A GREAT TIME TO BE A FORESTER

“Logging and saw-milling are small mostly family-owned businesses. We all know one another professionally, and many of us are personal friends. We live in small rural communities. Our wives socialize and our kids play together. At the end of the day, your workforce and your reputation for doing exactly what you say you will do are the only assets you have.”

Mac Lefebvre, Log Buyer and Forester
Idaho Forest Group
Grangeville, Idaho

Most every business in Grangeville, Idaho belongs to the local Chamber of Commerce, including Home Grown Quilts, the United Methodist Church and the Idaho National Guard. Likewise, the Idaho Forest Group, which is easily the town’s largest employer, though IFG has been loath to leave anyone with the impression that its five state-of-the-art sawmills are more important to the economic fabric of rural Idaho than any other business.

Small town boy, Mac Lefebvre, a forester who doubles as IFG’s Grangeville log buyer, echoes the company’s sensitivity with a good deal of grace, noting that IFG is the product of the very timely merger of two much smaller companies whose respective owners – Dick Bennett and Marc Brinkmeyer – recognized that their futures hinged on embracing technological advancements in wood processing that many more conservative lumbermen chose not to embrace. It was a daring move given uncertain log supplies and chaotic lumber markets, but it worked.

“We are part of a magic recipe that you won’t find in too many communities,” Lefebvre explains when asked to describe what makes Grangeville somehow different from many of the West’s remote timber communities.

“We have people, a town and a mill, all pretty much surrounded by forests,” he says. “Those who live and work here are the glue that holds it all together, and our forests are the engine that drives us forward. There is a vibrancy here that I think all of us feel. It’s a neat mix and a lot of fun for me.”

“Fun” isn’t a word most foresters would pick to describe their jobs, but Lefebvre sits in a catbird seat few foresters can claim. His closest log buying competitor is in New Meadows, 89 torturous up and down miles to the south. In between lay some of the most productive federal, private and state-owned forests in Idaho.

“We are blessed here because we have multiple log sources,” Lefebvre says. “Not every mill is so lucky. There are lots of horror stories about mills that were totally dependent on federal timber sources that dried up. Those mills are gone.”

Lefebvre knows something about what happened in rural Idaho communities when the once stodgy timber industry began to remark itself in the mid-1990s. He had just moved from Kettle Falls, Washington to Cascade, Idaho when the walls caved in on the latter community’s Boise Cascade operation.

“Boise shut down its Cascade mill just before I arrived,” he recalls. “But we made the move anyway because I wanted to be in Idaho, and Cascade still seemed fairly secure to me because the company still owned about 100,000 acres of very good land between McCall and Cascade. Being a forester, I figured I’d be working on that land base and selling logs on the open market, but then Boise Cascade unexpectedly sold the land to Western Pacific and I was out of a job.”

With a wife and three kids to feed, clothe and educate, Lefebvre needed a miracle. It came in the form of IFG CEO Scott Atkison, who was then running the Grangeville mill. Needing a good forester who share his passion for excellence in all things, he quickly hired the out-of-work Lefebvre.

“I could not believe my luck,” Lefebvre recalls. “We did not want to leave Idaho. Although I grew up in Rainier, Oregon, my family roots are around Bonners Ferry, Idaho. We fit here. That’s why I chose the University of Idaho over Oregon State when it came time for me to go off to forestry school. There is no replacing the vastness of Idaho’s forests and wilderness areas. This is home. There are families here that have been here for four or five generations. No one wants to leave.”

The Grangeville Chamber of Commerce needs to figure out how to bottle Lefebvre’s enthusiasm and the sense of place he brings to the whole discussion about what makes rural communities such special places to live and work.

“We know there were many more sawmills in the Grangeville area before the Forest Service’s timber sale program collapsed,” Lefebvre explains. ‘All of us feel a great sense of obligation to do everything we can to help strengthen the social fabric of this community. People trust us to do what we say we will do, and we work very hard to honor the social license we’ve been given.”

Left unsaid is the fact that the nearest communities that provide the same good paying jobs that IFG and its nearly 150 subcontractors provide are Lewiston and Boise, and it is 268 winding miles between those two much larger communities.

So, yes, remoteness is certainly a factor in the inextricable ties that bind IFG and Grangeville to one another, but logging and sawmilling have been integral pieces of the town’s cultural heritage for so long that it is difficult to tell where culture ends and economic expediency begins.

“Logging and sawmilling are small mostly family-owned businesses,” Lefebvre explains. “We all know one another professionally, and many of us are personal friends. We live in small rural communities. Our wives socialize and our kids play together. At the end of the day, your workforce and your reputation for doing exactly what you say you will do are the only assets you have.”

These days, Lefebvre spends most of his time searching for logs for the Grangeville mill. Mainly, he covers the vast southern expanse, purchasing timber from the state, the Nez Perce tribe, the Nez Perce-Clearwater and Boise-Payette national forests, farmers and private forestland owners. The search never ends, and it is a rather unique search because, unlike most log buyers, Lefebvre buys all species – fir, ponderosa pine, lodgepole, spruce, white fir and cedar.

“Idaho forests are diverse and productive,” he explains. “Our landowners often pursue multiple management objectives involving their desire to create or protect wildlife habitat. They can be pretty picky about when and where they sell their logs, so we strive to provide them with as many choices as possible.”

Small wonder. The Grangeville mill annually consumes about 118 million board feet log scale. That’s almost 24,000 truckloads – nearly 100 loads per day. There are at least 450 good reasons why Lefebvre must reach his goal.

“Counting loggers, truckers and employees, we are responsible for the livelihoods of about 450 families in our area,” he says. “But if you add in all of the businesses that count our contractors and employees as their customers in their stores it’s hundreds more. I feel that every day.”

Although IFG is easily the largest employer in Idaho’s largest county, the kinds of jobs that it and its contactors provide has undergone significant change over the last 20 years. Gone are the days when the heavy lifting was done by strong backs. Machines now do most of the work in the woods and the Grangeville mill. Once thought to be job killers, computer guided harvesting and wood processing systems have created many more jobs than they eliminated.

“My grandfather logged with horses in northern Idaho,” Lefebvre says. “Today, loggers sit in the cabs of machines and work joy sticks not unlike those found on early video games. In our mill, sawyers sit in front of multiple video screens that are connected to cameras that follow logs from log decks to finished lumber. We don’t need as many people, but we need people with computer skill sets that my grandfather would not have recognized, but would have surely admired.”

Though largely unseen, the supply chain transformation that has swept over the lumber industry in the last 15 years is stunning in its complexity and reach. You can still find IFG-labeled lumber in retail yards scattered all over Idaho, but most the company’s output goes by truck or rail to major distribution centers – Lowes among them – in Salt Lake and Denver. How unfortunate that most people who work in this byzantine supply chain have never heard of Grangeville, Idaho.

“We are privileged to work with a lot of wonderful people,” Lefebvre says. “It’s a great time to be a forester, especially if you get to live in a great little place like Grangeville. We can see our future here. It is in the ground and growing.”