Mill closure: ‘It’s heartbreaking all around’

Gray Hughes

This is the first part in a series looking at what the closure of the sawmill in Hill City means for the Hill City community


The announcement that the Rushmore Forest Product sawmill outside of Hill City will close has sent waves — both in regards to the forest and to those who have lost jobs.

On March 30, South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson, Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, who serves at the top-ranking republican on the Natural Resources Committee in the U.S. Congress, Jim Neiman, president of Neiman Enterprises, and TJ Schmidt and Dean Pennel, two employees at the Rushmore Forest Products sawmill, were able to sit down and talk about what the closure meant to them personally and to the Black Hills National Forest.

“I think people miss the fact that these are not just jobs,” Westerman said. “They’re careers. It helps you afford to raise a family and build communities. It tears apart families and it tears apart communities when businesses like this are closed.”

While the closure of the sawmill does not mean that the logging operations within the Black Hills National Forest will be reduced — harvested logs will just be taken to other mills — the potential to reduce logging, suggested in a general technical report issued by the U.S. Forest Service, has the potential to send waves.

More than anything, though, Pennel and Schmidt were concerned for the Hill City community.

Pennel, who has worked at the plant for over 20 years, said he has heard that a third of students within the Hill City School District have been impacted.

“It’s a good school, too, and how many of those kids are going to have to up and move?” he said.

Schmidt, who has worked in the mill for 14 years, said he grew up in Hill City, went to high school in Hill City and met his wife in Hill City.

He now has three kids within the Hill City School District. The Neimans, he said, let him and his family live in a house on the sawmill property, which allowed for his children to attend school in Hill City.

The Neimans, too, are  large supporters of the community, Schmidt said, having donated to the Ranger Field renovation and helping with uniforms in the youth athletic programs.

“The community is really going to hurt. ...A business like this goes away, a good business, surrounded by good people, a lot of times evil is there to fill that hole,” he said. “I hope that’s not the case. I pray that’s not the case. I think Hill City is stronger than that. But it’s going to be very hard to find something good to come out of this.”

One of Schmidt’s children has seizures. When he first started at the mill at age 19, the company talked about health insurance, which is completely covered by Neiman Enterprises.

“As a 19-year-old kid, I didn’t care,” he said. “I had no idea what that was worth. So as time went along, having kids, the HRA (health reimbursement agreement) is there and all the good things that come from working with a company like this...It’s heartbreaking all around.”

Families, he added, shouldn’t have to be worried about health insurance.

Hopefully, Pennel said, the other two Neiman Enterprises mills in Spearfish and Hulett, Wyo., can be saved.

“This is not going to help you guys buy groceries,” said Johnson. “But this is the top republican on the Natural Resources committee in the United States Congress. A mill closure like this is going to grab the attention of a lot of people in the community. It allows people like (Westerman) and (Neiman) to have a conversation and educate people about conservation rather than preservation. Again, it doesn’t put food on the table, but it is an opportunity to educate people.”

It may be too late to do something about the mill, Weterman said, but this forest is too important to let people who don’t care about it “burn it to the ground.”

Logging and thinning, Pennel later said, is the best tool to help keep a healthy forest and keep fire danger down. Without logging and thinning, Pennel said the forest can easily succumb to the mountain pine beetle and wildfires.

“Since they are shutting the sawmill down, we can’t sit there for five or six years and then start back up,” he said. “When they shut it down, it’s done.”

Schmidt said he has an issue with groups and organizations that are taking the shutdown of the mill “as a win.”

Just because the mill is shut down does not mean less wood will be used, he said. The need for wood and wood product will be there with or without the Hill City sawmill.

Everyone wants a healthy forest, he said. More people should listen to Neiman Enterprises president Jim Neiman and his family who, Schmidt said, are experts on the forest.

“Instead, people listen to a 15-year-old Greta (Thunberg), who travels the world more than anyone one of us,” Schmidt said. “Instead, she preaches to us on how we should live.”

“What is disturbing to me,” said Westerman, “when closing the mill is not only the economic ramifications but it has the potential to destroy the forest.” He said, as an American citizen, that aggravates him.

Neiman said his employees live in and around the Black Hills and see what is best for the forest because their lives are all centered around the trees in the community.

People closest to the land know how to best manage it, Westerman said.

“I’ve got a forestry degree from Yale, but I can’t tell you how to manage the forest because I have not done a lot of work in ponderosa forests,” he said. “Come to Arkansas, I can tell you how to manage a forest because it’s going to be totally different from up here, but there are a lot of similarities.”

Neiman said he is the third generation to manage his company. He said he strives to make sure his grandkids have the same opportunities he had, which protects those who work in the mill.

Westerman assured Neiman that he hasn’t failed his workers.

“You’ve done everything right,” he said. “The failure is on our side — on the federal government side — and allowing our forest to not be taken care of properly.”

Ultimately, for Neiman, the decision to close the Hill City plant and not one of the other two was not an easy one.

Closing the Hill City plant, he said, was one of his toughest decisions.

Historically, the Hill City plant has been one of Neiman Enterprises’ best operating plants, he said. The decision to close the plant came down to a very tough decision.

He said he knew closing the plant was going to be “devastating” to the community.

“If I picked our hometown of Hulett, much more remote, it would have destroyed Hulett,” he said. “We would lose our high school, a lot of businesses, and if you lose your high school then your community is gone. It’ll turn into a ghost town. ...Spearfish, we invested a lot in and it’s in the center. We have our pellet operation there. Depending on where we end up, we could have made the wrong choice. It was a tough one.”

As for Pennel and Schmidt, the two both said they will do their best not to leave Hill City. Pennel said he wasn’t ready to retire, and Schmidt said that he wants to ensure his kids go to school in Hill City.

“I’ll commute to and from Rapid City every day if I have to,” he said.

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