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A hard-scrabble struggle to get by; Western lumberman weathers tough times

John Casey Jr.'s sawmill sprawls over several relatively flat acres in Tahoe National Forest near this tiny village some 3,000 feet up in northern California's Sierra foothills.

Towering pines dominate the landscape; the scenic Yuba River slices through deep, rocky gorges.

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This is still known as ''gold country.'' But for most of this century timber, not gold, has meant prosperity for the area.

In the last three years, however, the good life in this rustic setting has turned into a hard-scrabble struggle just to get by.

Fifteen months ago this mill and another nearby - both operated by the Casey family firm, Sierra Mountain Mills - were silenced by the onset of recession in the construction industry. But on June 14 the North San Juan mill began sawing logs again. Casey, whose father started the business, says he hopes it will not have to shut down again.

At present there are only 40 workers at the facility, which in the past has employed up to 160. They are sawing a limited number of logs, mostly pine, into such building materials as 2x4s, 4x6s, door casings, and molding. Lumber dealers in the area whose inventories have run low are the major buyers.

Sitting in a paneled office across a creek from the main mill, Casey talks to prospective customers on the phone while a son mans the receptionist's desk. Besides being an independent mill operator, Casey is president of the Western Wood Products Association - an industry organization that includes giants like Louisiana-Pacific and Weyerhaeuser, as well as the small operators.

The big outfits, says Casey, will ride out these hard times, but many of the small ones will never reopen. His firm previously leased a nearby sawmill, but he doesn't foresee doing so again.

The fortunate 40 employees working now at the Sierra Mountain sawmill were selected on the basis of their experience and productivity, Casey explains. It was necessary to hire men capable of switching from one task or machine to another, depending on the product being turned out.

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What of the rest, and scores of others who worked at other nearby sawmills? A few have left the area in search of work, says Casey, but most are managing to stay around, hoping for better days. After the extended unemployment benefits run out, California's liberal welfare provisions will help make ends meet - especially for workers with children. Then there are such alternatives as cutting firewood for the growing number of people who use it for heating.

Some even have turned back to working the streams or old mines for gold, which still brings a good enough price to attract those who have no other job.

For Sierra Mountain Mills employees, there was another cushion. Not long before the recession hit, Casey had begun a profit-sharing plan. When forced to shut down, he decided to abandon the plan and refund the accumulated funds to those workers who had joined. Some 78 shared a one-time ''bonanza'' of about $ 375,000.

Turning from the role of mill owner to that of industry leader, Casey describes changes expected in the housing-construction business in coming years. Individual house sizes will shrink (1,200 square feet of area rather than 2,000 will be the rule), and there will be more multifamily and ''cluster'' housing.

There will also be more specialization and ''packaging'' of products by sawmill operators like him. And, to help keep costs down and be more competitive with other suppliers, small producers will deal directly with such customers as contractors, eliminating one or two ''middlemen.'' Casey acknowledges he already is moving in this direction.

The association leader says he reluctantly backed the recent bill, passed by Congress but vetoed by President Reagan, to provide a $1 billion home mortgage subsidy. But he's not so sure about another proposal by US Republican Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon and James McClure of Idaho to relieve Western millers of contractural obligations to buy federally owned timber. At any rate, says Casey, any aid received by the industry ''should be paid back at some point.''

As president of the Western Wood Products Association, Casey has been involved in talks with representatives of the Japanese construction industry aimed at selling more American lumber to them. Despite a slump in that country's construction industry now, as well as some other marketing difficulties, he says he believes sales to Japan can be increased.

''The construction industry will survive, but it will vastly changed,'' he says. ''And so will the wood products business.'' Already, John Casey is beginning to position Sierra Mountain Mills so that his children and future generations of the family can prosper under those new conditions.

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