Plum Creek Cautious as Sawmill Reopens in Columbia Falls

By Beacon Staff

Though people remain wary of their diminished pocketbooks and the depressed housing industry, it appears they’re ready to start doing those touchup remodel projects that have been nagging at them for months on their to-do lists.

For 140 employees at the Plum Creek Timber Co. sawmill in Columbia Falls, it’s a welcome relief. They have jobs again.

On Jan. 8, the mill shut down due to the slumping wood products industry. But earlier this month Plum Creek officials announced that an uptick in the remodel sector of the housing industry has yet again created demand for the mill’s six- and 12-inch pine boards. After two months of dormancy, the mill sprang to life on March 16 as employees once again began filing in to work.

Plum Creek’s vice president of Montana operations, Tom Ray, called it “great news” but said officials are cautiously optimistic, evaluating operations on a month-to-month basis. Everybody who was laid off in January has returned to work, Ray said, except for “a couple of guys in the log yard.” Most of them are long-time employees.

“They’re very excited to get back to work, back to the normal daily activities in their lives,” Ray said.

Despite signs of life in the remodel sector, it’s still slow going for the stud mills that produce lumber for heavier construction and new houses. Plum Creek’s Ksanka stud mill closed down permanently on Monday, the same day the Columbia Falls board mill reopened.

Meanwhile, Plum Creek’s medium-density fiberboard facility in Columbia Falls and its mill in Pablo will continue to operate with reduced shifts. Its remanufacturing plant in Evergreen, which laid off 88 employees in January, will be evaluated on a month-to-month basis, Ray said.

Plum Creek is the largest private landowner in the U.S. with more than 7 million acres spread out across 19 states. The biggest chunk of the company’s land – nearly 1.1 million acres – is in Montana. The majority of Plum Creek’s Montana workers are located in the Flathead Valley.

Ellen Simpson, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association, said several in-state niche mills could benefit from the improving remodel sector. These mills, which generally haven’t been hit as hard as the stud mills, churn out products used for flooring, siding and paneling. Among them are Marks Lumber near Helena, Tri-Con Timber in St. Regis and Pyramid Mountain out of Seeley Lake.

People who were looking to build a new house before the industry collapsed, Simpson said, are now saying, “let’s go do that bathroom that we’ve been wanting to do.” That’s good news to an extent for Simpson’s industry, though it does little to help the stud mills.

“The arena we’ll have to be looking at is more upgrades and maintenance,” Simpson said. “The struggle will continue to be with these straight stud mills and construction materials.”

The boards produced at the Columbia Falls mill, Ray said, are ideal for pine shelving and various repair projects. He said the market price for the boards recently rose $60 per 1,000 board-feet, a modest increase but enough to start up the mill again.

“The market’s still dynamic and it’s still heading in the right direction,” Ray said.

Like Ray, Simpson describes herself as “cautiously optimistic” about the direction of the wood products industry, though she takes Ray’s sentiments a step further: “I won’t even say day to day, I’ll say hour to hour.” Simpson said her organization has 15 members with 22 facilities and they’ll all be watching the market closely over these next few months.

“You just have to hang on to the roller coaster and see where we all land,” Simpson said.

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