CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Global economics and the housing bust are throwing a relentless string of problems at the mom-and-pop sawmills and logging companies that make up much of the nation's hardwood lumber industry.
Large furniture makers have abandoned the United States, a growing number of raw logs are being shipped overseas for processing, and changing consumer tastes and construction downturns have slashed demand for hardwood flooring, trim and red oak, long the dominant species.
The result has been rising unemployment for forestry workers and a decline in hardwood production. Government statistics show production dropped from 12.6-billion board feet in 1999 to about 10.7-billion last year.
U.S. Forest Service economist Bill Luppold expects production to dip further, to perhaps 10.5-billion board feet or less this year.
"I don't even think the numbers demonstrate how bad it is," Luppold said. "We haven't seen this amount of decline year in and year out since the early part of the (20th) century."
The industry's problems started more than a decade ago when U.S. furniture makers started leaving the Carolinas in favor of foreign destinations with cheaper labor and lower operating costs.
"Manufacturing is moving away, it's going to China or whatever, Vietnam, today," says Virginia Tech professor Urs
Buehlmann. "You're looking at a depressed industry."
Shutting down isn't an option for Tony Woodyard of Twin River Hardwoods Inc. Woodyard says he has to keep running his mills to pay the debt he took on to buy them in 2006.
"The prices are, they're where they were 20 years ago," says Woodyard, who has more than two decades in the business.
Prices vary, but Woodyard says the price of cabinet-grade lumber has slumped in some cases to $900 for 1,000 board feet. For years, that price was $1,200, and at times, as much as $1,400.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data reflects how the industry is shrinking.
The number of timber jobs nationwide fell almost 13 percent to 8,790 in 2006 from 9,910 in 2000. Likewise, the number of logging equipment operators has declined more than 17 percent to 28,300 in 2006 from 34,180 in 2000.
Another problem lurking in the background is an unfortunate shift in consumer tastes.
Homeowners once wanted red oak, the most common hardwood in much of Appalachia. Now, lighter-grained species, especially maple and poplar, are in vogue.