Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Join as a sustainer and help unlock $10k. Just 49 sustainers to go!

Idaho Counties' Economic Fate Tied To Industry


Here in the United States, we're used to hearing about the differences between state economies - Mississippi, different from Minnesota, different from Montana. But there can also be big variations from one county to another, even in a rural state like Idaho. There, timber and agriculture are heavy hitters, tied to the state's history and identity.

Reporter Molly Messick has this story about two counties, two industries, and two economic fates.

MOLLY MESSICK, BYLINE: Rancher Chris Black and his son, Justin, manage a thousand head of cattle on 135,000 acres in the foothills of southwest Idaho's Owyhee Mountains. They spend most of their time miles apart - miles from anyone, in fact - working cattle. But this day is different.


CHRIS BLACK: Are you going to catch a horse? Are you going to help?

JUSTIN BLACK: Do you want me to?

BLACK: If you would like...

MESSICK: They've just walked to the corral not far from the small solar and propane-fuelled house where Chris Black lives on and off from April through November.

BLACK: Are you going to ride Traveler or Happy?

MESSICK: They run to catch and saddle up the horses so they can move a group of cattle, grazing miles away.

Chris Black was up before daylight, and now the sun blazes overhead. Ranching is hard work and not for everyone, but lately business has been good. Cattle prices are up. That means Black can breathe easy, and put money into his operation.

BLACK: For instance, I bought a new tractor. My tractors were really old and in poor shape and the older one was a '70s model.

MESSICK: Farming and ranching are known for their hard luck and slim profit margins, but high commodity prices have lifted the farm economy. Most Idaho counties associated with agriculture have seen their unemployment rates remain low.

Take Owyhee County, where Chris Black's family has ranched for generations, here, unemployment has seldom crept above 6 percent since the downturn began.


BUCK OWENS: (Singing) I got a tiger by the tail...

MESSICK: Four hours north, in Adams County, the story is different. The appliance store in Council broadcasts a steady stream of old country hits onto the main street. But the town's reality is less cheerful than its soundtrack. In this county, unemployment has soared from pre-recession lows of 3 and 4 percent to more than 19 percent last fall. That's one reason I reached out to Mark Mahon, a fourth generation logger, born and raised in Council.

MARK MAHON: So do you know what loggers call our work pick-ups?


MAHON: Crummies, because they're crummy.

MESSICK: He drives to a nearby logging site. Owyhee County is known for its vast acres of grazing land. But here in Adams County, timber is the legacy industry. Along with his parents and brother, Mahon runs a logging company with 14 full-time employees. They have one of the largest private payrolls in the area. But this is an anxious moment for their business.

MAHON: Our company is stable. We've got good equipment and good employees, and they've been with us for a long time. But I'm constantly stressed and worried about work. Right now, we don't have enough work to finish this logging season.

MESSICK: It's the end of a long day. Mahon sits on the ground, surrounded by tall Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine. The air is sharp with the smell of freshly cut timber. Mahon's company was hired to manage and thin this forest. It's one of four contracts they have right now. They need to line up more.

MAHON: The biggest concern I have is the men that work for us. Am I going to be able to provide the jobs for them so that they can support their families? And if I can't provide for them, that's almost like I've failed.

MESSICK: Failed not only those workers, but also his town.

In rural places like this, every job counts. The meltdown in the housing market is the most immediate problem for loggers like Mahon. Fewer homes being built means less demand for lumber. But the housing downturn caps a long period of contraction for Idaho's timber industry.

Jay O'Laughlin directs the policy analysis group at the University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources.

JAY O'LAUGHLIN: During the 1980s, the forest products industry in Idaho was twice as big as it is now.

MESSICK: It's not easy to pinpoint the defining differences between agriculture and the timber industry that contribute to the differing economic fates of Idaho's rural areas. But land ownership is a big factor. Idaho's agricultural production happens mainly on private land. O'Laughlin explains most of the state's timber land is public.

O'LAUGHLIN: Seventy-five percent of the timber resources in the state of Idaho are on federal lands, and that's an entirely different situation than agriculture, with the one exception of grazing.

MESSICK: National Forests used to provide at least half of Idaho's timber harvest. Today, they provide less than 10 percent. Ranchers haven't faced the same constraints. Mark Mahon knows he can't change the big trends in the timber industry. His focus is on keeping the job he loves.

MAHON: Some of the greatest things about logging is that every day you get a picnic lunch. You get a moonlight ride and a picnic lunch. I wouldn't trade that for anything.

MESSICK: He wouldn't trade it, and he hopes he never has to.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Messick.

WERTHEIMER: That story comes to us from the StateImpact Project. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations, examining the effects of public policy on people's lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.