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Wednesday, October 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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113-year-old Weyerhaeuser mill to close; 350 jobs to be lost

Seattle Times business reporter

Steve Oles showed up for his shift at Weyerhaeuser's Enumclaw mill at 5:25 yesterday morning, like he has for 36 years, expecting to hear some news about the mill's production plan.

Instead, Oles and 350 workers learned that Weyerhaeuser is closing the 113-year-old mill and dramatically reducing its presence in King County.

The Enumclaw mill employs 145, the company said. Weyerhaeuser is also shuttering a wood-finishing plant in Snoqualmie that employs 115 and is selling 123,000 acres of timberland — most of its remaining acreage in King Country — to a Massachusetts investment company, cutting 90 more jobs.

Since Weyerhaeuser took over Portland's Willamette Industries earlier this year, the company has been shutting plants and trimming jobs at mills from Alberta to Georgia.

This time it was Puget Sound area's turn. Combined with last week's announcement it's cutting 750 jobs at its Federal Way headquarters, the job toll in the region exceeds 1,000.

The news caught workers by surprise. They said they knew the company wasn't satisfied with the efficiency at the Enumclaw mill but thought they were closing the gap with lower-cost plants. There wasn't even a rumor that the plant might be closed, according to workers, Enumclaw city officials and townspeople.

"This was completely out of the blue," said Wayne Thompson, business representative of the woodworkers union.

Weyerhaeuser, which will net up to $85 million, made the announcement just before reporting that third-quarter profit fell 86 percent from the same period last year.

The closures are part of a series of cost-cutting moves to cover debt from the company's $8 billion Willamette purchase, a task made more difficult by low lumber prices and weak demand for paper products.

The company said U.S. government tariffs on Canadian lumber imports cost it $31 million.

So far this year the company has shrunk or closed at least 22 facilities, paring 2,100 jobs. It still employs nearly 58,000 worldwide.

Company executives, speaking during a conference call with investors yesterday, said they will continue to cut costs.

"We have sold and will continue to sell nonstrategic assets to pay down debt," Chief Executive Officer Steve Rogel said. He said all the company's facilities are being evaluated.

The closures announced yesterday mark an end to one of the oldest businesses in the community and some of its highest paying jobs.

The Enumclaw mill, known as the White River tree farm, first opened in 1889, the year Washington became a state. It supplied wood to troops during the Spanish-American War in 1898 and provided pontoons and tent poles for troops in both World Wars.

A modernization in 1986 enabled the mill to boost production while cutting the number of workers in half. With supplies of old-growth trees dwindling, another remodel refitted the saws to process smaller logs.

It's now Weyerhaeuser's fifth-largest mill in the Washington and Oregon region, with a capacity of 210 million board feet a year. The closure comes even though there's enough business for double shifts weekdays, and three on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"This is more than a shock; it's a historical loss," said Chuck Kessner, who counts millworkers among his customers at his barbershop in central Enumclaw. "It's one more landmark gone."

The closure will hurt Enumclaw, a city of 11,200, where most of the workers live. Workers earn an average salary of $17.86, plus another $15 per hour or so in benefits.

Operations will end as soon as orders from Home Depot and other customers are filled, probably by February.

"This hit like a bombshell," said Mark Bauer, Enumclaw's city administrator, shaking his head as he walked down the sidewalk in front of city hall.

Two blocks away at the Lee Restaurant, loggers worried about what they'll do next.

Bill Jameyson started at the plant at 18, following in the footsteps of a father who logged 39 years for the plant, and a grandfather who also worked there.

Now, a 25-year veteran with two kids and a new mortgage, he's out of work.

"This is my life," he said, stifling sobs. "What else am I supposed to do?"

Weyerhaeuser will continue to pay workers for 60 days, fund their pensions during that time, and negotiate other severance benefits, according to a letter distributed to employees.

The company said some may be able to find work at other Weyerhaeuser facilities, though the nearest are in Southwest Washington, more than 100 miles away.

Union members questioned the company's job totals, noting that the Enumclaw plant employs about 235.

Boston's Hancock Timber Resource Group, which bought the timberland in King, Pierce and Lewis counties, contracts cutters rather than using union crews, Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said.

Weyerhaeuser's stock fell 3.9 percent yesterday, to $45.87, down 15 percent this year.

Bradley Meacham: 206-515-5066 or at bmeacham@seattletimes.com

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