A timber mill’s demise shakes everybody up

 

I recently had the privilege of listening to the business manager of a lumber mill in Seeley, Mont., talk frankly about what to do when a small town's major employer pulls the plug. Comptroller Loren Rose of Pyramid Lumber was invited to Libby, Mont., because that's where Stimson Lumber had just laid off 300 workers. It is a huge blow to this town of 3,000.

The reasons Stimson gave for shutting down did not include the usual reason: a dearth of available big trees. In fact, Stimson Lumber had a year left on a guaranteed timber contract with Plum Creek. Instead, the company cited a global collapse in the price of plywood, foreign competition and rising insurance premiums caused by asbestos-related lung disease. Over 200 people have died of asbestosis in Libby because of their exposure to verniculite ore, which was mined for decades in the town.

Yet here was Rose, invited to bring a message of hope to residents battered by bad news. Seeley Lake had managed to retool its lumber mill and keep it open, he said, and maybe Libby could, too. But that night in the gym, faces looked somber and subdued. There had been a lot of gatherings about Libby's plight, and undoubtedly there would be more. As one resident said, people were "meetinged out."

Loren Rose's advice seemed helpful. First, he told the crowd, don't burn bridges to Stimson, no matter how angry everyone gets about the layoffs. Second, he counseled, don't forget the environmental site concerns -- the toluene, diesel, creosote and asbestos still present at the mill site. They represent real liabilities and dangers.

Don't get emotional when making business decisions, he continued. If you do, "you'll be wrong." Then he added, "You can't get in a hurry. When you get in a hurry, you tend to make mistakes. And you need to build consensus. You need to reach out." He advised against holding a grudge toward banks or investment partners who ask hard questions, or who choose not to participate in what comes next.

Rose attributed part of his retooled mill's success in Seeley to a collaboration with area environmental groups, as well as with national groups such as the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, which visited his logging operations and were impressed.

"You're going to agree way more than you disagree," he predicted. I could only second that approach. My local environmental group, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, supports both permanent protection of roadless areas and a sustainable local economy based on the area's natural resources. But one county commissioner, who's invested a huge amount of time and energy -- physical and emotional -- had his back up. He asked rhetorically if local meetings might be a waste of time since some environmentalists had sued Forest Service managers of the Kootenai National Forest for failing to protect old-growth trees.

Throughout the process, we've been impressed by the relative absence of finger-pointing in the local community, which, frankly, has not been known historically for such absences. People seem to agree that the Champion and Plum Creek private lands are relatively moon-scaped, having fed all their big "peelers" to the plywood mill for the last few decades; that the chipboard market is killing plywood manufacturers worldwide; that the countries of Canada and Russia, to name only a couple, have cheaper and greater quantities of big logs; that our 485-acre mill site in Libby is contaminated with several different types of toxins; that the Libby mill's workforce is the best in the industry; and that it's unthinkable that there won't be some kind of wood-processing facility in Libby, to capture the local market and availability of wood.

Many people are also talking about the town becoming an incubator for new lumber products, such as the gathering of "character" logs (particularly Pinus contorta) for log homes. There's also a potential market for molding, flooring, trusses, Presto logs, furniture, cabinetry, and other niche products. What you don't want to do, Rose said, is duplicate what the big companies sell.

I'd met Loren Rose before, late last year, and remembered an exchange he'd had with Steve Thompson, an environmentalist who works with loggers. Thompson asked Rose if his logging company would be willing to commit to protecting "the backcountry." "Absolutely," Rose replied, and then he asked Thompson if he would be willing to commit to working together in the "frontcountry." "Absolutely," Thompson replied.

In Libby, Rose boiled down that approach: Find areas of agreement, and plug away at those. As for the conflict areas: "Forget about it."

From my environmentalist point of view, I couldn't agree more. We want to help Libby, and we're looking for investors in a new, more sustainable sort of community mill. You can find out more by visiting the website Koonenet.com/healthy_communities.htm.

Rick Bass is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Troy, Montana, and is the author of numerous books about the West.