Energy Environment Montana Politics

Less than vassals

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.


If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.


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  • Lets ask our selves and our leaders to look how US effects of Brexit will likely reduce US demand for US Lumber.
    Let’s ask of our selves and our leaders what happens when our hurrican season comes to and end, and lofty lumber prices fall back to a downward trending pattern.
    It’s time we ask politicians from both Parties, at what level are they working to limit Montana imports of saw logs from Canada, given the above and the big driver. The strong Dollar, in the eyes of Canadians.

    Canada exports logs and gets stable, high value US Dollars.
    As Brexit harms Europe, and and sets the stage for another National exit, the Euro may weaken while the Dollar may strengthen, driving even more benefit to Canada, by trading logs for dollars in Montana.

    Yes, Weyerherhaeuser may continue to not bid on USFS timber sales in Montana.

    Could this be an opportunity for Denise to study, and educate, and demonstrate leadership?

  • p.s. Anyone who has sailed up the inland passage to Alaska automatically KNOWS that Montana is growing bean sprouts compared to what’s up in B.C. And them Cannuckians are willing to cut it all! Cannucks. Some of the most eco unfriendly people I’ve ever met. Let them turn their country into a crap hole. We can rely on rich people and tourism. At the end of the day, we’ll still have a livable environment.

  • Social engineering is a government-sponsored enterprise. Montana’s timber industry is a government-sponsored enterprise. Neither exists without taxpayer subsidies. Compare communities with sawmill-based economies to Whitefish, Belgrade, Missoula and others. Why are Democrats holding these ailing local economies hostage by subsidizing the status quo? Free Seeley Lake.

  • You would think that paying that amount of money for the merger/takeover of Plum Creek that Weyerhaeuser would have done due diligence to know what the log supply was and that Plum Creek lands had been reduced to the land of tiny trees. Blaming supply is the easy way out. This is just a political ploy.

  • Hi Pete, Thanks for this post.

    Regarding the supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest estimating that up to 400 million board feet of trees have been sold off JUST that one public forest in JUST the past 9 years, here’s some helpful perspective to help visualize just how much logging that actually is.

    It would require approximately 80,000 log trucks full of trees to haul out 400 million board feet of timber. If lined up end-to-end those full log trucks would stretch for 685 miles.

    Remember, this is just the amount of public lands logging done on just one National Forest in Montana in less than a decade. Yet, every single statewide politician in Montana tells Montana citizens basically the same story: The Forest Service is doing next to zero logging, environmentalists are to blame and we need to dramatically increase logging of our National Forests.

    Heck, even the Montana Wilderness Association and Senator Tester are working hard to dramatically increase logging on the Kootenai National Forest, the most cut-over and roaded National Forest in Montana. Remember, Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act” would have mandated additional logging on that forest, including within critical grizzly bear and bull trout habitat.

    And earlier this year Montana Wilderness Association was in court (being represented by lawyers with the timber industry’s American Forest Resource Council [a group that sued to stop implementation of Bill Clinton’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001]) supporting an 8,800 acre timber sale, including clear cutting, within habitat for bull trout, white sturgeon, Canada lynx and grizzly bears.

    FWIW: Here’s a satellite image of the timber sale project area that the Montana Wilderness Association is in court with their ‘timber partners’ fighting to make sure gets logged.

    NOTE: At left is the project map from the Forest Service for the East Reservoir timber sale on the Kootenai National Forest. At right is a satellite image of the project area, showing the extent of past clearcuts and logging.

  • The Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ executive director Mike Garrity has an interesting oped in the Missoulian today about the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), a grassroots bill written by scientists and citizens from the Northern Rockies including Missoula’s own Dr. John Craighead (named by the National Geographic as one of the top 100 scientists of the 20th century).

    Read it here:

    If anyone was curious, the mission of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies is to “Secure the ecological integrity of the Wild Rockies Bioregion through citizen empowerment, and the application of conservation biology, sustainable economic models and environmental law.”

    The Montana Wilderness Association strongly opposed NREPA. In fact, in December 2009 as I sat in the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee room giving testimony against Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill – the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act – I vividly remember MWA’s Executive Director (Tim Baker, who now is Gov Bullock’s Natural Resources Policy Advisor) telling the ENR Committee that MWA would be opposed to the FJRA if it just included the Wilderness designations, but the 100,000 acres of public lands logging mandates were removed.

    Fast-forward to 2016 and not only has Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act not even been re-introduced in the current session of Congress (which has been in session for 543 days, with only 187 days of lame-ducked-ness left), but Montana Wilderness Association’s ‘timber partners’ have starred in TV ads for Steve Daines and written opeds in support of Greg Gianforte.

    Anyway, here’s another interesting piece of information from Garrity’s oped, which ties in directly to Pete’s post.

    Due to mechanization, from 1979 to 2006 over 8,000 few people worked in Montana’s wood products industry – a 70% reduction – but timber production in Montana only decreased 7% during the same time period.

    I’d encourage everyone to remember this fact and ask yourself why no statewide politician in Montana (GOP or DEM) will acknowledge this basic fact, while they continue to blame environmentalists and/or the federal government and U.S. Forest Service.

  • Its an old story. Instead of figuring out how to survive a changing market like some mills have done, some mill owners will blame their inability to get subsidized timber. Darby Lumber, the last large saw mill in the Bitterroot had the mantra – Its the environmentalists, if I could only get log – if I could only get logs – if I could only get logs – then on the day they closed their doors their yard was full of raw logs – Oh, it must be the market.

    Oh – and by the way when I ran for office in 2000 when this was going on, I was told by more than one logger (but certainly it was a minority) that I had their vote even though I had been President of Friends of the Bitterroot – because I told the truth about their industry.

    It is hard to believe the MWA and has not got on board with NREPA – one of the best forest bills ever conceived.!Thinking-About-the-Timber-Industry/n7wg6/56f0e26c0cf266a29255dd98

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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