Missoula business turns salvaged & reclaimed wood into sustainable wood productsPosted: January 7, 2019
Old oak fence posts from a horse pasture in the southern United States, beetle-killed pine trees from near Missoula and unused wood shipping pallets from Kalispell will soon be on their way to a Mennonite community in western Montana for a new lease on life.
There, they’ll be milled down into flooring, wall paneling and all sorts of reclaimed wood products and shipped across the country.
That all happens thanks to Sustainable Lumber Co. of Missoula, a company started by Ryan Palma to reuse wood that might otherwise go to waste. A member of the University of Montana’s 1995 championship football squad, he played safety, Palma spent years importing and exporting sustainable wood products from Asia. But he got sick of the travel time away from his family, and he was dismayed by the poor working conditions he saw overseas. So eight years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and now he’s shipping products all over the U.S. and planning on moving into a giant new warehouse space near Arlee.
Last October, he received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Use and Promotion of Montana Wood during Governor Steve Bullock’s Montana Forest Products Week. His wood has been used to make a ukulele for former Vice President Al Gore and a guitar for folk rock songwriter Jack Johnson. His main products, flooring and wall paneling, come from pine trees killed by the mountain pine beetle and other bugs, which have ravaged large swaths of Montana forests. His fir products come from Sustainable Forest Initiative-certified trees from Pyramid Lumber Co. in Seeley Lake.
“I’ve had this idea of Montana-grown products,” he said. “I think people in the lumber industry honestly are the biggest tree-huggers. We really are. We want our forests to be clean and not burned up, so it’s always kind of big a part of what I loved.”
In the U.S., his loggers and friends in the Mennonite community, Palma says they refer to themselves as “Amish with technology,” get paid well and work in safe conditions.
“Traveling in China really gave me a sour taste because we’d see a lot of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, but the working conditions were horrible,” he recalled. “You’ve got old people, young people, no shoes and their processing floors. Yeah the wood might be certified, but it was sad to see.”
Palma befriended a Mennonite family west of Missoula, and formed a business partnership with them.
“Our main facility is located in a Mennonite community,” he said. “There’s 11 families, and collectively we all kind of work together. We create all the products, we own all the wood, do all the sales and marketing. And each family has their own trait, so one family does all the milling, another family does all the pre-finishing. Another family does all the cabinets, another family makes our wall paneling and our doors. We employ probably 23 of them. Yeah, it’s kind of fun.”
Palma estimates they go through between 30,000 and 45,000 square feet of wood a month. He’s got contracts with businesses like MOD Pizza, Einstein Bros Bagels and Fit Body BootCamps across the country who want unique décor.
“These Montana-made products are shipped to mostly out-of-state markets, generating revenue that flows back into Montana,” said John Tubbs, the director of the Montana Department of Natural Resource Conservation, in nominating Palma for the Governor’s Award.
Some of his custom cabinets end up at places like the Yellowstone Club, but he focuses his sales on flooring and wall paneling, which comes unfinished or prefinished. He goes through thousands of pallets every year for his MOD Pizza paneling.
Palma, who transferred to UM from Oregon just in time to win a national championship, said he loves the entrepreneurial spirit in Montana and the cooperation that happens among competitors.
“I want everybody, all small businesses, to succeed,” he said.