On a ridge high above Haskill Basin, looking out over the swaths of land owned by F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. – parcels bristling with stands of grand and alpine fir, spruce, larch and cedar – Paul McKenzie sees a healthy, well-managed forest and a bright future for the western wood products industry.
But down below at the company’s sawmill in Columbia Falls, where Stoltze officials say a lack of available log supply has forced managers to pare down the facility’s hours of operation and lay off 10 of its 120 employees, McKenzie, the resource manager at Stoltze, says a very different scenario is playing out, one in which the timber industry is being hamstrung by persistent litigation and the forests of western Montana are being mismanaged, leaving it susceptible to wildfire, pests and disease.
Meanwhile, restoration projects languish, trails go un-built and neighbors watch their adjacent lands hover in limbo.
McKenzie and others in the logging industry have been raising concerns over lawsuits on state and federal lands that have derailed timber sales across Northwest Montana at a time when demand for wood products is on the rise.
Last month U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of environmental groups opposed to logging in grizzly bear habitat on the Stillwater State Forest, a 93,000-acre postage stamp of land near Olney where six separate timber sales were proposed.
Stoltze had two of those sales, with an estimated 6 million board feet in each, while a third sale was owned through a contractor who planned to use Stoltze’s facility.
Following the court decision, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation suspended portions of its timber sale contracts for the forest indefinitely.
And while McKenzie said Stoltze had already resolved to cut back on its mill production so as to avoid deeper cuts in the future, the loss of the timber sales was a devastating blow, forcing company managers to reduce production by 25 percent each week to save larger layoffs.
“We want to position ourselves in such a way that we can get through this. We’ve been fighting the log supply battle for 20 years, and while we’re certainly not out of wood, we have to be responsible with what is available to us,” he said. “Every mill in the state of Montana is dealing with the same problem right now, and the biggest concern looking to the future is going to continue to be log supply.”
The federal court ruling is evidence of a broader problem in which litigation is placing a stranglehold on timber sales, McKenzie said, pointing out that 200 million board feet of timber is tied up in litigation in western Montana.
With a culture of “analysis paralysis” forcing the U.S. Forest Service to spend more of its budget crafting Environmental Impact Statements, a litigation-proof timber sale has become virtually impossible and management of the state’s public lands is languishing, he said.
“That’s a huge volume to be tied up in litigation.”
The bureaucratic layers of red tape have become inextricable, McKenzie said, and it’s time that timber towns start to force change from the bottom up, through community-wide collaboration, rather than waiting for decisions to trickle down from the top.
That’s why navigating the future of Montana’s wood products industry means hewing a different path forward, one in which a process of local, grassroots collaboration builds common ground on which multiple-use projects marry efficient, sustainable timber harvests with safeguards for wildlife habitat and recreational interests.
To start the ball rolling in that direction, McKenzie recently led a diverse group of stakeholders on a field trip through Stoltze’s 38,000 acres of forested parcels in Haskill Basin, where the family-owned company – the oldest of its kind in Montana – has logged for more than a century.
The group represented a coalition of interest groups – conservationists, city officials, wildland firefighters, timber sawyers, residents, hikers and mountain bikers – who have a stake in the management of the Haskill lands.
Called the Whitefish Face Working Group, the coalition’s mission is to create opportunities for cohesive, multiple-use projects that build safeguards for wildlife, wilderness and the watershed, while incorporating trail projects and allowing for timber harvests.
“Instead of trying to have a timber sale, and then a trail project, and then an easement to protect wildlife habitat, you combine all of those objectives and you build it collaboratively,” McKenzie said. “A timber sale might pay for temporary roads, but we leave a trail tread for the mountain bikers. With a citizen-based group like this, you have a process not bound by policies and bureaucracy but one of shared values, and then you marry that to the public involvement process. You deliver a plan that you’ve crafted that is good for the entire community.”
The group’s focus is on the front-country of Whitefish, which extends from the upper end of Trumbull Creek to Werner Peak, an area that is a veritable microcosm of multiple-use – it is a water source and a job site, a place to ski, bike, hunt, hike and harvest, the backdrop, backyard and background of the community.
The vision shared by all members of the Whitefish Face Working Group provides for the continuation of all historic activities and values on the landscape, on both public and private lands – timber harvest, motorized and non-motorized recreation, fuels management, wildlife habitat, and the abundance of clean drinking water.
Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns said the future of how Stoltze manages its land in Haskill Basin, particularly thinning projects and fire management, is critical for the community below, which obtains 75 percent of its water supply from Haskill Creek.
“If something were to happen, a wildfire for example, it would have very serious consequences for Whitefish,” he said. “It’s also prized as a visual backdrop and for its recreational amenities.”
Whitefish City Councilor John Anderson said the group’s mission is to continue a legacy and deliver on a community vision that began a half-century ago, when local World War II veterans recognized the importance of the landscape and saw its influence on the community.
They built a ski hill, a golf course and a lakeside lodge – amenities that endure today, and which launched a new chapter of the Flathead economy.
“When those boys came home and settled in to post-war life, they decided to set something in motion that their grandkids could enjoy and that could sustain the community. Their efforts 50 years ago really established the foundation of Whitefish. They wanted to have a say in the future, and looking at the next 50 years that’s what this groups is striving to do,” Anderson, a member of the Whitefish Face Working Group, said.
“We are taking the ball and running with it,” he continued. “It’s our job to do it now, and I think the challenge for Whitefish when we try to look 50 years in the future is making it a place where families still live, and by making sure that there is a sound forestry and logging industry as well as other businesses and interests, like recreation. Those are businesses that are going to serve Whitefish long into the future.”
McKenzie said a company like Stoltze joined the Whitefish Face Working Group to help balance the traditional livelihood and lifestyle values that give Whitefish its identity; by working together to preserve those values, the area’s natural and cultural heritage can be passed on to future generations, he said.
Negotiating the two-track logging roads up Haskill on a crisp, clear September afternoon, his truck bearing a bumper sticker that reads “Wood is Good,” McKenzie beamed at the healthy, diverse forest.
“This mosaic of trees is what shows me that I’m doing my job. These little larch trees, they’re our future. Having a healthy forest coming in behind the larger trees is an investment in the landscape, an investment in our future. As a forester, I need to be looking 80 years into the future,” he said. “We’re not trying to go back to the clear cuts of ’73, we’re trying to find a middle-ground, an in-between that strikes the right balance.”
Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association believes that middle ground is the future of both conservation and industry. He sees such collaborations as the most effective template for changing federal forest policy.
Two years ago, Jamison helped organize the Whitefish Range Partnership, a coalition of three dozen interest groups that began a yearlong collaborative with the aim of reaching community consensus on future management of the Whitefish Range – the mountains that rise above Whitefish and Columbia Falls. The vast majority of the Whitefish Range is under the management of the Flathead National Forest, which is revising its forest service plan for the first time since 1986, and the partnership strived to craft a plan that took into account the diverse interests of the area’s user groups.
“If we do this at a local level and base the talks on shared values we can deliver a community-driven plan,” Jamison said. “Instead of the Forest Service putting a plan on the table and the community yelling at them, we put the plan on the table and do the front-end work.”
Too frequently, entrenched special interests on either side of the stump ignore the notion of balance when fighting for their positions and a solution never emerges. What should be local decisions become national mandates, because with each hometown battle the issue is bumped up to the next level.
Instead, Jamison proposed crafting plans that are anchored in grassroots and steering the agency through a “bottom-up sea change.”
“The goal is to build community license to our lands,” he said.