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Who will replace aging loggers?

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — Nearly two-thirds of all loggers in Idaho, Montana and Washington state are 40 years old or older, according to a new University of Idaho study, raising warning signs in traditional timber communities that rely on the industry.

What's more, if loggers become scarce, it may be difficult to muster crews for forest-thinning projects that help protect rural communities from wildfire, some industry officials say.

The industry, which last year provided $102 million in wages to Idaho's five northernmost counties, has been hit by bad news recently: Stimson Lumber Co. of Portland, Ore., is laying off 121 workers as it shutters a sawmill in Coeur d'Alene because of falling prices, dwindling demand and foreign competition. Boise-Cascade has laid off 70 workers at a La Grande, Ore., sawmill due to rising operating costs.

"Certainly, when a mill closes like that you've got a problem," said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, told The Spokesman-Review newspaper. "And we do have logging contractors that aren't working. It's hard to beat the drum to get younger members in."

UI graduate student Travis Allen has sent out 1,200 surveys to loggers across Idaho, Washington and Montana. He hopes to have data analyzed by early 2006.

But in preliminary findings, Allen said it appears those still in the industry are aging — and younger loggers to fill their spots as they retire are showing up in dwindling numbers. The reasons could be globalization in the timber market, fewer timber sales on federal land and high insurance costs, Allen said.

Allen said the survey responses he's reviewed so far indicate many timber workers consider their biggest challenge the scarcity of local timber sales, followed by a lack of skilled workers.

To attract new loggers, some high schools such as one in Colville, Wash., have re-invigorated forestry programs for youngsters.

"We're trying desperately to bolster those programs," said Peter Griessmann, district forest manager for the Stevens County (Wash.) Conservation District. "Most, if not everyone, I talk to now (in logging) is a good eight to 10 years older than myself."

Dave Ehrmantrout, a Priest River logger and millworker, said his three sons are bucking the trend and following him into the business. But their decision wasn't an easy one, he said: Some forests that once yielded large-diameter logs are now off limits, in some cases due to lawsuits from environmental groups over timber sales.

Ehrmantrout also said competition has intensified for jobs that focus on cutting large trees. Some operators bid on unprofitable projects just so they can make next month's payments on their expensive equipment, he said.

His family has bought specialized logging gear used to cut small trees, a mainstay in fire-control operations.

"There's easier ways to make a living, but North Idaho is their home. This is where they wanted to stay," Ehrmantrout said of his sons decisions to follow in his footststeps. They're in their late teens and early 20s.

"We can't stop change, but we don't necessarily have to give up our way of life."