Community Leaders: Pyramid Mill Closure in Seeley Lake ‘Devastating,’ ‘Heartbreaking’

The closure of the area’s largest employer will change the fabric of the town in the Seeley-Swan

By KEILA SZPALLER, Daily Montanan

Community leaders said Friday news that Pyramid Mountain Lumber plans to close the Seeley Lake mill, the area’s largest employer, will change the fabric of the town in the Seeley-Swan.

One day earlier, Pyramid announced its board of directors and shareholders unanimously voted “with the heaviest of hearts” to shut the mill and wind down operations as a result of a financial crisis that is worse than challenges the mill weathered in 2000, 2007 and 2015.

“Among other problems, labor shortages, lack of housing, unprecedented rising costs, plummeting lumber prices, and the cost of living in western Montana have crippled Pyramid’s ability to operate,” the company said.

Claire Muller, head of the Seeley Lake Community Foundation, said Friday was a sad day and a turning point for Seeley Lake.

“There’s just before today, and then after today in Seeley Lake,” Muller said.

She said the news is heart-wrenching for the community, and she believes it must have been heartbreaking for the owners.

“I know how much they love their people and Seeley Lake,” Muller said.

The mill employed roughly 100 people and needed closer to 130 to operate, according to a community council leader. The most recent U.S. Census puts the population of the town in Missoula County at 1,682 and median household income at $42,254.

Friday, an economic development leader in Missoula County said the closure could have impacts across the region, and “interested parties” are talking about whether there’s a way to keep the facility open.

Either way, Grant Kier, head of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said the announcement is devastating for people who have built lives and livelihoods around the mill.

“This is a huge community institution and part of their community identity,” Kier said. “It’s a tough blow at the local level and for the community, but it’s also a significant impact on the wood products and forest industry.”

The news was still fresh Friday, and Muller said it was important to acknowledge the grief around it, too.

“It’s really important to acknowledge what a big shift and huge change of a way of life this means for Seeley Lake,” Muller said. “That’s really, really heartbreaking.”

A news release from Pyramid said the company was founded in 1949 and has been family-owned and -operated since then, and it proudly served as the town’s largest employer for four generations.

“Pyramid’s success has been derived from its focus on product quality, stewardship of Montana’s forests, and, of course, its employees,” Pyramid said.

Roger Johnson served as president and general manager of Pyramid for more than 60 years, and he and his wife, Rhea, raised their family in Seeley Lake, the company said.

“Roger has always said that his proudest accomplishment was being able to provide employment to the community that he calls home — the very same community that two of his boys, Todd (current president and general manager) and Steve (sales manager) call home to this day,” Pyramid said.

The owners often put their own interests aside for the betterment of the community, and in 2000, when the company faced “a similar crossroads,” Charlie Parke helped continue operations by purchasing another family’s shares, the Mood family’s.

“Charlie’s interests and the Johnsons’ interests were identical — keeping Pyramid’s employees and its business partners working,” the company said.

Muller said the company didn’t just provide jobs, it provided lumber and sawdust when the community needed it, and it was involved in many projects in Seeley Lake.

“My heart goes out to the people and the families that work at Pyramid,” Muller said.

A 2024 report from the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research said U.S. lumber prices have fallen since January 2022 and new home construction dropped 13% in 2023 from a high 17 years ago in part recently from rising interest rates.

It cited a 4% drop in timber harvests in 2023 from 2022, although it also said supply isn’t the main problem in the forest products industry.

“According to producers, the principal bottleneck when it comes to industry growth has shifted somewhat from a limited supply of timber to a limited supply of labor,” the report said.

Tom Browder, chairperson of the Seeley Lake Community Council, estimated the closure will mean roughly $4 million to $5 million in annual payroll will disappear from the community.

Over the last five years, a “Now Hiring” sign has been posted along U.S. Highway 83, and the starting wage at Pyramid has been creeping up, Browder said.

He said other workers will be affected as well, such as loggers who are independent contractors and brought raw mateerial to Pyramid.

But he said getting mill employees and finding them places to live is difficult.

Housing creates costly employee attrition, because the company might train a worker who only stays six or eight months, Browder said: “That person leaves because they’re living in some crappy little trailer.”

He said it’s a problem for smaller merchants and retailers, too.

“We just have a serious housing problem in Seeley Lake, and it doesn’t just affect them,” Browder said of Pyramid.

The “blue collar demographic” will take a hit as a result, and Browder said he isn’t sure what young mill workers or couples will do instead because there’s little else in western Montana for them.

“All the working class people are being squeezed out,” he said.

Tourism has become a larger part of the economy, and more retirees who don’t rely on a local job for their income are part of the change in Seeley Lake, Browder said. But he volunteers at the food bank, and he said he anticipates a spike in demand there.

Generally, he said, attendance at community council meetings is low, and he hopes the news will at least bring more people with new ideas to the discussions.

In its announcement Thursday, Pyramid said it will cut off logs on March 31 and run the inventory through the sawmill, then surface and sell all lumber before auctioning off the mill equipment.

Kier, with the Missoula Economic Partnership, said if the mill closes, it will have ripple effects on the wood products and forest industry. He said he believes the Seeley Lake mill is one of the few that takes Ponderosa logs, which are plentiful in the region.

A couple of other businesses in Montana depend on byproducts from the mill, he said, including Roseburg in Missoula, which produces particleboard, and Weyerhaeuser in Kalispell, which offers plywood panels, among other products.

“Having adequate supply is important for those large manufacturers in terms of a regional system,” Kier said. “So it’s a really fragile system right now.”

He said it’s clear Pyramid intends to shut down, but a lot of people are emerging “by the hour” and talking about whether options exist for others to keep the facility open given it’s an important part of managing healthy forests. But Kier said it’s “premature to suggest there’s any real solution.”

“I hope that the folks who are in Seeley and the folks who are working at the mill know a lot of people care about what is happening to them,” Kier said.

In their closure announcement, Pyramid said “there’s no better solution” for the owners than to shut down the mill permanently. They were advised to close it in 2007 and didn’t, but this time, they said, the financial crisis is worse.

“The owners would like to thank our employees, both past and present, for their hard work and professionalism over the years,” Pyramid said.

“Their dedication has truly been the difference between Pyramid and its competitors. The owners would also like to thank Seeley Lake and the surrounding communities for their support over the years.”

This story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.