, the result of Forest Service policy. "The Bitterroot will take 300 years to grow back," he pointed out.

Eggleston spoke with highest regard for an 85-year-old woman who donated two fir trees from her front yard.

"They were the centerpiece of her yard," he said, "And when I went to look at them they had been cut, and were lying there waiting to be picked up. I asked how she could part with them, and she said, "I love these trees, but I love what you're doing even more."

"Somehow, saying thank you just doesn't seem enough when someone does something like that," said Eggleston.

Copyright 2001, 

Related stories:

Shovel Brigade heads east

Shovel Brigade takes on 'roadless' policy

'Endangered' act blamed for fires


Sarah Foster is a staff reporter for WorldNetDaily.