Four months after absorbing Plum Creek Timber Company, mega-corporation Weyerhaeuser Company’s surprise announcement that it will permanently close its lumber mill and plywood mill in Columbia Falls prompted round upon round of finger-pointing.
Corporate brass blamed a persistent log-supply shortage in the region as the chief culprit, saying its mills have been averaging a 60-70 percent operation capacity. Some politicians blamed the federal government for failing to do its job and open up federal forests for timber harvests, while still others placed the onus on environmental groups for stalling timber sales.
While it’s clear that the state’s timber industry has been routed by a multitude of factors, none of the finger-pointing summed up the full scope of the problem, industry analysts and forest managers said.
“It is more complex than that,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said. “We have been hearing for a long time that industry needs more logs from us, and that is a very real and true phenomenon that we have been working very hard to solve. But it is simplistic to say that it is the only reason for the closures.”
Budgetary constraints have put a stranglehold on the National Forest System, Weber said, particularly as wildfire costs gobble up half of the budget, while forest planning for a wide range of uses is a costly, time-consuming endeavor.
“The fact that fire now consumes half our budget every year is huge,” Weber said. “If we could free up those funds to focus on the planning work and produce better forest restoration, that could certainly produce more timber.”
At Weyerhaeuser, the closures are expected to take place in late August or early September, according to the company; coupled with Weyerhaeuser’s earlier announcement that it would close its corporate offices, it will eliminate 200 jobs from the local economy.
The company plans on continual operation of its Kalispell mills and the medium-density fiberboard plant in Columbia Falls.
All affected workers will have the chance to apply for those jobs, and if they do not get them, will receive severance. Tom Ray, resource team leader for Weyerhaeuser, also said workers could apply for other jobs in the company.
Ray said the issue is a short supply of logs, and that the closures were not explicitly planned when Weyerhaeuser absorbed Plum Creek in a merger earlier this year.
“I don’t think it was expected, but we’ve experienced a chronic log shortage for a number of years here,” he said. “After a thorough review and looking at mills, we’ll be in a stronger position by consolidating to the Kalispell facilities and a much stronger long-term chance for success.”
Ray also said Montana political leadership did try to help with log supplies, but haven’t come through.
“Looking at the long-term log supply situation, we certainly applaud the governor and the congressional delegation, but we just haven’t seen an increase of logs coming to market,” Ray said.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the federal government had dropped the ball.
“Today’s announcement by Weyerhaeuser is yet another extremely disappointing example of the federal government’s failure to do its job,” Bullock said. “For this very reason, I am bringing together the Western Governors to stand up to the federal government and will keep looking for new, responsible ways to open up supply for Montana’s timber industry, and I believe it starts with collaborative, Montana-made solutions. Hard working Montanans shouldn’t have to be forced from good paying jobs when there is critically important work to be done to improve the health of our forests.”
Weyerhaeuser president and CEO Doyle R. Simons pointed at the log supply shortage as reason for the closures.
“For some time now our operations in Montana have been running below capacity as a result of an ongoing shortage of logs in the region,” Simons said in the release. “These closures will allow us to align the available log supply with our manufacturing capacity, including adding shifts at our Kalispell facilities. These moves will improve the operating performance of our remaining mills and best position these mills for long-term success.”
Ray said there were no immediate plans for the infrastructure of the mills regarding sale or simply shuttering them, but it will be determined later in the year.
Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia called the news that Weyerhaeuser would shutter two of its three facilities in the community “shocking.” She said the closure and loss of good-paying jobs would have a ripple effect across the community.
“This was unexpected,” she said. “This community still hasn’t fully recovered from the shutdown of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company in 2009 and there’s a significant portion of the community that either underemployed or working elsewhere.”
“It’s a sad day here,” she added.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said he would continue to work on timber issues affecting Northwest Montanans.
“These layoffs are a major blow to folks in Columbia Falls and across the Flathead Valley,” Tester said. “I will continue to push to create more job opportunities and increase timber harvests in the Flathead because I believe it is critical that everyone laid off at Weyerhaeuser has the opportunity to attain a good-paying job here at home.”
Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, released a statement on the closure, calling the closures “devastating.”
“This is devastating news to the Columbia Falls community and the hardworking families who relied upon these good-paying jobs. This underscores the importance to urgently pass forest reform legislation to get Montana’s abundance of logs to our mills and keep good-paying jobs in our state,” Daines said.
Montana U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke called the news “disappointing,” and blamed “activists” for shutting down forests.
“This news is nothing short of disappointing,” Zinke said. “I am frustrated that market conditions have deteriorated to the point where Weyerhaeuser can no longer honor their commitment to maintain current manufacturing operations in Montana. Ultimately, this closure is a consequence of activists who have strayed away from the multiple use doctrine to shut our forests down. We can’t work, we can’t hunt, we can’t access our lands, but we can watch our forests burn, I remain committed to offering real management reforms that will stop the serial litigation and provide meaningful tools to make our forests healthy and profitable once again. Teddy Roosevelt championed the idea of multiple use. It’s time for us to get back to his original intent.”
Activists fired back in turn, pointing to Plum Creek’s history of over-harvesting its private lands, and placing the blame on a lagging demand for wood products and Weyerhaeuser’s responsibility to shareholders.
Matthew Koehler, director of the WildWest Institute, suggested that Weyerhaeuser knew the closures were imminent when it absorbed Plum Creek in February, pointing out that the mega-corporation hadn’t bid on a single timber sale in the Flathead or Kootenai National Forests.
“The workers who were laid off and the people of Montana deserve to know what’s really going on here,” Koehler said.