COLUMBIA FALLS — Planted in the heart of an 80-acre timber empire in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a state-of-the-art facility running on bark and other woody residuals now towers overhead, signaling a milestone for the oldest family-owned lumber company in Montana and an ambitious investment in renewable energy.
When this $22 million biomass plant switched on earlier this month at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls, it began generating enough electricity to power up to 3,000 homes in the Flathead Valley. It also furthered the company’s reputation as an innovator in the resurgent timber industry, establishing a new avenue for doing business beyond the traditional solid wood products while promoting efficient forest management and improved air quality.
“We’re very proud at Stoltze to be able to do this and where we’re at today and where we came from in the last couple years,” Chuck Roady, general manager at the company, said last week.
Inside the bustling Stoltze campus on Oct. 24, nearly 200 people, including the governor and a lineup of state and community leaders, attended the formal dedication ceremony of the new woody biomass co-generation facility. Representatives for U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Steve Daines also turned out in support and celebration, offering praise for Stoltze from the D.C. delegation.
“F.H. Stoltze has long been a leader in managing Montana’s resources while protecting our land, air and water,” Tester said in a letter read aloud during the ceremony. “This new facility will create jobs, help lower the cost of energy and ensure that we can pass our state’s best outdoor places onto our kids and grandkids.”
Stoltze’s ceremony became a hallmark of Montana’s weeklong celebration of the timber industry and its economic role in the state. Montana Forest Products Week featured events across the state, including tours at sawmills like the Plum Creek site in Evergreen, where company officials showcased their new $1 million 3D scanning system that improves sawing efficiencies for specialized plywood construction. The facility sits adjacent to the company’s stud sawmill that reopened earlier this year.
Montana’s timber industry employed roughly 6,650 workers last year, up 3 percent from 2011, according to the state. Sales value of primary wood and paper products increased 25 percent from 2011 to 2012, reaching $580 million, according to the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
Primary sales were still roughly $400 million below pre-recession levels in 2006, when the state’s sales reached $1 billion. But with the ongoing rebound in housing markets and increasing wood products prices, the upward trend has continued in 2013, according to the BBER.
“Working forests and our industry partners provide countless benefits to Montanans,” said State Forester Bob Harrington. “Having an integrated forest products infrastructure in the state is something we shouldn’t take for granted — it’s integral to forest management across all ownerships.”
Stoltze celebrated its centennial last year, an impressive achievement for a company with humble beginnings dating back to the early 20th century along the Great Northern Railway.
Today the company has 120 employees and produces 70.8 million board feet per year. In many ways, Stoltze has evolved into a standard-setter in the modern timber industry. The company has a longstanding reputation of managing private and public forests under its best-management practices, a strict set of guidelines that centers on sustainable forestry. Along those lines, the company recently began negotiating a conservation deal with the Trust for Public Land involving the rights to 3,050 acres in Haskill Basin near Whitefish Mountain Resort. The agreement would permanently protect the acreage, which sits among the headwaters of 75 percent of Whitefish’s water supply, from real estate development.
“You really could build homes everywhere up here, and we don’t want to do that,” Roady told the Beacon during a previous tour of the area. “We want to grow trees.”
Last summer the company dedicated a new Green Power House, an onsite biorefinery that creates energy-dense algae in partnership with a Whitefish-based aqua-culture technology firm.
The latest step forward occurred this month with the new biomass facility.
The event came 14 months after the company embarked on the enterprising project, replacing aging boilers with a massive system involving a steam boiler and turbine that will produce energy from bark, sawdust, planer shavings and other throwaway residuals. The electricity generated on site will then flow into the Flathead Electric Cooperative grid.
Stoltze and its partner, Flathead Electric, signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with Bonneville Power Administration to provide an annual average of 2.5 megawatt/hour for 8,400 hours, or 350 days a year.
“We’ve always been on the leading edge on a lot of things and this is a big step for our company,” Roady said, adding, “I’d like to thank (the Stoltze family in Minnesota) for having the faith in us here in Montana to invest their money wisely in a renewable energy project like this, and to help our company, I hope, to survive for another 100 years.”
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