In Idaho Lumber Country, Trump Voters Wait To See If He Can Jumpstart Jobs The state is a Republican stronghold, but even Idahoans have doubts on whether President-elect Donald Trump can help the timber industry recover after job cuts and a series of mill closures.

In Idaho Lumber Country, Trump Voters Wait To See If He Can Jumpstart Jobs

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A few weeks before the election, the Tri-Pro Lumber Mill in North Idaho shut down. It was the second timber mill to close in the area in six months. Now, this part of the country is a Republican stronghold, and as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, there are mixed feelings there on whether President-elect Trump can help the industry recover.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Two mill closures putting a hundred people out of work is a big deal for any community, but it's especially a shock for a small, tight-knit town like Orofino, Idaho, population 3,000.

MIKE REGGEAR: Yeah, as of October 4 - was the closure date to the saw mill.

SIEGLER: So most of the offices have emptied out apart from yours, and...

REGGEAR: Correct.

SIEGLER: The only employee left on the Tri-Pro payroll is Mike Reggear, the manager. He's tying up some loose ends. The shuttered lumber yard is eerily quiet - the old mill, the kilns, the saws ready to be hauled out.

REGGEAR: You know, it's - (laughter) it's going to be a struggle, quite honestly. It really is. I mean they were living-wage jobs that now have been lost.

SIEGLER: The story behind Tri-Pro's closure is an all too familiar one lately in North Idaho. Reggear says there just weren't enough local logs available to keep the saw mill running and profitable. Imports from Canada are cheaper, and the amount of federal land around here open to logging has dropped tenfold since the 1980s. But just like any economic story in rural America right now, it's more complicated than that.

Timber towns like Orofino that are situated along railroad lines and rivers were put on the map more than a hundred years ago when it seemed like there was a limitless supply of timber in these woods and the federal government actively promoted logging. But the environmental mood of the country is a lot different today, and so is the economy. Mechanization has meant that fewer people are needed to log the woods and work in the mills.


SIEGLER: One night over Coors Lights at the Ponderosa Restaurant in town, Jerry Spencer says he feels lucky he can still find work as a logger around here.

JERRY SPENCER: Logging anymore's about an eight-month-a-year deal, so we try to diversify a little bit because - can't live on eight months a year.

SIEGLER: Spencer and a buddy had been splitting time between here and the oil fields over in North Dakota until oil prices tanked. He's not that eager to talk politics, but he's glad Donald Trump won.

SPENCER: I really hope that things are going to be better, but I'm not going to bet on it just yet, you know? I'm Republican. Almost everybody in this county is Republican. It's logging, resource-based county, and that's just how it is.

SIEGLER: Spencer isn't that optimistic because he says that even if Trump were to open up more federal land to timber companies, there's hardly any infrastructure left. But he says the president-elect's talk about returning to a time when natural resources were king resonates here.

SPENCER: Those resources is what built this country. I mean you say what you want, but it was all built off of mining, timber, oil. You know, the United States wasn't built off of tech companies.

SIEGLER: Folks around Orofino are proud of their heritage as loggers and miners. Today, Clearwater County has one of the highest unemployment rates in Idaho.

In the small downtown, there are for-lease signs and empty storefronts. A lot of people work two or three jobs at the school, the Best Western or for one of the outfitters where they have to commute 40 miles downriver to Lewiston. But when it comes to the latest mill closure, most folks will tell you everyone's seen this coming for years.

CHRIS ST GERMAINE: Well, the first thing you do is, you know, cuss and kick the ground and rant a little bit, but the second is, you pull yourself up by those bootstraps and figure, OK, where do we go from here?

SIEGLER: Chris St. Germaine moved to Orofino to take a job with the Forest Service in the '80s. She now runs the county's one-person Office of Economic Development where she's trying to figure out how to diversify the economy.

And it hasn't been all doom and gloom. A new rifle scope manufacturer opened up. So did a jet boat company. The hope is to draw more manufacturers that cater to the fishing and hunting economy.

ST GERMAINE: Drift boating is something that I think that would go over very well here. And there's a lot of drift boats on the river today if you look because they're fishing for steelhead and salmon.

SIEGLER: But this is all long-term stuff, and it's not going to help people like Pat Goetz, who's trying to figure out what she can do for work right now.

PAT GOETZ: Good question (laughter) - I don't know.

SIEGLER: She lost her job and - worse, she says - her health insurance when the mill shut down. So far, she says the only job she's seeing advertised are minimum wage.

GOETZ: Once you take timber out of the equation in counties like Idaho County, Clearwater County, there isn't much else.

SIEGLER: Goetz is 63. She's not yet eligible for Medicare, and she's not sure if she can afford the cost of health care on the exchanges. She also didn't think twice about voting for Trump. She's hoping he can bring back timber towns like hers.

GOETZ: Young kids have to go somewhere else in order to make a living. My children had to move out. My youngest daughter did and her husband.

SIEGLER: Goetz says she gets depressed watching, as she puts it, an industry that's being strangled to death. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Orofino, Idaho.

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