COLUMBIA FALLS — The pieces of wood aren’t large in comparison to the rest of the timber and lumber stacking up at F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co.’s mill, but the 1-by-2 strips represent a new upgrade in efficiency and safety here.
Fitted between stacks of freshly cut lumber, these pieces of wood, called “stickers,” evenly separate the planks as they’re piled up to head into a kiln. The lumber is stacked high and on rails, ready to move into a silver square of a building that runs heated air through the planks at 140 to 170 degrees, depending on the type of wood, in order to pull out moisture before the lumber is used.
It’s all part of the process, has been for a long time, but those little pieces of wood separating the lumber used to be inserted by hand, according to Chuck Roady, manager at Stoltze.
Now, there’s a machine to do the work, eliminating the fear of crushed fingers and adding a level of efficiency to the process.
“It’s called a stacker and sticker,” Roady said. “When lumber comes green out of a mill, we space it, square it up, and put stickers between each layer so it dries evenly. And that’s a really sophisticated machine. It’ll help efficiency and production, and more importantly it won’t have people sticking their fingers in things and getting hurt.”
Stoltze invested about $2.3 million into the new process, highlighting an optimistic-if-wary perspective on the future of the wood-products and forestry industries in Montana.
It’s a momentous time for the lumber and timber industry, with a revitalized home-construction market continuing to make gains after bottoming out during the recession, and the future of the industry seeming to lie in advances such as SmartLam’s cross-laminated timber (CLT).
Montana has seen 30 sawmills close in the last 25 years, with only eight remaining in the state. Weyerhaeuser, another major player in the timber and lumber industry in the Flathead, closed two facilities after buying Plum Creek in 2016.
But lumber prices are roaring back with a vengeance — lumber trade magazine Random Lengths puts prices at 22 percent higher now than they were at this time last year, and hurricane damage in the South is only adding to the demand with rebuilding efforts.
“Overall, there’s a lot of pent-up demand for lumber and housing in general. All of a sudden, the millennials have decided it’s probably a good time to build a new house; we’re seeing that all over the country,” Roady said. “It’s actually a good sign for the country in general.”
Julia Altemus, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, said consistent log supply would go a long way for the industry in Montana.
“As long as there is supply from federal timberlands, mill owners will provide valuable products that we all use and will find or create their market,” Altemus said.
While log supply continues to make mill managers wary, prices have become manageable, according to Loren Rose, chief operating officer of Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake.
In fact, log supply is not the biggest issue holding back Pyramid, as it has been in recent years.
“If you would have called the mills that were left two years ago, they all would have said raw material is the No. 1 issue,” Rose said. “And now you might get that from a few, but I think the majority of them would say it’s employee sourcing.”
Finding skilled workers is nearly impossible, Rose said, and the positions that are open remain open. This means the mills aren’t running at full capacity, not because they don’t have the green wood to run through them, but because they don’t have the people to do it.
“Nobody is running at capacity,” Rose said. “We topped out a couple years ago I think at 163 employees, and late this summer we had 113. With log prices that are certainly reasonable and a lumber market unlike a lot of people in this business have seen, to not capitalize fully is really frustrating.”
Roady said Stoltze is also keeping an eye on the lack of a Softwood Lumber Agreement with Canada. Softwood lumber has been the subject of an enduring trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada, and the most recent Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA) lapsed last November after 10 years.
After it lapsed, President Donald Trump slapped tariffs up to 24 percent on imported lumber, which Canada opposed.
However the saga plays out, it will affect business, Roady said.
“I feel some optimism (about the timber industry in general), but I’m going to reserve it with judgment to see how this Softwood Lumber Agreement with Canada plays out,” he said.
Roady sits on the national Softwood Lumber Board, and said that while the industry waits on a trade decision, the board has invested “a lot of money” studying innovation. This includes fire, blast and seismic testing, he said.
“There is a lot going on, but it might not be by individual companies — it might be through the industry as a whole,” Roady said. “Right now, I feel like there’s a demand out there, and I feel good about it.”
Timber and Lumber — By the Numbers
Board feet of lumber produced in Montana in 2016
Board feet of lumber produced in Montana in the first half of 2017
Board feet of lumber produced in Montana in 2005
Production workers in the wood-products industry in Montana in 2016
Board feet of timber harvested in Montana in 2016
Board feet of timber harvested in Montana in 2005
Increase in lumber prices this year over 2016, according to Random Lengths
Workers in Montana’s forest industry in 2005
Workers in Montana’s forest industry in 2015
Acres of productive, non-reserved timberland in Montana
Total of productive timberland in Montana located on in National Forests
Amount of total US lumber consumption made up of Canadian lumber
Tallest wooden building in the world, the Brock Commons student residence in British Columbia
Amount of time construction crews needed to build Brock Commons once the materials arrived
Faster than traditional building methods
University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research