Reqiuem for the Tough Teat Dairy

Article by Tom Wolf

Forestry – January 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

“I just don’t want to have to look at your sawmill. I have a house across the road at Greenwood Tracts.”

After two hours of complaining, one of the new neighbors finally lays it on the line — right there before God, the Custer County Planning Commission, and every soul who lives near the little community of Wetmore (population 100).

Wetmore and the nearby San Isabel National Forest form the hinterlands for Pueblo, the nearest city, just 30 miles to the east. Pueblo houses the national headquarters for the Wise Use Movement.

George Withers, who wants to put a sawmill on his property near Wetmore, is a large man with a deep voice, and a (well) withering wit. Next to him sits Art Northrup, a third-generation logger with a similarly cultivated sense of humor. By general agreement among private landowners and the Forest Service, Northrup’s woodswork sets the standard for environmentally sound logging throughout Central Colorado and northern New Mexico. If tonight’s hearing is any indication, both men will need that sense of humor.

Until ten years ago, George and his father ran the Tough Teat Dairy at this controversial site a few miles west of Wetmore on State Highway 96, which is the only route west into the Wet Mountain Valley, where I live. Hardscrabble Creek and a power line bisect Withers’ seven acres. Upstream and down, cattle wander in and out of the creek, whose name tells the tale of its own life and hard times even before the gold rush.

George and Linda Withers live across the creek from the former dairy, so the proposed sawmill would literally be in their backyard. But the Hardscrabble Creek corridor is also part of the Greenwood subdivision’s back yard. After a hard rain, the Withers burrow from under the mud and debris that run off the Greenwood Tracts, which lie west across the highway.

Like so many subdivisions of 35-40 acres, Greenwood nestles up against a National Forest. Like so many subdivisions after the disappearance of timbering and grazing, Greenwood is true to its name. Its profuse greenery makes it a classic firetrap during our dry, windy seasons. Like so many subdivision residents, the Greenwooders want the derelict dairy to stay that way; they don’t want any trees cut anywhere — at any time.

BEYOND NIMBYs (“Not In My Back Yard!”), these new county residents make perfect BANANAs — “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything!”

The hearing drones on and on. “If they don’t want a sawmill,” Withers growls, “I’ll open a feedlot, and they can see how they like the smell. You don’t need a permit to feed cows in this county.”

Withers is right. Under Custer County’s tough zoning laws, Withers can’t lease his land to Northrup and his partner, forester Len Lankford (for industrial purposes, at least) — not unless the would-be sawyers obtain a hard-to-get Special Use Permit. That means jumping through more local, county, state, and federal regulatory hoops than there are people in the county.

“Who is going to police you?” a woman from Greenwood shrieks at Lankford and Northrup. Policing and lock-ups are big business in nearby Frémont County, where 16 major prisons thrive. Could there be more people in prison than out?

One Greenwooder who frets about the proposed Hardscrabble sawmill finally ‘fesses up: prison labor powers the sawmill he himself supervises within the walls of one of those grim dungeons.

Not every nocturnal denizen of the Wetmore Community Center is retired — or works at the prisons. The two twenty-somethings next to me whisper that they support the proposal because the don’t want to be prisoners or prison guards. They want jobs at the sawmill. So what evil lurks here? Just what do Northrup and Lankford propose? They say this will be “a community sawmill.”

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Is Custer County a viable community? Or will we go to war over “wise use” vs. no use?

The bunker-like, concrete basement meeting room of the Wetmore Community Center hasn’t weathered this much heavy artillery fire in years. More than a hundred people perch on the edges of chilly metal folding chairs.

Rancher John Coleman, a Planning Commissioner, hooks his thumbs deep under his red suspenders, squints hard, and listens harder to all the wild talk. One man who raises llamas in Westcliffe, the county seat, says he opposes the mill because he doesn’t want any more development, period.

Poker-faced rancher-realtor John Martin rides herd on the hearing as Chairman. It is obvious that people respect his quiet ways. County Zoning staffers keep passing him notes saying, “Time’s up!” And he keeps folding them neatly into a little stack until everyone can have a say.

Though subdivisions are booming in Custer County, the rest of our local economy remains flat. Most of the surrounding San Isabel National Forest became Official Wilderness in 1993, but that hasn’t translated into prosperity for local businesses.

When was the last time anyone proposed to create at least 10 year-round jobs in Custer County? When was the last time the county could count on swelling its tax base from retail sales of forest products? No one can remember. Ten jobs means big numbers in a county with fewer than 3,000 full-time residents, in forests where only wildfire moves faster and destroys more wildlife habitat than subdivisions.

Just down the road from the subdivision where I live, back up in the Wet Mountain Valley, E.J. Camp runs a little one-man, open-air sawmill — the last in a county where woodswork was once big time. E.J. figures he’ll give it another year and then retire.

Just down from E.J. lives Planning Commissioner Pari Morse. She built her house and barn (using lots of wood screws) with E.J.’s green, rough-cut lumber. She says his old-fashioned saw is noisy, all right. But then the lumber is cheap, and she likes the idea of using wood that was grown, cut, and milled within rifle range. The abundant sawdust makes fine bedding material for her six horses, and the price is right — free.

At the hearing, Commissioner Morse asks whether any existing sawmill must find its way through the wilderness of proposed conditions. The answer is an embarrassing “No,” but that’s cold comfort for Northrup and Lankford. Their integrated, selective cutting operation must compete with clearcut-and-run outfits wandering in from places like Oregon.

Just how many sawmills are left in Central Colorado? And why should we care? Tourists see them as blurs from the highway. Chambers of Commerce despair of them as noisy and unsightly. There are mills in Poncha Springs, Salida, Monte Vista, South Fork, Saguache, and Moffat. All these bounce up and down, in and out of business, depending on prices (way up, recently), timber availability (way down, recently), and competition from giant Stone Forest Industries in South Fork. And then there is the mill run by salty Les Caughman between Florence and Cañon City.

Infamous for butchering Forest Service timber sales, Caughman got quoted in the local paper railing at the “idiot bastard environmentalists.” But now even Caughman is calling it quits. A recent Wet Mountain Tribune contains a long list of items to be sold at auction, including acres of rotting slabs. Caughman’s millyard is an eyesore that gives the Greenwooders plenty of sympathy whenever they need a club to flail at Northrup and Lankford.

If Caughman is closing, why do Northrup and Lankford want to open a mill? Forest economist Doug Rideout of Colorado State University has studied the role of timber in the local economy. He began by defining Central Colorado as the Rio Grande Timbershed, which encompasses all of the Rio Grande National Forest, the Cebolla and Taylor River ranger districts of the Gunnison, the Salida and San Carlos districts of the San Isabel, and all of the districts of the San Juan except the Dolores.

Over the last 10 years or so, the Timbershed has produced around 50 million board-feet (MMBF) per year. Rideout found that by far the most consistent supplier in the Timbershed has been the Rio Grande National Forest, whose high-quality, high-altitude spruce supplied about 60% of the annual total.

BECAUSE SPRUCE SAWS WELL and can be made into a variety of special products, it remains highly desirable. But now most of the Rio Grande’s spruce forests are regenerating themselves — or they are in the new Wilderness areas. Now under revision, the Rio Grande’s new forest plan might go as low as 5 MMBF, but it won’t exceed 15, according to Supervisor Jim Webb.

That leaves the woods products industry scrambling for raw material. Add in the reverberations from the slowdown of timbering in the Pacific Northwest, and you have prices spiking at levels as high as $240 per thousand board-feet: an unheard-of level in these hard-bit parts. But once all the accessible spruce is felled or “locked up” (as the Wise Users would say), who will manage the lower-elevation ponderosa and aspen forests that are typically in private hands?

After decades in the forestry consulting business, Lankford is now managing about 20,000 acres of private land for owners whose interests include sustained ecosystem health, fire hazard reduction, and a steady, long-term return on their investment. In stark contrast to Caughman, he and Northrup are proposing “an integrated forest care, sawmill, and related ecological forest products business.” They will produce high value-added lumber products, in addition to firewood. They also want to spin off secondary wood milling industries, such as furniture made from ponderosa and aspen. They plan a tree nursery on the site. And the future might include a fuel pellet facility to utilize slab wood, edging, low value logs, chips, shavings, and sawdust. Because almost all “wastes” can become useful products, there will be little or no burning on site.

Rideout’s study shows that transportation is the key to success in the forest products business. According to Northrup, who will cut and haul the logs, as well as run the mill, that makes the Tough Teat Dairy site ideal for a brave new world where private land will supply most of the raw material. Volumes will be low and steady, he says, averaging 6 semi-loads per week. Northrup is bending over backwards to satisfy concerns about noise and pollution. Once cashflow justifies it, he will enclose the saw itself, thus dealing with at least one of the Greenwooders’ concerns.

When it finally came to a vote (rather than a civil war), the Commissioners unanimously supported the proposal. As of this writing, Northrup and Lankford are huddling with the two Commissioners from the Wetmore area. Their business plan is flexible enough to ensure that they can respond to reasonable local concerns without fatally clipping the wings of their fledgling business.

Will it fly? Is there life after the Tough Teat Dairy? Only time will tell. The Greenwooders aren’t happy, but they had their say. We aren’t at war with each other in Custer County — yet.

Tom Wolf’s book about the Sangre de Cristo range will be published this year by University Press of Colorado.