Keep Montana’s sawmills spinning

Posted: July 7, 2011

Source – Missoulian

Julia Altemus took the reins of the Montana Wood Products Association on June 1 with a mission to keep the state’s sawmillsstrong.

“For 23 years, it’s been all about keeping the industry afloat, keeping them here,” Altemus said.

After earning a degree in political science and economics from the University of Montana, she spent 12 years working for former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., as his energy and natural resources adviser. She also worked for two years in a similar capacity for former Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont.

Altemus served for six years as a lobbyist for the Montana Logging Association, and then moved to the Montana State Forester’s office in Missoula to work on forest policy and biomass programs.

The Montana Wood Products Association has 54 members, 17 of which are voting members. It was founded in 1972 in Missoula, and then moved to Helena. Altemus said she moved the office back to Missoula to save on operating costs.

Altemus replaces Ellen Simpson as executive vice president and day-to-day leader of the association. Simpson retired in December. When not working on forest issues, Altemus enjoys playing tennis, and hiking and camping with her three children.

Western Montana InBusiness Weekly recently caught up with Altemus for this Q&A.

Question: A lot of other states have given up their wood products industry for dead. What’s Montana have to do to avoid that fate?

Answer: Montana is one of the few Western states still maintaining a viable forest products industry. Total sales value of Montana’s primary and secondary wood products exceeded $700 million in 2010, with labor income exceeding $250 million. In addition, the forest products community is a critical partner in private, state and federal resource management. Montana’s wood manufacturing sector must remain relevant, must reach out to nontraditional partners for solutions, and must be afforded a business climate that fosters growth.

Q: What’s on your legislative agenda, either with the state or federal government?

A: It is too early to predict what is on the horizon for 2013. However, legislation that supports the business climate in Montana is always at the top of the priority list. Other issues will emerge over the course of the next 18 months. Issues at the federal level include reauthorization of the farm bill, Secure Rural Schools, and stewardship contracting authority. This Congress will likely take another run at an energy bill, and an Interior appropriations budget that supports an active timber management program within the Forest Service, just to name a few.

Q: Some Montana mills have brought out value-added wood products to their raw lumber lines. Is that investment worth the gamble?

A: The domestic demand for lumber is at an historic low. Sawlog material still pays its way out of the forest and covers the costs of other scheduled work, and will continue to be the product of choice for most manufacturers. However, more and more vegetative treatments remove low value material requiring federally appropriated dollars. New value-added markets must emerge to help offset costs in order to be effective.

Price signals, within diverse markets, generally guarantee that sawlogs, roundwood, and forest and mill residue are directed to their highest-value uses. Improving markets for wood byproducts from forest product manufacturing facilities, and residuals from harvest activities, helps bolster economic viability of existing forest products manufacturing facilities, and of forest restoration treatments. There are several emerging technologies and products being tested, some are co-located at mill manufacturing sites. Current and potential wood fiber utilization include engineered lumber, composite construction materials, roundwood and small-diameter wood, densified fuels, woody biomass integrated into an algae bio-refinery, pyrolysis, biochar, bio-chemicals, advanced composites and bio-plastics.

Q: How does biomass fuel fit into Montana’s forest products picture? Can it replace the pulp-and-paper industry?

A: There is certainly a place for woody biomass utilization in Montana’s forest products future. Combined heat and power co-located at mills is a potential wood to energy program. However, the economics, transmission capacity and long-term power supply agreements needed for wood-to-energy as a stand-alone facility is difficult to pencil out. Woody biomass, as a fuel source, is even more costly and will require large federal and/or state long-term subsidies. Pulp and residuals are slowly finding uses since the closure of Smurfit-Stone Container.

Q: What do you think of the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Restoration Projects, such as Montana’s Southwest Crown project?

A: Any time diverse interests get together, the process and progress are often slow at first and relationships can be very fragile. However, as common ground is established, relationships are built and success is seen, the process of collaboration results in better projects.

Several collaborative groups formed in Montana prior to the passage of the national CFLR program, resulting (so far) in a dramatic decline in appeals and litigation in Forest Service Region 1. As an Agriculture Secretary appointee to the 15-member national Resource Advisory Committee, I have had the privilege of reviewing numerous, well-developed, restoration proposals from across the country.

When the advisory panel reviewed the Southwest Crown proposal, I chose to recuse myself from the discussion and the ranking, as state-owned lands are affected. However, generally the Southwest Crown proposal proposes to treat 199,140 acres over 10 years. Roughly 73,000 acres will receive vegetative treatments and 36,500 acres will have commercial wood products removed. The estimated woody biomass produced from these treatments is 1.27 million bone dry tons, or 127,000 BDT per year.

Q: The U.S. Forest Service hopes to finish its forest planning rules this year. What do you want to see in those rules? What parts of the draft do you object to?

A: The Planning Rule should require forest plans to set realistic targets for production of commodities and ecosystem services upon which communities of place, interest and use can depend. They should elevate the roll of resource monitoring and assessment at the appropriate scale to evaluate forest plan objectives over time.

The proposed Planning Rule neglects the need for sustainable forest management, lacks a substantive commitment to rural communities, continues to focus on maintaining viable species populations instead of viable habitats through maintaining diverse ecosystems, fails to adequately clarify the standard between projects and forest plans, and fails to connect opportunities to reduce carbon emissions as a by-product of a resilient forest.

Q: Domestically, new housing construction remains slow but this spring’s tornadoes and flooding in the Southeast have opened up the market for reconstruction. How will those forces affect Montana?

A: Rebuilding communities devastated by recent natural disasters will require billions of board feet to meet the demand. This demand will have a favorable direct and indirect effect on Montana’s wood manufacturing sector.

In addition to the importance of demanding Montana manufactured wood products at your favorite retail outlet, “America Builds with Wood” should be the motto of every consumer and building contractor whether the project is a remodel, new construction or rebuilding entire communities – here and abroad – devastated by natural disaster.

Q: Foreign demand for trees and lumber is climbing, especially from China. How can the Montana wood products sector surf that wave?

A: Wood manufacturing located in coastal states has fewer barriers compared to their inland counterparts. However, an association member of Montana Wood Products is currently shipping product to China and others are investigating other Pacific Rim markets. Still, tariffs, shipping and transportation costs and competing with countries such as Canada can be significant barriers to international trade. Canadian-owned forestlands have fewer restrictions, and have historically dumped their commodities across the border into the United States, resulting in the Canadian Soft Wood Lumber Agreement. Canada is currently a predominate provider of wood material to a mega economy – China. If tariffs on Russian lumber are lifted, another country with vast quantities of wood fiber will flood the global market. Every time consumers make the choice to purchase non-domestic lumber or wood products, we are in essence importing our wood and exporting the environmental consequences.