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Libby's still waiting for Superman

by Jeff Gruber — Commentary
| July 5, 2013 5:12 PM

2013 has not started out being a good year for Libby. 

To highlight just a few of the lows we’ve encountered so far: the temporary Troy Mine shutdown, the Libby School District’s failed levy vote, the sequestration of county Road Fund monies followed by related news of Lincoln County finances being $700,000 short for the upcoming fiscal year, Stinger Welding closing up shop and leaving town, and the continued erosion of Libby’s small businesses on Mineral Avenue and surrounding areas.  

The latest hurdle placed in our lane is the recent news that Libby’s replacement dam on Flower Creek will be delayed by another year because of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service analysis.  Evidently, there needs to be a closer look taken on a creek already dammed for 60 years, to be replaced by a new dam only 85 feet downstream from the present one that will flood an area already flooded.

Sadly, the present situation is just the continuation of an economic trend that has been going on for decades. One has to look back to the mid-1970s to find the beginnings of Libby’s economic contraction because of the completion of Libby Dam and it’s 2,000-plus high-paying jobs leaving the area.  

But, instead of the economy adjusting to that one retrenchment, other factors like changing markets, detrimental corporate decisions, federal government policies and legislation, and new demographic trends have led to one bad card after another being played in this poker game of survival here in Libby. 

It’s time for a new conversation, one that does not allow for and continue the death throes of my hometown, but instead offers solutions and optimism for a community long overdue for change. 

To start this new conversation, I plan to state the basis of my argument: Any change in course of direction for the economic future of Libby must include a change in management of the U.S. Forest Service, and specifically the Kootenai National Forest. Making up a little more than 70 percent of the county’s land base, the Kootenai offers little in the name of economic vitality for the towns of Lincoln County.  

Of course, there are jobs in Libby that exist that do not depend on resource extraction from surrounding forests and mountains. These jobs and careers are important and should continue and grow. But any vibrant community needs to have a diversified economic base, and in Libby that needs to include resource extraction from surrounding lands. Ignoring this premise and pretending we can go forward without utilizing over two-thirds of our land base is a non-starter.  

The 1980 Forest Plan for the Kootenai National Forest once authorized for the sale of 233 million board feet of timber a year for the numerous mills operating in the county at the time. By 1995 its ASQ, or allowable sale quantity, was revised downward to 150 million board feet a year.  

Presently, the Kootenai National Forest struggles to sustain a viable timber program because of budget constraints, stifling regulations regarding endangered species, top-down agency disinterest in resource extraction, and the omnipresent threat of lawsuits from environmental organizations. The Kootenai National Forest timber program now yearly serves up 30-50 million board feet of timber a year for sale to mills mainly outside of Lincoln County. This amount varies from year to year, making it anything but stable or predictable, which are essential elements of any viable business plan.  

Since the Kootenai’s timber sale program began contracting in the early 1990s, every major Lincoln County sawmill has closed down with the loss of more than  1,200 jobs. Several small-scale operations survive today employing perhaps a couple dozen employees among them.  

Along with decreased harvests and mill closures, many logging companies and contractors have disappeared from the economic picture of Libby and Lincoln County, too. Once proud and innovative companies like Hanley Logging, Crismore Logging, Cooper Logging, Jerry Okonski’s Timber Tech, Skyline Logging, Decker Logging, Munro Logging and others have slowly faded from view and left employees searching for jobs and careers elsewhere, taking their families with them. 

Sawmills and logging companies also utilized local businesses such as fuel vendors, machine shops, mechanics, parts stores, auto dealerships and a host of other essential services. With the decline of the milling and logging infrastructure, many of these businesses and jobs have likewise found too few paying customers entering their businesses, leaving them wondering what the future holds for their business and livelihood.

Secondary to the loss of a vibrant and dependable timber program has been the loss of county timber receipts. From its inception in 1905, the Forest Service has distributed 25 percent of the income produced from resource sales in the individual national forests to the counties in which the activities took place. 

This receipts earmark was designed for the simple reason that since the government pays no property taxes on public land, resource utilization would offer towns within national forests money for basic services. According to Montana state law, the annual earmark was divvied up between the county road department (67 percent) and county schools (33 percent). The Kootenai National Forest is roughly encompassed by the borders of Lincoln County, therefore, any natural resource harvesting on the Kootenai National Forest benefited local communities.  

Following the rapid contraction of the Forest Service timber sale program in the 1990s, and associated 25 percent receipts, Congress in 2000 passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act. Designed to replace the 25 percent earmarks to timber counties, Congress allocated yearly payments based on an average of the top three timber sale years on each national forest. 

Legislated to last six years, the act has been temporarily renewed by Congress after intense lobbying by local elected officials.  However, Congress does not fully fund it anymore but instead yearly reduces the annual earmark. Their theory is that, with the loss of a federal timber sale program, counties will slowly transition their economies to something other than wood products.  

What “something” means is the question most of us in Libby are wondering and have been for a generation now. Where once the towns in Lincoln County benefited from a stable and predictable timber sale program on the Kootenai, we now find ourselves sending our county commissioners to Washington, D.C., to “lobby” – I’ll call it begging – for Congress to renew the annual allocation. For students of ancient Rome, the unemployed masses clamoring for “bread and circus” is a strong historical parallel. But, I digress.

The atrophied timber program on the Kootenai is not the only casualty of federal agency oversight affecting Lincoln County. Two proposed silver/copper mines on the Kootenai National Forest that have spent close to 30 years each on the permitting process are currently bogged down by the labyrinth of agency analysis so common today. Short of an act by a higher power, neither of these mines stands a chance of gaining federal agency approval and surviving the certainty of lawsuits filed by the environmental community.  

In the teaching profession, one truism teachers come to understand quite readily is that children are products of their environment. Well, to put it another way, it can be said that communities are, too, a product of their environment. Libby, placed in the heart of a national forest, is in many ways a victim of its geography. Not too many years ago, the Kootenai National Forest provided raw materials for the economies of Libby, Troy and Eureka. No longer. 

The Forest Service and its policies are broken, and the agency is not capable of resource management allowing for a functioning economy. Whether it is a sustainable and predictable timber sale program, approval of the Montanore or Rock Creek Mines, or allowing forest access, U.S. Forest Service administrative policies are incapable of granting any decision that allows for healthy economies and communities to grow and prosper. So, Libby and its sister towns of Troy and Eureka reside today amongst a forest of trees really only able to “look, but don’t touch.”   

It is not possible for Lincoln County communities to have healthy and diverse economies while at the same time 70 percent of the land base is locked up through “analysis paralysis.” Libby has struggled to grow a new economy since the end of the sawmill era. Successes have been few, and failures abundant. 

Why? Is it the fault of our leadership in government and economic development groups? No, and we need to throw support behind those in front when they are working at job creation because it is the most difficult of tasks.  

In my way of thinking, Libby has three strikes against it when trying to bring new business in. The first is lack of airline service and being 100 miles from the nearest airport. The second is distance from the interstate highway system and the adventure of the “ungulate thruway” connecting us to points east and west. The third is lack of surrounding population base to help foster a multi-layered economy. 

Libby and Whitefish are towns of similar size, but with drastically different economic situations.  One of the differences is Whitefish having easier access to the 91,000 residents of Flathead County allowing for a flourishing service-centered economy. Is it a coincidence they also are able to pass school bonding and levy issues?

So, if tourism is to play a role in Libby’s future, and it should, we need to understand it won’t offer the desperately needed foundation we can base our new economy on.  

Libby, located in an area rich in natural resources, has been both blessed and cursed by them. It’s really no different than any other facet in a market-driven economy. During times of prosperity, times are good and people and businesses thrive. In times of recession, people and businesses hunker down and make do until good times return.  

Our town, with the majority of our land and resources now off limits, a rebirth of a prosperous and innovative economy is unattainable. Of course, through the advancement of time there is always change. 

Since local mills began falling like dominoes 20 years ago, new-age economists and social theorists have clucked their tongues and said “Well, Libby, change is inevitable and you better get used to it.” “The new economy that will appear after we quit making stumps and roads will make the old one easy to forget.”  

Well, the changes we have observed in Libby the past 20 years are not what anyone saw coming. It’s proof of what happens to a community when a pseudo-economy based on smoke and mirrors and stakeholder groups tries to pretend that it can enrich people’s lives and fund basic services.      

Next week I will describe Libby’s historical tie between the surrounding lands and natural resources.   

 (This is the second of a five-part series of columns by Jeff Gruber analyzing the economic challenges facing Libby.)

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When Daddy Warbucks lived in Libby.

I decided to include the figures stated below to show how having a functioning manufacturing presence in small towns contributes to the overall social and economic well-being of a community.  Whether it was the J. Neils Lumber Co., St. Regis, Champion International, or Stimson Lumber Co., community groups routinely received help donations of lumber and materials, or money.  These are Champion donations for 1991.

American Legion Baseball $500

Asa Wood School Community Council $500

Babe Ruth Baseball $550

Cabinet Rifle Association $299.90

David Thompson Search and Rescue $512

Greater Kalispell Youth Soccer $500

Kootenai Cross Country Ski League $500

Kootenai Flyfishers $400

Kootenai Senior Citizens $500

Kootenai Valley Roping Club $375

Kootenai Volunteer Hospice $1,000

Libby AAU Wrestling $500

Libby Archery Club $250

Libby Chamber of Commerce $500

Libby Community Intervention $869.52

Libby Floor Hockey $490

Libby Food Pantry $500

Libby High School Girls Softball $500

Libby Little Hoopsters $500

Libby Little League $500

Libby Pool League $248.90

Libby Volunteer Ambulance $1,000

Lincoln County Group Home $412.68

Lincoln County Right to Life $565

Local 2581 Food Pantry $500

Major Boy’s Baseball $600

McGrade Community Council $500

Middle School Dance $350

Montana Natural Resources Youth Camp $500

Senior Non-alcoholic Graduation Party $750

Sons of Norway $470

St. Johns Hospital Auxillary $500

Troy A.F.S. $475

Troy Beautification $500

Turner Mountain Ski Patrol $500

U-Serve, Libby High School Tennis $500

V.F.W. $500

Volunteers for Libby Care Center $896.85

Total Champion Fund for Community Service in 1991    $20,014.85