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Montana can't have healthy forests without a healthy timber industry

by Dawn Terrill, Duane Simons and Roman Zylawy
| March 27, 2024 12:00 AM

The recent closures of Pyramid Mountain Lumber and Roseburg Forest Products in Missoula County is a warning for Montana and a symptom of broader challenges threatening the region's forest and wood products sect of which is pivotal for thousands of private sector jobs and crucial for federal efforts to improve forest health, mitigate wildfire risks, and cater to the escalating demand for carbon-friendly wood products.

Montana's timber industry, an integral component of the state's identity and economy, faces a multitude of challenges - from workforce shortages and affordable housing crises to the whims of volatile markets. However the underlying issue driving mill closures across the west is a declining supply of raw material to manufacturers, a critical concern given that Montana's wood products manufacturers are surrounded by federally owned forests. 

The principle of supply and demand governs log prices. Currently, the milling demand in Montana, spurred by the public's demand for wood products, surpasses the available and projected log supply. This imbalance poses a stark choice: either increase the regional log supply to align with demand or face further mill closures and a further erosion of the workforce. 

lf we don't meet the demand for wood products with Montana-made wood, that consumer demand will be met elsewhere, potentially in regions with lesser regard for our social and environmental values. The opposition from anti-forestry groups, which often hinders Forest Service projects essential for reducing wildfire risks and improving forest health, deserve public scrutiny. Their actions risk dismantling the very infrastructure crucial for conservation efforts on public lands. 

Once forest sector infrastructure disappears, it will be more expensive and prohibitive to do the conservation work that needs to be done. Without a Montana timber industry, the only result is larger and more severe wildfires, more forest insects and disease, reduced public access to public lands, continued losses of wildlife, and more homes and properties destroyed. For our communities, the result is higher unemployment, fewer economic opportunities and reduced local government revenues to sustain public safety and other public services. 

Since 1990, Montana has lost over 30 primary wood manufacturers that once supported thousands of family wage jobs in our timber communities. As mills shutter and curtail operations, the looming threat over millions of acres of federal land becomes more pronounced, with heightened risks of catastrophic 

wildfires and disease. These lands desperately need science-based, active management and restoration, reliant on a robust Montana forest sector infrastructure. 

Recognizing this urgency, Congress allocated 56 billion to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management through legislative measures to expedite forest health treatments. Despite these significant investments, the expected uptick in log supply to support local infrastructure and workforce has yet to materialize. The downward trend in saw timber volume in Forest Service Region 1- down more than 22 percent since 2019- is alarming and counterproductive to the overarching goal of fostering resilient forest ecosystems and communities. 

This crisis calls for a stronger alignment between federal actions and local industry needs. lt's imperative for Congress to ensure that forest management initiatives bolster log supplies, thereby sustaining and nurturing the forest infrastructure and workforce essential for managing our public lands.

Montana’s forest sector dilemma reflects a broader national challenge. To sustain the many benefits our forests provide — ecological, economic, cultural and social — a balanced, sustainable approach to forest management is essential. It’s a call to action for all stakeholders to forge a path that sustains our forests and the communities that depend on them, ensuring a resilient future for Montana’s forest sector and its invaluable contributions to our state and nation.

Mineral County Commissioners Dawn Terrill, Duane Simons and Roman Zylawy.