As Weyerhaeuser Closures Near, Support Companies Await Uncertain Future

Loggers and railroad workers among those who could be impacted

By Justin Franz
Weyerhaeuser's Columbia Falls facilities on June 24, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Every day, loggers go into the woods of Northwest Montana to supply Weyerhaeuser’s local mills with fresh-cut timber. But that could soon change with the impending shutdown of the lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls later this summer.

More than a month after Weyerhaeuser announced it was shuttering two mills in Columbia Falls – a move that will result in more than 100 people losing their jobs – other companies that rely on Weyerhaeuser are awaiting an uncertain future.

In June, Weyerhaeuser announced it would close the two mills in Columbia Falls in late August or early September. About 230 workers will be impacted, although about 130 of them are expected to be rehired to work at the company’s mills near Kalispell. Columbia Falls’ medium-density fiberboard plant will remain open.

Mike Newton and his family have been logging for nearly four decades and frequently work on Weyerhaeuser-owned land. He said that many of the loggers who supply wood to the Columbia Falls mills are worried about the mill closures’ potential impact. However, they believe if production increases at the Kalispell mills – like the company hopes it will with additional shifts – then their businesses will be OK.

“If they run the mills in Evergreen as hard as they say they will, then they’ll be using a lot of timber, so we should be fine,” Newton said. “But we’re still concerned.”

Another company that relies on Weyerhaeuser is the Mission Mountain Railroad, the short line railroad owned by Watco Companies that runs between Columbia Falls, Kalispell, Eureka and Stryker. Vice President of Marketing and Sales Ted Kadau said Weyerhaeuser is the railroad’s largest customer on its route through the Flathead Valley.

Although the two Columbia Falls mills will be closing, the railroad still serves the mills near Kalispell, moving finished lumber to the main line near Columbia Falls. Kadau said it’s too early to tell how the Weyerhaeuser closure will impact the small railroad, but he notes that the company has long had a good relationship with Weyerhaeuser and its predecessor Plum Creek. He said the railroad stands ready to work with its customer to provide whatever it needs for transportation services.

Since Weyerhaeuser announced the mill closures, Columbia Falls officials have expressed hopes that the land the mills currently sit on can be repurposed to attract new industry. Weyerhaeuser has said in the past that it’s unsure what will happen to its property in town.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.