Lumber company that trashed Plummer’s Hollow declares bankruptcy

A Helsel skidder hauling logs out of Plummer's Hollow, 1991

A Helsel skidder hauling logs out of Plummer's Hollow, 1991

We were interested to read in the local paper that the Blair County-based Helsel Lumber Mill has fallen on hard times. Ralph Helsel was the lumberman described in Marcia’s book Appalachian Autumn, who believed that it was his divinely ordained mission to harvest “overmature” trees, which in any case “wanted to be cut,” and who put his beliefs in practice on the 120-acre McHugh tract in Plummer’s Hollow. (We subsequently purchased the tract from a third party, after it had been mostly clearcut.) It seems that overmature companies may be subject to a similar fate.

A Blue Knob lumber mill that has been operating for 81 years and most recently doing business with China may soon be filing for reorganization under bankruptcy laws because of the downturn in the economy, according to its president, Charles Salyards Jr.

At one time, Helsel Lumber Mill of 3446 Johnstown Road [Route 164] did $6 million to $8 million in business annually and had 85 employees, Salyards said.

The demand for wood products, however, dropped dramatically in the past 18 months because of the lack of new housing construction and rehabilitation on the domestic side and the high cost of fuel, which affected the international market.

Business dropped to one-third of peak levels in 2008, Salyards said. As of late last year, the mill has been shut down.

“Every tree we cut, we were losing money,” Salyards said.

While we feel for the employees who have lost their jobs, we can’t help noting that the lumber company’s past decision to export much of its lumber to China contributed to the loss of many more state and regional jobs in the value-added hardwood products industry.

Mills like Helsel Lumber provide the wood to furniture makers. While once many furniture makers were in North Carolina, in recent years, the business shifted to China.

The wood producers followed the manufacturers, but the overseas business suffered when the bottom fell out of the housing market worldwide, Craig said.

Production of wood products in the state is down 40 percent, he said.

And it almost goes without saying that Helsel never could have afforded to ship logs from Pennsylvania all the way to China for the production of furniture designed for export back to the United States, if they weren’t able to take advantage of an economic system in which environmental costs — such as the generation of carbon dioxide via logging and global transport — can be excluded from the balance sheets.

As luck would have it, the other major culprit in the 1991 trashing of Plummer’s Hollow has also been active in selling out our natural heritage to foreign corporations. One of consulting forester Michael Barton’s main clients now is the Spanish energy giant Gamesa, which has been bullying township supervisors and battling grassroots environmental groups all over central and western Pennsylvania for the right to erect industrial wind plants on our ridgetops, reaping huge windfalls from U.S. taxpayers in the process. Mr. Barton’s talent for putting lipstick on pigs, which we first encountered in 1991, has been put to good use in newspaper op-eds defending Gamesa. He has even proposed the construction of a nonprofit wind education center to encourage wind tubine-centered tourism. If you’re the sort of person who imagines picnic tables and swingsets when you see a sign for an industrial park, then you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.

Eroded tracks left by the Helseling of Plummer's Hollow, winter of 1991-92

Eroded tracks left by the Helseling of Plummer's Hollow, winter of 1991-92

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About Dave Bonta

I'm the author of several books of poetry, including Ice Mountain: An Elegy, Breakdown: Banjo Poems, and Odes to Tools, but my real work is at my long-running literary blog Via Negativa, where I'm currently creating erasure poems from every entry of the Diary of Samuel Pepys. I'm also the editor and publisher of Moving Poems, a blog showcasing the best poetry videos on the web.

Posted on July 16, 2009, in lumbering, wind turbines and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. What goes around comes around. Thanks for providing some historical background on this nefarious company and its equally despicable forester. I have been on some of Barton’s wind project tours. He maintains that he is not on Gamesa’s payroll, but actions speak louder than words.

  2. Serves ’em right.

  3. Excellent article, esp re the omission of environmental costs from economic equations. Thank you! I’ve been reading Strangely Like War about the lumber industry worldwide, by Derrick Jensen and a co-author. Eye opening!

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