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The men stream out of the Cowichan Lumbermill into a drizzly January afternoon to hang up their orange hard hats in a wooden cloakroom as many of them and their fathers have done for decades.

It's the 4 p.m. shift change and other workers are arriving, sturdy lunch buckets in hand, to start one of their final nights on the job before the 72-year-old plant shuts down on Friday, putting 220 people out of work.

"This type of lifestyle is now finished," said 56-year-old Gary Fearon, who has worked at the historic Vancouver Island sawmill for 39 years.

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His father worked at the mill for 49 years. "It's going to hurt the whole area."

The union workers in Youbou, a one-gas-station town of 900 people located on Lake Cowichan, about 100 kilometres northwest of Victoria, have been lobbying the B.C. government to save their sawmill.

The impact is already being felt in what once was the heart of British Columbia's lumber land.

The housing prices are dropping while more and more for-sale signs sprout on lawns along the highway into town.

Residents including Rose Steven, a 34-year-old mother of three who owns and runs a small grocery store called the Shop and Save with her husband, are worried.

"Would you buy a grocery store in a failing mill town?" Mrs. Steven asked. "I couldn't give it away."

There used to be a movie theatre and restaurants in Youbou, where the mill once employed more than 700 workers.

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The local school had hundreds of students. Now about 80 children are enrolled. Two other sawmills have shut down in the area.

The International Wood and Allied Workers of America, the union that represents the sawmill employees, is pressuring the province to intervene in the decision by the mill's owner, TimberWest, to close the town's largest employer by Jan. 26.

A TimberWest spokesman said the company can no longer afford to run the mill.

The plant is inefficient, outdated and has been losing money for years, spokesman Don McMullan said.

A sawmill was first opened at the Youbou site in 1913. The current mill was built in 1929 and opened the same year.

A provincial report last year concluded the mill would need about $10-million worth of upgrading. The plant did turn a profit of about $900,000 last year, but Mr. McMullan said the costs of upgrades combined with a downturn in British Columbia's coastal forestry industry contributed to the decision to close the mill.

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"This mill is just a symptom of a broader problem on the coast," he said. "It's regrettable but inevitable."

A decline in housing starts in the United States and Japan is being blamed for a 10-year low in lumber prices in North America.

Spruce, pine and fir are selling for $175 per thousand board feet, down from the average of $350 last year and a peak of $475 in 1996 and 1997.

There are about 200 sawmills operating in British Columbia and many are in trouble.

"Mills are losing money big-time," said foresty industry analyst Charles Widham, who predicts more closings. "The coast industry is in real trouble. It's in a crisis. It's in a revolutionary change of markets."

The B.C. forestry industry directly employees about 100,000 people and is responsible for nearly half of all of Canada's $22-billion lumber exports. Canada's five-year softwood-lumber trade agreement with the United States expires in March, creating even more uncertainty.

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Mike Keel, a 32-year-old worker at the Youbou sawmill, was laid off at a lumbermill in nearby Nanaimo last year. He doesn't know how he will support his wife and two-year-old son when the Youbou mill closes.

"This is twice for me in over a year and a half," he said. "I've had my bellyful of it."

The IWA, meanwhile, is accusing TimberWest, which announced an 85-per-cent increase in log exports in its annual report last year, of shipping jobs out of the country.

"We see this as the beginning of a number of mills going down," said Bill Routley, president of IWA Local 180, representing the workers.

The company can get significantly higher prices for its logs from U.S. and Japanese mills and is seeking to eliminate federal restrictions on its private lands to further boost such exports.

About half the wood for the Youbou mill has been supplied from TimberWest's private lands.

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TimberWest, which has unsuccessfully tried to sell the Youbou mill, still owns the rights to cut 462,000 cubic metres of wood annually from the Crown forest.

A condition of the initial Tree Farm Licence granted by the province stated the company be required to keep the mill operating or lose the right to log the public land. But that clause was taken out of the agreement several years ago.

So far, the New Democratic Party government has made no promises to step in despite assertions by local MLA Jan Pullinger to nearly 1,000 protesters in nearby Duncan recently that she is "damn mad" about the decision to shut the mill.

David Zirnhelt, the NDP minister who has been appointed to handle the Youbou mill, said he is meeting with members of the IWA and forestry officials early next week. He would not say whether the government is prepared to invest public money in the plant.

"We're not anxious to run out and run this mill," he said. "We are concerned about that community and those workers but we have to look at all our options."

The NDP government has been criticized for its costly bailout in 1997 of pulp mills and sawmills that has cost taxpayers $250-million.

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