Forest thinning projects aimed at reducing wildfire risk are keeping loggers and log haulers at work during the housing slump.
“Right now, we’re the only game in town from some of these loggers,” said Susan Sutherland, coordinator of Northwest Regional Resource Conservation and Development, which is charged with promoting economic and natural resource development in Lake, Lincoln, Flathead and Sanders counties.
Over the past five years, the Northwest Regional RC&D has distributed about $1.4 million from the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation intended to help northwest Montana homeowners to make their lands “firewise.”
In recent years, Sutherland said she has focused on fuel reduction projects that keep loggers working.
“We’re just trying to think of anything we can do to Band-Aid these guys through hard times,” she said.
“To tell the truth, that’s the sort of thing that’s keeping a lot of guys on the job,” said Libby logger Wayne Hirst.
A week ago, RC&D held a meeting for logging contractors in Kalispell and more than two dozen turned out.
“What really struck me was the number of large loggers who just a few years ago wouldn’t have even considered a small thinning job,” Sutherland said.
Another contractor’s meeting is set for Saturday morning in Libby. Much of the talk there is expected to focus on the recent announcement that federal economic stimulus money will be spent on forest fuel reduction projects.
U.S. Forest Service documents say the Kootenai National Forest is slated to get $2.47 million, while Sanders County is to receive $1.06 million. The stimulus money includes $987,000 for Lake County, $808,000 for Lincoln County and $506,000 for Flathead County.
“That kind of money is going to make a big difference,” Hirst said.
It remains unclear how long loggers might have to rely on thinning work. Economists are still tracking sharp declines in Montana’s wood products industry.
Todd Morgan, director of forest industry at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said lumber production at Montana’s sawmills fell nearly 50 percent from the first quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009.
Employment opportunities and wages are also declining, as mills shorten work weeks, make other cutbacks or close entirely.
“Projects that keep contractors working, whether or not any timber is harvested, are needed,” Morgan said, “not only to improve forest conditions but to keep the in-the-woods portion of our forest products industry intact.”
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