Taking control of the machine

Environmentalists and timber companies push big experiments in national forests

  • Iron Pine Logging uses a feller/buncher in the forest near Deer Lodge, Montana.

    Anne Sherwood
  • A worker at one of Sun Mountain Lumber's mills in Deer Lodge, Montana, passes by stacked lumber milled from locally cut trees.

    Anne Sherwood
  • Iron Pine Logging uses a feller/buncher in the forest near Deer Lodge, Montana, taking even small trees to the Sun Mountain Lumber mill

    Anne Sherwood
  • Sherm Anderson with some of his logging equipment

    Anne Sherwood
  • Eve Wills, courtesy Montana Wilderness Association


Sherm Anderson got into the timber business when he was about 9 years old, spending his spare time working in a small mill and on logging crews run by his father. At 15, he began driving log trucks. At 30, he borrowed from a bank to buy a bulldozer for scraping loggers' roads and started his own company in this small blue-collar town. In his no-wasted-words manner, he says, "It just kind of grew from there."

On a wind-carved day in early June, Anderson shows me around the company he grew -- Sun Mountain Lumber, Inc. At 62, he's lean and gray-haired, wearing a denim shirt, blue jeans and work boots. "Sherm" is engraved on his leather belt. We don hardhats and safety glasses, and he leads me through the mazelike sawmill, planer mill and finger-joint mill, which turn trees into the 2-by-4 studs used for framing buildings. The tour continues through his 40,000-square-foot maintenance shop and the yards that hold dozens of his logging vehicles.

Anderson is proud that Sun Mountain Lumber is the largest private enterprise in a three-county area, employing more than 300 people when it's running full blast. He carries on the family tradition by employing his two sons and their wives and his daughter's husband. He's also an industry dean: He served as president of the American Loggers Council and the Montana Logging Association in the 1990s and travels to industry confabs as far away as Kazakhstan, whose forests are similar to Montana's.

Right now, though, Sun Mountain struggles to survive. It's run "in red ink" for three years, Anderson says, and lately he's had to cut back some of his crews. The national economic slump is just one of the reasons for that; the biggest problem, in his view, is the national forest system.

Environmentalists' lawsuits and the U.S. Forest Service have choked off timber sales in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, which sprawls across 3.3 million acres surrounding the town. They had their reasons; previous logging had shredded some of the forest, for instance. But it's hurt Anderson's operation. Back in the 1980s, more than 90 percent of the timber he processed came from federal land; now, less than 5 percent does. His costs have increased "tremendously" because he has to pull logs from distant state, private and tribal forests, while bidding against other mills equally desperate for timber.

Dozens of Montana mills have closed under the strain. "The economy is cyclical -- ups and downs. Always has been. Timber supply is what's taking 'em out now," Anderson says. "A lot of people depend on this company for their livelihood, so we'll keep on doing this as long as we can."

All of that is somewhat predictable news to anyone who tracks forest issues. What's surprising is the logo on a cap that Anderson keeps on a shelf beside his desk: MONTANA WILDERNESS ASSOCIATION. It symbolizes Anderson's dramatic shift into collaboration. He's trying to lead Montana's timber industry into a ground-breaking deal with the statewide wilderness group and two national environmental groups.

They call it the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, but it's not as warm and fuzzy as it sounds. They've hammered out some bold goals, determined to make both the Forest Service and more hard-line environmentalists agree to them. They want increased logging, contentious restoration projects and controversial wilderness designations that would break a 26-year-long gridlock in Montana's wilderness politics.

Basically, while Anderson and his partners wouldn't state it so frankly, they want to run a national forest. They might not succeed, but their determination is shared by others around the West who want new directions in forest management. The status quo is so bad, many think it's time for some big experiments.

It is about time
Jul 14, 2009 10:13 AM
It's about time people sat down and started working together for Montana's forests. I'm glad to see that people have joined together at the table and are coming up with innovative solutions. There will always be people who feel as if they were left out, but frankly, they are left out because they don't want to work together. Working together, we can get things done. Here's hoping Senator Tester's bill works its way through Congress in fine fashion.
Jul 14, 2009 11:28 AM
ATV groups are the worst threat to forest and overall ecosystem health in the West. Not only are they notorious for uncompromising insistence on their right to plow wherever they want to, but the impact of their actions is in practice potentially far worse than logging. Their exclusion from the table was a wise move.
Jul 14, 2009 12:01 PM
Atv owners are also tax payers and part owners of OUR public lands. By excluding any group from any forest plan you only open up the process for more lawsuits. By your logic, I guess since the enviro's file the majority of lawsuits blocking beneficial use, they should be excluded from the table also. What needs to happen is all groups need to have a say in the process or nothing will ever be accomplished.
  What is the impact of locking it up and declaring wilderness? Beetle kill, fires, erosion and watershed damage - after the fires, inability to fight fires or future bug infestation? Multiple use need not be a bad word. jmo
Jul 14, 2009 12:36 PM
Tim: pretty uncompromising and broad based comment. How about those back country horseman and their rutted trails and weedy hay? Those hiker's that don't police their camps or put out their fires or pack it in/pack it out? Exclude them too?
Beaverhead deerlodge partnership and Testor
Jul 14, 2009 01:18 PM
Considering that only 5% of the "forested acreage" on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forest has been logged in 50 years, I wouldn't consider it "shredded by loggers". The great "eco-myth" is that the loggers were cutting down the forest in Montana. In 50 years, only 17% of the "forested acreage" on the Lolo, 15% of the Flathead, 7% of the Helena,10% of the Gallatin were logged. Sounds pretty sustainable to me!
     The beaverhead-Deerlodge partnership proposes cutting on 70,000 acres in the next ten years. Thats 2.5% of the forested acreage on the BDNF. With the Pine Beetle having just killed 750,000 acres, snag habitat is in no shortage. Can Goerge Weurther name one snag dependent species that's endangered or even threatened? Of course not. Question the environmental establishment people.
data request and comment
Jul 14, 2009 03:41 PM
Thank you, Ray, for a good piece of work. I am curious why you did not include the membership # for WildWest as you did for TWS, NWF, etc.? I think it is important for people to understand the relative degree of support these groups have attained- i.e., how many folks they can claim to represent. (Recognizing that is just a part of the story.)

Second, it would be nice to see more in-depth discussion of the lodgepole pine issue. While on an individual stand basis it is true that stand-replacing mortality from bugs or fire is "natural" in this forest type, the vast contiguous even aged acres that are present now are at least partly an artifact of wildfire suppression and previous clearcutting. Creating patches of actively managed areas within this would create a landscape that more closely resembles what might have "naturally" occurred, while making it less likely that we will lose 100% of MT's lodgepole pine to beetles in the next decade.
Support for WildWest
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute
Jul 14, 2009 06:34 PM
Hello, I will have more comments about this article another time, but I wanted to address AF's question about the WildWest Institute's membership and support.

The WildWest Institute is a small non-profit, grassroots environmental organization based in Missoula, Montana. Our mission is to protect and restore forests, wildlands, watersheds and wildlife in the Northern Rockies.

We help craft positive solutions that promote sustainability in our communities through jobs restoring naturally functioning ecosystems and protecting communities from wildfire. We also ensure that the government follows the law and best science when managing our public forests by fully participating in the public decision process and through on-the-ground monitoring.

We currently have two part time staff members. We also have a dedicated volunteer forester, who just so happens to be a published climate scientist who works side by side with Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist Dr. Steve Running. And our forest biologist, who is currently out of the country on a Fulbright research scholarship, is do groundbreaking research in the northern Rockies on the effects of fire and logging in ponderosa pine Douglas fir forests.

WildWest has 850 members who are citizens in Montana, the region and country who care deeply about public lands, wildlife and Wilderness. We are also supported by many local businesses who share our vision for a more sustainable future for the northern Rockies.

Since we have no desire to be a multi-million dollar organization with offices in DC and around the country I'm not sure what one really gets by comparing us to National Wildlife Federation.

Finally, these are federal public lands and tax dollars we are talking about here so I fail to see where secrecy, blatant exclusion and horse trading by self-selected interests should be admired and encouraged.
What was left out
Jul 14, 2009 06:48 PM
This was the best, most informative piece written to date about the Partnership Proposal and this new bill. Thank you Ray.

You did leave out the struggles of the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance, representing the thousands of mountain bike riders in Montana. Remember, there is a middle ground of recreation that lies between the "motorheads" and the wilderness loving hikers. Bicyclists have gravitated to the beautiful locations in the B-D for the last 30 years that were not in Wilderness. Now they are getting displaced, and communities are going to lose their seasonal revenue. Some areas trails are going to fall into disrepair. There simply isn't enough wilderness people out there to keep things open in all of the new wilderness.

Lots of words about experimentation here. I wish it was all an experiment. Wilderness is permanent. Far from experimental. The elected officials who vote on it are clueless as well. They are subject to whatever hype or distorted facts are fed to them. If the process within Montana were more Democratic, more people could get on board, even the bicyclists. So far things are a tremendously unnecessarily painful struggle...

bicyclists have supported a majority of the Wilderness being proposed, but require a few minor adjustments in boundaries and use of corridors. Sadly the Partnership has been reluctant to make those adjustments, thereby converting a potential friendly group into a foe.

Look into this Ray.
hooray for collaboration
Eric John Cunningham
Eric John Cunningham
Jul 14, 2009 07:49 PM
Thank you for the wonderful article. I'm happy to read about positive steps being made towards collaboration. . .this is never an easy process and individual stakeholders will always have to make comprimises, but I think it's the best hope for creating environments that best suit the diverse needs of diverse inhabitants.

I'm currently doing doctoral fieldwork in a forested community in Nagano, Japan and would be thrilled to see this kind of collaboration. Instead, things are left largely to the national forestry agency, which is mired in bureacracy at as ineffective as the USFS is.

You can read more about the situation in Japan at my blog

Thanks again for a great article.

-Eric John Cunningham
Under the bus
Dave Skinner
Dave Skinner
Jul 15, 2009 11:27 AM
The Partnership and the other "challenges" toss the public under the bus. I'm sorry that Sherm Anderson would legitimize such a travesty, although he had "help" from Conrad Burns on that...
Part of the gridlock was a lack of defensible science. The proposal that Anderson and the consultants at EERI put together in response to the B-D's do-nothing forest "plan" was pretty good. At the hearing, I felt that a true multiple use coalition was nascent, as all the motorheads jumped onto supporting the EERI option.
And I can understand Anderson wanting results after spending all that money on consultants.
But he failed to read the vibe in the room that day, and completely destroyed any chance of a true, broad based, good faith collaborative agreement. While I don't want Sun to fail and the BD to burn, I cannot support anything with wilderness without some kind of respect for the original this-and-no-more intent of the Wilderness Act. All designation will do is allow the wilderness people to move the goalposts and focus on new areas.
As for Anderson, Sanders, and the Bass bunch, the fact they are willing to throw everyone else under the bus in hopes of survival means they'll never have support of any kind from the larger, non wilderness user public should they wind up in litigation trouble yet again.
Nice work
Timothy Barksdale
Timothy Barksdale
Jul 15, 2009 03:12 PM
This is a terrific attempt to get people together. I think you did a pretty thorough job on looking at a complex issue and presenting both sides well.
There are always those who will feel left out.
Paper is a renewable resource- unlike plastics and oil. Some type of logging will always be needed. Times change and people adapt. Or not. But those stuck in the past will just become bitter and unproductive. So many of those who are undereducated are so afraid and cling to outmoded models of rhetoric.

We have pretty much harvested everything which has economic value in most forms in most parts of the world since the 1800's. There is really no end in sight as much as I would like to believe there is any semblance of balance.

Now with the internet connecting all the world (and television too), the 7 Billion people on the planet all see the wealth of the developed nations. They "get" that we have taken their resources to become wealthy and establish our style of consumption.

That fact that American- Montanan- timber companies are adapting to take a better approach is a very good sign.! I wish all involved only the best.
We all have to be smart and creative to move forward. The future is not going to be the same as the past and if it is the next market crashes will be much worse as the entrenched cling to their greedy ways.

This is the very thing which created the American Revolution long ago. But that was a very different world...

I hope only for peace and a better world for your children and mine. But to get there will require enormous change.
Video/Audio from Tester's Logging Bill Press Conference
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute
Matthew Koehler, WildWest Institute
Jul 20, 2009 01:48 PM
If you have any doubt that this bill is really an effort by self-selected special interests groups and timber corporations to mandate industrial logging and give tens of millions in US taxpayer subsidies to Montana's timber industry (during the steepest decline in lumber consumption in US history) you need to watch the press conference and listen to the Q/A between Senator Tester and reporters.

Fortunately, the Great Falls Tribune's Lowdown blog has the entire press conference (in three parts) at:


Also at that link, you can download audio of the entire Q/A between Senator Tester and the reporters. Notice how Senator Tester was asked (and pretty much entirely ignored or danced around) a bunch of important questions regarding how all this mandated logging will pay for restoration work given there's no demand for lumber.

Well, one major concern with this bill is the notion that we can use money generated from logging to pay for needed restoration work. That strategy has largely failed to pay for much restoration work even when lumber demand and prices were high. The fact that the Forest Service in MT and ID has over $100 million in "shovel ready" restoration work just waiting for funding proves this point. Much of this restoration work was actually part of these former "stewardship logging contracts." The logging got finished, but there was no money left to do much of the restoration work.

Now that there's no demand for lumber and lumber prices are low and we're in the the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression this "stewardship logging" strategy is even more bankrupt.

For example, the Beaverhead Partners have already proposed a test pilot project called the East Deerlodge Valley Project. The Forest Service analyzed the project area and found 3000 acres suitable for logging. Apparently, in a private meeting with the Forest Service, MT TU Bruce Farling and Sun Mountain Lumber's Steve Flynn objected to "only" 3000 acres of logging and instead have proposed 10,000 acres for logging. I have the actual maps the Forest Service produced. Ironically, the maps are called the Sun Mountain Lumber Additions.

Funny thing, for every acre of more logging above 3000 acres, the project actually loses more money. How such an approach pays for all that restoration work these "partners" keep touting is a real mystery.
photos and Tester's bill
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Jul 20, 2009 02:17 PM
Here's a link to photos of Sen. Tester unveiling his wilderness bill and a summation of the bill -- http://www.hcn.org/blogs/ray/a-farmers-wilderness-deal