Following Columbia Falls Closures, Eight Mills Remain in Montana

Posted: August 25, 2016

Source: Flathead Beacon

Governor announces initiative focused on improving forest management


PyramidSEELEY LAKE — Days before the final logs rolled through the Weyerhaeuser Company’s plywood plant and lumber mill in Columbia Falls, the pending closure cast a pall over the stacks of freshly cut pine and fir at Pyramid MountainLumber.

Family owned and operated since 1949 with a staff of 150, the largest employer in Seeley Lake is now one of eight remaining mills in a state historically tied to the timber trade.

“It’s like a death in the family when you lose another mill,” Loren Rose, chief operating officer at Pyramid Lumber, said.

“When you think about the state and all the timber, and now to only have eight mills, that’s really not very many when you think about the landscape. For us it’s painful because they’re part of the team. We’ve all been fighting this fight together.”

At 9 a.m. on Aug. 18, the last logs ran through the Columbia Falls plywood plant, followed a day later by the last products at the lumber mill, marking the end of an era for the former Plum Creek empire. Weyerhaeuser Co., which merged with Plum Creek earlier this year, cut 72 jobs while sending another 146 employees to the stud and plywood mills in Evergreen, where extra shifts are being added. Another 100 positions at Weyerhaeuser’s administrative office in Columbia Falls, known as the Cedar Palace, are also being phased out. The company’s medium density fiberboard plant is still operating in Columbia Falls.

In 1977, Plum Creek employed over 1,000 people in Western Montana, including 632 in Columbia Falls. Following the recent cuts, Weyerhaeuser now employs roughly 550 people in the Flathead Valley.

“It hit Columbia Falls and it hit us all when (Weyerhaeuser) said they were going to both consolidate some of their operations and actually close a couple plants,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said.

Bullock was in Seeley Lake last week to announce a new initiative through the Western Governors’ Association that will focus on national forest and rangeland management and try to prevent further closures such as Weyerhaeuser’s.

“People often talk about forestry issues and the timber industry and the number of acres, board feet and stream miles restored,” Bullock, chairman of the WGA, said on Aug. 16. “We cannot forget, though, that it’s people that do the work; people who know how to work in the woods; how to sustainability harvest trees; how to restore our watersheds. The work we do on these issues and the successes that we’ve had is because people with very differing ideologies have come together, project by project and dollar by dollar. Montana’s natural resources are vital and they should transcend party politics.”With the closure of the two facilities last week, Montana has now seen 30 mills close in the last 25 years.

Montana’s Democratic governor said the WGA initiative would work on developing collaborative solutions in the American West for federal, state and private land management. Bullock said the initiative would examine existing forest management programs to determine their strengths and weaknesses; create a mechanism for states and land managers to share best practices, case studies and policy options; and perform an investigation of collaborative forest landscape restoration.

Bullock’s Republican opponent in this year’s gubernatorial race, Greg Gianforte, responded to the initiative announcement by accusing the governor of dragging his feet while Montana’s timber industry suffered.

“Unfortunately for the Montana timber industry, Governor Bullock has waited nearly four years to take meaningful action on this issue, and it’s ‘too little, too late’ for many Montana timber industry workers,” Gianforte’s campaign said in a statement. “The plans also do nothing to address the issue of frivolous lawsuits that consistently derail management projects.”

Amid the constant debate that has raged for decades, Pyramid Lumber and a select few other mills are hanging on. In Seeley Lake, the company has cut back its operating hours from 50 to 40 hours a week in the last year. When Rose, the COO, started 30 years ago, it was humming at 80 hours a week.

“We need to figure out how to make money on 40 hours. This might be the new normal,” he said.

“We’re still here. We’re still fighting the fight.”