With Mill Closures Looming, Columbia Falls Contemplates Future

Sen. Jon Tester hosts roundtable meeting as local officials brace for the loss of more than 200 jobs at Weyerhaeuser

By Justin Franz
Casey Malmquist, general manager of SmartLam, speaks with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, left, and Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia on July 15, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

COLUMBIA FALLS – In mid-June, Mayor Don Barnhart attended the opening of the community’s newest hotel, the Cedar Creek Lodge. The arrival of the $7 million hotel along U.S. Highway 2 was cause for celebration, he said, especially in a community stung by changing economic conditions.

But a few days later, the celebratory atmosphere was dampened by the stunning news that Weyerhaeuser Company would be shuttering its lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls, economic cornerstones of the community for generations.

About 100 mill workers will lose their jobs because of the shutdown, while others will be relocated to Weyerhaeuser’s mills near Kalispell. Another 100 people will lose their jobs when Weyerhaeuser closes its administrative office there later this year.

“Between the shutdown at Glencore (Columbia Falls Aluminum Company) and Weyerhaeuser, Columbia Falls has had its fair share of tough luck,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who hosted an economic roundtable on July 15 with local leaders. “But we’re not here to hang anyone and pass blame, we’re here to find solutions.”

A month after the closure was announced, the news has settled in and community leaders are now contemplating the next steps. Among the top priorities are finding new jobs for those who will not be relocated to other mills and figuring out what Weyerhaeuser plans to do with the approximately 50 acres of land near the heart of downtown Columbia Falls.

“This is an excellent opportunity to redevelop this property,” Barnhart said. “It’s got water, electricity and a rail spur. It’s an ideal site for development.”

One company interested in the site is SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber manufacturer that has been looking to expand out of its 40,000-square-foot facility in Columbia Falls. While the company has been planning to build a facility at the proposed industrial park just north of Columbia Falls, President and General Manager Casey Malmquist said officials wanted to inspect the soon-to-be shuttered mill facilities, but added it’s too early to tell if SmartLam would make a move there.

City officials asked Tester to put pressure on Weyerhaeuser to determine the fate of the company’s administrative building, dubbed the “Cedar Palace” by locals. City leaders suggested the community could repurpose the building and surrounding grassland.

But the biggest focus was on figuring out ways to help the 200 former Weyerhaeuser employees who will soon find themselves without a job. Tester praised the quality of Columbia Falls’ workforce but noted that, without new development in the area, it would be tough to find good-paying jobs for all of them. He vowed to do whatever he could to help the community secure development grants for potential projects.

Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte also held a roundtable discussion about jobs and the timber industry on July 14 in Kalispell. State Sen. Matt Rosendale, a candidate for state auditor, and State Sen. Elsie Arntzen, who is running for superintendent of public instruction, joined Gianforte. If elected, all three would serve on the state land board, which manages public timber and mineral resources.

During the meeting, Gianforte placed the blame for the timber industry’s woes on state and federal officials creating polices that restricted mills’ access to trees.

“We have seen our natural resource industry strangled by federal overreach and inaction by state officials,” he said. “Our national forest lands are being turned into beetle-killed tinder boxes… But if we managed our forests properly, we’d have more wildlife, more hunting opportunities and a lot more timber flowing into these mills.”

Recreational access on timberland owned by Weyerhaeuser has also been a concern for locals who fear the company will close off land in the future. For years, Plum Creek Timber Company, which Weyerhaeuser bought earlier this year, has allowed access to its land holdings for hiking and hunting. During the roundtable meeting in Columbia Falls, Tester said he was hopeful that access wouldn’t change.

“They assured me that they would keep that land open,” Tester said.

“Well, they also assured us they would keep the mills open, too,” said Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia.

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