The sawmill operated continuously for 41 years, but at 4:00 pm on March 23, 1979, the mill shut down. Why did the mill shut down and what happened to the town of Johnsondale after the closure? One newspaper article said that due to the U.S. Forest Service Roadless Area Review and Evaluation program (RARE II), it was determined that the lumber in the surrounding area was no longer available in enough quantity to justify the mill’s existence. There were three sawmills in a two sawmill forest, so it was not feasible to continue. Bendix Corporation closed the mill and sold it and the town to a neighboring sawmill, Sierra Forest Products of Terra Bella, who decided not to reopen the operation. “I’ll tell you why it shut down,” one of the last loggers said, “Environmentalists.” The surrounding forest areas were designated wilderness sites and off-limits to timber harvesting. The last stroke of the ax fell in 1978 when Congress designated a prime timber source of 306,000 acres north of the mill as the “Golden Trout Wilderness Area.” These actions took away the economic base that had supported the town.
Ed Doyle, a Sierra Forest Products official, listed four reasons for the closure of Johnsondale and the mill:
1) A downturn in the lumber market in the late 1970s
2) A lack of good roads and railroad to ship out the finished lumber
3) Lack of access to a demand for the mill’s by-products
4) A strong labor union that led to high labor costs.
Sierra Forest Products decided to auction off the mill, and it was sold
Life for the approximately 400 remaining residents was very different. Some of the personnel relocated to the North Fork branch of Bendix Forest Products Corporation. Some found jobs in other lumbering operations including the purchaser, Terra Bella. Some were unemployed and looking for jobs. An article in the Kern Valley Sun on 3-29-79 states, “People milled around the area between the commissary (general store) and the post office, not wanting to stay but not wanting to leave either. Small groups clustered around the TV crews who were there to record the end. It looked like the scene at an accident or some other disaster and yet there were no emergency vehicles around the site. No smoke or flames were coming from a burning house. They still nestled among the trees, quieted from the laughter of other days, waiting for the residents to come home from a busy day at the mill, the last busy day. Emergency vehicles aren’t necessary for a dying town.” Another article stated, “The teachers were conducting school in a normal routine last Friday, the last day of mill operation, and so were unavailable for comment about this closing; however, one teacher remarked that they were unable to be absorbed. Schedules are being speeded up to make it less traumatic on the students whose parents, employed by the mill, begin to move to other locations. The school year will be completed so that the children will not have to enter another school so late in the academic year.”