If you were loyal to your liege, at least you got some property and protection.
The 100-plus workers at two of the three Weyerhaeuser lumber mills in Columbia Falls are lower than vassals. After years of hard work for Plum Creek, then Weyerhaeuser, they got their pink slips on the solstice. The mills are permanently closing at the end of the summer.
Weyerhaeuser lays the blame on a lack of available logs. What that means is it can get them cheaper and easier somewhere else, like Canada, where it has access to 13.9 million acres or the Southern U.S., where it owns 7.3 million acres. After buying Plum Creek Timber in 2015 for $8.5 billion, it is the largest private owner of timberlands in the U.S.
It’s a story as old as Montana Territory (established 1864): boom-and-bust. Whether it’s gold, copper, coal, aluminum, oil and gas — or timber — it seems like we’re doomed to repeat history.
The thing about wood products, though, is they are renewable, if harvested sustainably. The little Pyramid Lumber Co. in Seeley Lake does a better job of figuring out its log supply. It hasn’t been easy but through a series of negotiations and partnerships, it keeps the doors open. From an industry profile:
The timber mill owes its resiliency in part to the partners it has carefully courted. Pyramid is community-focused … the company’s leaders are astute partnership-builders, going well beyond typical industry alliances to resolve issues affecting timber economics. They bypass polarization and engage former foes. Pyramid’s Gordy Sanders “… is a good ambassador,” according to Tim Love, Seeley Lake District Ranger. Thanks to Gordy’s legwork Pyramid’s strange bedfellows have come to recognize the company’s role in maintaining a sustainable economy and a healthy environment.
Of course, Pyramid doesn’t have millions of acres of woodlands on two continents, or a board of directors in Seattle telling it what to do. Pyramid is about as local as it gets.
And it looks like Weyerhaeuser didn’t try that hard to get logs:
Chris Savage, supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest, said neither Plum Creek nor Weyerhaeuser have bid on sales in the Kootenai National Forest since approximately 2007. He estimated 300 million to 400 million board feet of timber have been sold in that time.
Following Plum Creek’s lead, Weyerhaeuser is positioning itself as a REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) for accounting and tax advantages, and to sell some prime properties instead of maintaining them for timberlands. It’s short-sighted but a lot easier and more profitable.
I’m not happy with our political leaders on both sides of the aisle. They’re missing the big picture. I don’t always agree with WildWest Institute’s Matthew Koehler, to put it mildly, but he’s right on his critique:
So far – and so very predictable – all the breaking newspaper stories on Weyerhaeuser’s pending mill closures feature Montana’s entire Congressional delegation and Gov. Bullock singing the same exact tune: We need more National Forest logging.
Zinke even went so far as to blame Weyerhaeuser’s closure on “activists.” Not to be outdone, Senator Daines was positive the closure was the “result of frivolous lawsuits by fringe environmentalists and excessive regulations.”
Smart, elected officials should be supporting the workers, not parroting the corporate line, and they should be pushing for sustainability and diversification and forward thinking. Here’s an an outtake from a good friend in a Missoulian guest column, reflecting on the glory days Missoula’s timber industry.
Back in the late ’70s, the wood products industry was king in western Montana.
There was a lumber mill right downtown and mammoth plywood and pulp mills to the east and west. It smelled like money, as copper king William Andrews Clark once said about the air pollution in Butte.I was right in the middle of it, using a big Husqvarna to saw trees for Champion International. The union loggers and the gypo crews I worked with all made good livings. We couldn’t cut enough trees … (but) we needed change. As reporter Dick Manning documented in this newspaper, according to Champion International’s Montana property tax inventory, when the company pulled up stakes and moved to South America, less than 1 percent of its 850,000 acres in western Montana were well-stocked with tress larger than 9 inches on the stump. Only 7 percent was half-covered in “merchantable” timber. The rest was gone.
Boom and bust; the workers get the shaft and the corporations move on. Jeff Smith continues:
Right now, the naysayers are at it again, telling us we can’t move from coal and fracked gas and oil despite the fact our climate is going south, fracking poisons our water, and the only market for strip-mined coal is stupid, necessitating its long, dangerous haul to China.
Let’s imagine a future where Montana takes the lead, our regulated utilities get the right marching orders, the fossil fuels stay in the ground where they belong, and our state sets an example for the rest of the world.
Whether it’s oil and gas, coal or timber, please listen up candidates and elected officials. You need to secure worker interests and advance sustainability. These are attainable and we will hold you accountable.