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Montana is facing a statewide land management crisis

by By SOCIETY OF AMERICAN FORESTERS
| May 31, 2024 7:00 AM

Montanans appreciate locally grown food, from vegetables to fresh-picked huckleberries, raw honey and grass-fed beef.

Can we say the same about our wood products? Your community would rally to keep a local rancher in business. Won’t you do the same to keep a local sawmill in business?

By supporting the local forest industry in Montana you are ensuring that wood products are coming from forests managed with some of the most stringent environmental laws in the world. 

The Missoula Chapter of the Society of American Foresters (SAF) supports investment in our local forest products industry, especially right now. We are currently facing a land management crisis brought on by two recent mill closure announcements in Missoula County.

Montana’s identity is rooted in our forests, and as forest industry professionals sustaining the capacity for active forest management is critical to forest landowners, communities, conservationists, and local governments. We should be invested in the fate of our forest industry because not only are many of us forest land users, but we are all public forest landowners.

As stated in the Montana Forest Action Plan, “… across many acres in certain forest types, forests have become densely crowded, contain excessive fuel loads, and are populated by tree species that are less tolerant of fire, more susceptible to insect and disease outbreaks, and climate change impacts.”

Our sawmills and byproduct processing facilities are critical infrastructure in Montana. The condition of our forests and associated natural resources and ecosystem services are directly tied to the health of our forest products industry. Management is expensive, and without a functioning forest products supply chain to offset costs, treatment may not be feasible.

The recent closure announcement of Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake will have severe impacts on wildland fire mitigation efforts in the wildland urban interface. Pyramid was one of the last mills in the state with the unique ability to process ponderosa pine logs, a species that is abundant around our homes and communities.

Roseburg Forest Products also announced the closure of their particleboard plant in Missoula. Ten to 20% of a sawmill’s revenue is from selling byproducts to residual processors, like Roseburg. Without a local purchaser for sawdust, planer shavings, and wood chips, the economic viability of every sawmill, and the entire regional wood products supply chain, is in jeopardy.

The ripple effect of losing these facilities may take years to play out, but we know the long-term effects of a collapsed wood products industry. Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming are a few other western states that have lost their forest products industry and thus the ability to do restoration and wildfire risk reduction work cost effectively. Montana could be headed down that path.

The benefits of forest restoration and risk reduction can be seen locally at the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area in Missoula. Nearly 30 tons per acre of woody biomass were removed during the Pattee/Blue ecosystem restoration timber sale in 2005-06. One green ton of woody biomass is equivalent to 57 gallons of diesel fuel; envision over 1,700 one-gallon cans of diesel fuel scattered across every acre.

Projects like Pattee/Blue, Bass Creek, Colt Summit and others also benefit the public health by reducing smoke. In a recent Missoulian article, Kerri Mueller, Missoula air quality specialist, said, “Missoula typically sees the highest levels of ambient PM2.5 during wildfire season.”

Too many of our summers have hazardous air quality conditions across Western Montana and beyond. By reducing wildfire fuel with harvests and planned burns the intensity and duration of wildfires is reduced, which reduces the air pollution.

Luckily, Montana has many initiatives promoting active management of our forests, including the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy and Wildfire Adapted Missoula; Community Wildfire Protection Plans; the Good Neighbor Authority which facilitates cross-boundary collaboration.

Wildfire mitigation may be at the point of the spear, but as stated in the Montana Forest Action Plan, there are many issues facing our forests today. Without a vibrant forest products industry and markets within a reasonable proximity to project areas, however, forest management would decline as would the condition of our forests. Facing the loss of two key wood processing facilities locally, an investment in Montana’s forest products industry is critical now more than ever.

We urge Montanans who rely on the forest for their lifestyle and livelihood to realize that investment is not limited to a monetary value.

The Society of American Foresters is the national scientific and educational organization representing over 9,000 forestry and related natural resources professionals across the United States.