HELENA – Plum Creek Timber Co. has begun shutting down the last major sawmill in the Tobacco Valley, a swath of northwestern Montana that was dotted with mills during much of the 20th century.
The Seattle-based company said the sawmill at Fortine, about 20 miles from the Montana-British Columbia border, was cutting its final log on Thursday, planing will end later this month and the mill will be disassembled in April, ending 72 jobs and 53 years of operation.
Fortine is in Lincoln County, where the January unemployment rate — the latest available — was 15.6 percent, compared to a state rate of 6.7 percent.
Tim Neese worked at the mill for 32 years and finished his last shift on Thursday.
“There’s nothing out there for jobs right now,” said Neese, who is 50 and worked in saw maintenance. “Retraining is looking like the best option.”
Photojournalism would be his dream job, he said, “but it might have to be something more practical, like nursing or heavy-equipment operator.”
Neese said the Plum Creek job paid well enough for his wife to be a stay-at-home mother while the couple’s four children were growing up.
In Fortine, a community of about 150 residents, businesses bracing for a financial hit from the closure included Fortine Mercantile. The general store on U.S. Highway 93 opposite the mill has a deli where Plum Creek workers often bought lunch.
The proprietor of Jerry’s Saloon, a restaurant and bar, said his establishment has already felt the punch as mill workers steeled themselves for unemployment.
“Those people are not going out to eat, they’re not coming to the bar for a drink after work,” said Henry Guidotti, who owns Jerry’s with his wife, Jan. “They’re saving their money because they know things don’t look good.”
The mill closure follows a drop in Canadian customers as people north of the border have watched their currency lose value against the U.S. dollar, Guidotti said.
The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana in Missoula estimates the state had 50 to 55 sawmills last year. Ten of those, including the Fortine mill, were considered relatively large because they produced more than 10 million board feet of lumber annually.
The number of sawmills in Montana has been in decline for years.
Researcher Chuck Keegan at the university bureau said that in 1998 the state had 73 mills, 19 of them large. In 1988 there were 87, 29 of them large.
Plum Creek said earlier this winter that the poor housing market and the related decline in demand for wood products required trimming operations at several plants in Montana. On Monday, Plum Creek plans to resume operations at its Columbia Falls sawmill, returning about 140 people to work. The company’s Evergreen mill near Kalispell went idle in January and Plum Creek has said it won’t reopen before late April.
Over the years, wood-products manufacturers in Montana have cited the economics of the industry and difficulty accessing trees on public lands as reasons for curtailing production.
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