HELENA — The timber industry is showing signs of recovery after the recession, but a Montana industry group says mills in the state are operating well below capacity because of lawsuits that have stymied logging on federal lands.
A University of Montana industry report released last month found that workers’ wages increased 20 percent over the first half of 2014 compared to the same period last year. But log prices are increasing, which the study attributed to a limited supply.
The Montana Wood Products Association is calling on the state’s congressional delegation to end litigation they say is stalling timber production on federal lands, the Missoulian reported in a story published Thursday. The group plans to meet with congressional leaders later this month.
“We’ve wound our way through all the foreclosures and we’ve seen an increase in housing starts and building, and that’s good,” said Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the association. “Lumber prices are actually quite good. The problem now is supply.”
Logging from state lands is meeting its quota, but production from federal land is poor, Altemus said. Lawsuits against those timber projects have left the industry at least 60 million board-feet short of capacity, she said.
“It’s frustrating because the Forest Service is trying,” Altemus said. “Whatever they’re managing to get out the door is going to court before the ink is dry on the record of decision. The litigation numbers are climbing higher. Something has got to change.”
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies has filed numerous lawsuits against U.S. Forest Service logging projects over environmental concerns and threats to species such as lynx and grizzly bears.
Mike Garrity, the executive director for the alliance, said the recession — not groups like his — are to blame for the timber industry’s troubles.
“The reason the industry is rebounding is because the economy is rebounding,” Garrity said. “We weren’t to blame for the collapse of the industry. It was a result of the housing bubble. We don’t have anything to do with the housing market and there’s plenty of timber out there being cut.”
The timber industry employs 7,000 people, compared to 19,000 in the 1980s. Seven mills are in operation, compared to 26 mills at the industry’s peak.
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