A strange thing happened to James Stupack when the housing market and economy plummeted. As a logger, his first instinct could have been to curl up and brace for what was to come. After all, a lot of loggers lost their livelihoods.
Instead, Stupack started, in his own words, “having fun.” His perspective changed. When he looked at the large inventory of logs piling up on his 23-acre property outside of Kalispell on Farm to Market Road, he no longer saw great masses of waste waiting to be burned.
If he took a step back, he saw archways and niche market opportunities – cedar jack leg fence posts and future dream cabins. A crooked, useless log suddenly became a “character log” with limitless artistic applications. It just so happens his crew saw the same things. And no matter how offbeat the idea, Stupack’s workers can do it in-house.
“I told my crew, ‘You guys got talents, you got abilities, you can do all this yourselves,’” Stupack said. “They’re not a conventional logging crew. They can do a lot of different things.”
The result of their collective vision is Wild Montana Wood, a fledgling yet already successful side business that complements Stupack’s Tough Go Logging. When logging projects are scarce, there’s plenty of work to do back on Stupack’s property. Stupack, who has been logging for 32 years, is a success story in an industry sorely needing optimism.
“It’s been fun, just a lot of fun,” Stupack said. “It’s kind of weird – there’s this downturn in the economy and I’ve been sleeping better.”
Fun aside, Stupack is making a living the only way he knows how: with the grind of long days, heavy machinery and wood. He still gets jobs through Tough Go Logging, but Wild Montana Wood is there to pick up the slack when there’s no work in the woods. Stupack is currently running a logging crew near Trout Creek.
Paul Uken of the Montana Logging Association said loggers are adapting by necessity to changing markets. Mills aren’t consuming massive amounts of logs for lumber anymore. In fact, some aren’t consuming anything anymore. Western Montana has seen its share of shuttered mills.
Uken said in the past year the post and rail market “has been really good.” Other opportunities have been found in woodchips, hog fuel, biomass and salvage operations. Even big-time, mainstream loggers, Uken said, have made the switch to smaller-scale markets.
“People are trying to be aware of where the market is and be aware that you can’t rely just on one market,” Uken said.
But Stupack isn’t easy to pigeonhole into a market. As he says, “we’ll do anything.” One couple stopped by Stupack’s place on the way to a social function after seeing the elegant archway at the entrance to his log yard. They wanted one too.
“The lady walked around for an hour and a half in high heels looking for the right log,” Stupack said.
She found the right log and it’s clear that Stupack is as excited as she is. Whereas the log would have previously been considered “junk,” now Stupack’s crew combs the mountainsides looking for similarly flawed wood. A curve might make it unusable as a saw log, but fashionable as part of an archway. The same can be said about deep scars and blemishes.
“This is a cool log over here,” Stupack said. “This is something the crew’s been trying to look out for.”
He added: “All my years in the woods, I never dreamed I’d sell a log like that.”
Beyond the business practicality of utilizing junk wood, there is an element of sustainability that pleases Stupack. Years ago, logs unsuitable for mills were destined for burn piles. Now they have a use, no matter their derivation – Western larch, cedar, Douglas fir, white pine, you name it.
The less time Stupack spends in the woods cutting down trees, the more time he has to think about how he can utilize the logs sitting on his property, which he purchased from the county in 2000. It used to be the landfill.
Stupack has a growing firewood business for wood that doesn’t seem to serve any other purpose. Nothing is wasted on his land.
“If you can’t find a decorative use for something, you can always cut it into firewood,” Stupack said.
And Stupack has an unlikely explanation for his desire not to waste: “I’m too much of an old hippie to get rid of it.” Stupack looks nothing like anyone’s idea of a hippie.
But maybe that’s part of his success. Stupack doesn’t fit into any easy categories. He breaks the mold. And he’s a pretty happy camper.
“Even though the economy has gone to hell, this has kept me from having to lay off anyone,” Stupack said. “It’s given us something to do. We have jobs and we have fun.”
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