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
 

DEER LODGE, MONTANA

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.

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