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LIBBY – Lincoln County is a land of extremes and superlatives. It has Montana’s lowest elevation and highest unemployment rate. Located in the state’s far northwestern corner, its remote and gorgeous timberland seems the very definition of the “last best place.” Miners, loggers and environmentalists all call this place home, and the debates over natural resource extraction are often as hot as the winters are cold.
It is in this context that Lincoln County confronts a period of great transition, as its once thriving timber industry hangs by a thread, two mines hang in the balance, and one person out of every five in the workforce is unemployed. And to better understand Lincoln County’s situation, it is instructive to view it through the lens of Libby, the county seat and most populous town.
Unlike Eureka, situated along a tourist-heavy stretch of U.S. Highway 93 between Canada and the Flathead Valley, Libby has the true character of remoteness, even if less pronounced than its western neighbors Troy and the Yaak. Libby is located 90 miles west of Kalispell on U.S. Highway 2.
Furthermore, Libby has the unique challenge of shedding its image of a sickened town. Many residents have died from asbestos poisoning and many more are ill, resulting from decades of exposure to a vermiculite mine.
That legacy lingers, but residents like Pat Pezzelle, director of extended learning at Flathead Valley Community College’s Libby campus, say it’s time to move forward and create a new identity. There are good things brewing in the town, Pezzelle said, and economic growth will only come from focusing on progress, not looking back at the past.
“We sit on an edge right now,” Pezzelle said, “where we can turn a corner and Libby can start growing again or we can just sit out here and stay at the status quo.”
Pezzelle rattled off a list of examples to demonstrate an improving economy, including the arrival of bridge-building company Stinger Welding, which will usher in more than 200 jobs over the next few years. The FVCC campus has implemented a welding program specifically aimed at training workers for Stinger.
“It’s not all about asbestos anymore,” Pezzelle said. “It’s not only about victims who are dying or ‘An Air That Kills.’ It’s about Stinger and all of these good things that are happening.”
He added: “People are saying, ‘I don’t want to sit around on the public rolls anymore. I want a job, not a handout.’”
Pezzelle is not alone in his optimism. From the chief executive officer at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital to the superintendent of Libby schools to the leader of an economic development group, there is a shared feeling of better times on the horizon, if not already here. Private economic development efforts are increasingly finding partners in local government, with fruitful results.
There are, of course, those who are less certain, especially if their fortunes have been tied to the timber industry. And a longing for the past is understandable in a region that once had sawmills everywhere and now has one, a small cedar operation in Troy. There is also a post-and-pole plant in Libby.
At one time, a single sawmill in Libby employed 1,500 people onsite and 1,000 in the woods, according to Paul Rumelhart, executive director for Kootenai River Development Council. The 400-acre mill site today is an industrial park that serves as the home for Stinger’s operations, the post-and-pole plant and a re-loading station for the Troy Mine, among other businesses.
Few places has the timber demise been so apparent as in Bill Payne’s heavy machinery shop, which he has owned for 41 years. Payne Machinery services both mining and timber industry equipment. From 2008 to 2010, gross sales fell by 50 percent and the number of employees has dropped from 22 to 10.
Rumelhart was dismayed last week by the sight of Payne’s nearly empty repair garage. He said the massive shop once was bustling every day of the week. On that day, only two people were working.
“Bill’s business is kind of the pulse of the economy here in Lincoln County,” Rumelhart said. “Well, it is the pulse.”
Payne blames government regulations such as the federal Endangered Species Act for crippling the logging industry and preventing two proposed mines from starting in the Cabinet Mountains. The Rock Creek Mine, located in neighboring Sanders County, has been stalled for more than 20 years and the Montanore Mine is also engaged in a lengthy permitting process. The Troy Mine is the only active operation in Lincoln County.
Payne and others see the mining projects as instant job creators that could alleviate a state-high unemployment rate of 18 percent, which is still lower than last March’s 19.2 percent. Economic analysts, including Rumelhart, say true jobless figures are actually higher. The state average is 7.4 percent.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, see the mines as poison propositions with destructive implications for the surrounding habitat. Payne, whose family has logged in the region since 1900, believes the projects could make or break him.
“If the mines are not allowed to proceed and nothing happens to get the timber business back going, we will have to fold because there will be nothing left to do,” Payne said. “My mindset now is that I don’t trust the government and what they’re doing, so I’m not going to make any more investments in my business right now.”
Payne’s distrust of government is common among his neighbors, though interaction with the government is unavoidable. Rumelhart said about 75 percent of Lincoln County’s land is federally owned, while less than 10 percent is private, not including land owned by timber companies. This lack of private ownership, Rumelhart said, has economic consequences.
“There’s very little you can do with federal land and there are more restrictions every year,” Rumelhart said. “You can recreate on it. You can hunt on it. You can pick berries on it, but there’s not a whole lot you can do on it. Our economy has been based on federal policy.”
But government jobs also play a vital role in the regional employment picture. Environmental Protection Agency efforts to clear properties of vermiculite bring in hundreds of jobs and drop the unemployment rate a few points in the summer, Rumelhart said.
“That, unfortunately, is one of our economic drivers,” Rumelhart said. “Those jobs are federally sponsored; they are desirable jobs. In the summertime around here, there’s dump trucks going every which way.”
In Kirby Maki’s 13 years as superintendent of Libby schools, two stark realities have been omnipresent: plummeting enrollment and persistent unemployment. Since Maki arrived, district-wide enrollment has fallen from about 2,000 to 1,200, prompting major cuts and the closing of two elementary schools. The kids who make it all the way through the school system are greeted with an uncertain local job market.
“I don’t know of that many who are still here,” Maki said of recent high school graduates. “The ones who are were lucky enough to get hired at the school district or the hospital or the Forest Service. The only time you see the other ones is Easter, maybe Christmas.”
“You’ve got to have jobs,” he added.
On Feb. 8, voters shot down a $12 million school bond, 61 to 39 percent. Not only would the bond have improved outdated school facilities, Maki said it would have been a gesture from the community that it’s willing to look to the future.
For as long as Maki can remember, Lincoln County has led the state in unemployment, which “is kind of like being state champion, I guess.” This is a clear sign to him that community-wide changes are in order.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to change, but nobody wants to change,” Maki said, adding: “They don’t see the school as being an integral part of the community as far as economic growth.”
Rumelhart said he too meets stiff resistance when proposing new ideas. He was criticized when he pushed for new public tennis courts and said he heard widespread scoffing when a $33 million hospital project was introduced. But he notes that the hospital is the county’s largest private employer at more than 200 workers, slightly ahead of the Troy Mine.
The hospital project will replace Libby’s St. John Hospital, with construction planned at a nearby site. It goes to bid in March. Bill Patten, St. John’s CEO, said in his six years the hospital’s employee count has risen from 170 to 235. While the upper-tier professionals, such as doctors, are generally imported, there are ample job opportunities for locals, Patten said. The average wage, he added, is high for the area.
“We try to put our money where our mouth is and contribute to the economy,” Patten said. “When people leave town for health care, they don’t just take our revenue. They go to Walmart and visit other businesses – they take their business elsewhere.”
Stinger will soon join the list of Lincoln County’s top employers. The company is currently operating at reduced capacity while it finishes its 100,000-square-foot building. Steve Patrick, vice president of northwest operations, said he hopes in the future another comparably sized plant can be built onsite, employing another 200 people or more.
“This is one of the largest bridge-building plants in North America,” he said.
So indeed, there are jobs – good-paying jobs – coming to Libby and Lincoln County. But Rumelhart, who was instrumental in bringing Stinger to Libby, wonders about the chronically unemployed. Even in better times, Lincoln County regularly maintains a base 8-10 percent unemployment rate.
Part, though not all, of that jobless rate can be explained by a segment of the population that survives through a cycle of seasonal work and unemployment benefits, according to Rumelhart and Johnette Watkins of the local job service. Hunting and fishing, along with mushroom picking and huckleberry picking, help pad the pantry when the bank account is lean. And jobs like firewood gathering and snow shoveling provide a few extra bucks.
“It’s a place where people can subsist,” Rumelhart said. “The cost of living is lower than a lot of areas and people don’t need as much.”
“The unemployment rate,” he added, “is related to the ones who had a job at one time. But they don’t move away. They stay and then they become part of the statistical information.”
All of which brings up another point: while the unemployment rate is high, Watkins said the “biggest concern” is that “we have so many who are underemployed.” They don’t work full-time, nor do they have benefits.
And, Watkins said, it’s getting harder to ride the seasonal job rollercoaster. Housing and food prices are up and young families need more stability today, she said.
“For a lot of people, that’s a lifestyle,” she said of seasonal work. “But that’s changing.”
Watkins, Rumelhart and Pezzelle all want to be part of the change. Pezzelle said others are stepping up too; they see the need for a new era in Libby and Lincoln County. It will take a village.
“The involvement of the community in being a positive influence is critical,” Pezzelle said. “People are speaking up; the community is evolving. Finally, those silent voices of Libby are starting to get a little louder.”
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