Missoula's long history with lumber mills, wood products takes last gasp

Cut logs cover the Blackfoot River behind a holding dam at the Bonner sawmill facility in this undated photo looking northeast across the Clark Fork River. When Milltown Dam was removed just downstream of this vantage point, thousands of those logs re-emerged from the riverbed and floated through Missoula. City workers reused some of those logs to build picnic structures in Silver Park, on the site of the former Polley Co. lumber mill.

Photograph courtesy of Jack Demmons/Bonner School Collection, University of Montana Mansfield Library Archives

On the morning of March 14, there were two large wood products businesses operating in Missoula County, the last remaining vestiges of a timber processing industry that powered the region’s economy for a century and a half.

Within the span of six days, both Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake and Roseburg Forest Products’ Missoula particleboard plant had announced they were shutting down permanently and eliminating a combined 250 jobs.

The closures mark the final knockout punch locally to an industry that helped build Missoula and put food on tables here for over 150 years.

The settlement of the Hellgate Trading Post was renamed Missoula Mills in 1866 due to the importance of logging and the mills in what is now Bonner and Milltown.
Black and white photos from the 1800s and early 1900s show the Blackfoot River near Milltown choked with logs floated from upstream forests to the workers waiting to process them at the mill.

Like oil is to Texas or mining is to Butte or wheat is to north-central Montana, timber was the backbone of commerce here and almost everyone had some sort of connection to it.

But economics are constantly changing.

And slowly but surely, the industry’s huge plants and mills in the valley began disappearing.

Missoula has a long history of absorbing the shock of huge industrial wood products businesses laying off all employees and shutting down due to unfavorable economics. The timber of western Montana helped build the town and fuel its economy, but the past 50 years have seen Missoula transform away from its industrial past.

The lumber mill in Bonner was one of the county’s main economic drivers from 1886 until 2008, when 100 workers were given a 60 days’ notice that they were losing their jobs. Since then, the site has been repurposed into other industrial uses, including an aluminum trailer factory and a siding factory. The county, the state, local businesses and other partners have had to work to remove tens of thousands of tons of polluted sediment from the site.

Waldorf Paper Products, and later the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., operated a huge wood pulp mill in Frenchtown on the Clark Fork River in western Montana from 1957 to 2010. Over the years, it was controversial for how much pollution it spewed into the air. When it closed, 417 workers were shocked to learn that they were going to lose their jobs. The mill’s closure exacerbated the negative effects of the Great Recession on Missoula’s economy, and the county for many years has been battling with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on how and when to clean up toxic chemicals on the site.

On Missoula’s Northside, not far from the current Roseburg site, the White Pine and Sash company operated between 1920 and 1996 and served as a finish mill that processed logs into trim board, window and door components. The wood was dipped in a solution of diesel and pentachlorophenol in large “dip tanks.” Spills and drips and drying lumber impacted soil throughout the property. It took over two decades for the city to successfully convince the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to require the site’s owners to clean up at least a portion of the site to residential standards. Two weeks ago, city leaders and nonprofit organizations held a groundbreaking for a massive new development project on the site that will include over 300 dwelling units, a grocery store, a day care center and possibly a restaurant.

Tipi burners were once common in the Missoula Valley, large metal structures belching smoke that were used to burn the waste from mills.

From 1910 through 1955, Polley’s Lumber Company operated a huge mill in the middle of Missoula, next to the Clark Fork River, in what is now called the Old Sawmill District. Mills kept operating in the area through the 1980s. Before it was transformed into a neighborhood with parks, restaurants and high-end condos, the area had to be cleaned up of the pollution left over from its industrial days.

The Hamilton Lumber Company, which included a huge mill yard, was owned starting in 1950 by L. A. Hamilton and his wife Bonnie at the site of what is now Southgate Mall. The company ceased to exist on July 22, 1976, when all the equipment was sold at auction.

The list goes on and on, and what’s mentioned here in this story is by no means comprehensive.

To put it another way: Sawmills were once as ubiquitous in Missoula as marijuana dispensaries are now.

There are smaller businesses in the area that still make wood products, there are still lumber mills operating in Montana, logging will still continue in the region and Pyramid Mountain Lumber’s facility could still be purchased and operated again in the future.

But to many industry watchers, last week’s news was the final nail in the wooden coffin of the sector that’s paid the wages of tens of thousands of workers over the last century and a half.

“I mean, it’s huge, what’s happened to the wood products industry in Montana in the last five years,” said Zach Bashoor, the chair of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, when asked how big of a deal last week’s news was. “Pyramid was the last sawmill in Missoula County and Roseburg was the last wood products manufacturing facility here.”

Bashoor has actually worked for both Roseburg and Pyramid in the past.

“When a mill closes there’s a whole contractor base built around those mills that’s going to be affected, too,” he explained. “There’s a contractor out of Seeley that told me he thinks he’s going to hang up his hat.”

By contractors, Bashoor is referring to loggers who have a contract to sell logs to Pyramid. Oftentimes, they’re doing forest thinning for wildfire risk management or forest ecology restoration projects that require thinning.

“They make a living out of selling timber to the mill, that’s how the system was built,” he said. “The demand of land management has changed to much more of a restoration aspect.”

Bashoor owns a company called Montana Forest Consultants that services landowners and agencies doing forest management work.

“Without those (loggers), there’s no way to get our work done,” he said. “If they’re not around we can’t do things like watershed restoration projects or thinning small trees for hazardous fuels reduction.”

Todd Morgan, the director of forest industry research at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the closures are a huge hit to the area’s economy.

“The announced Roseburg and Pyramid closures are bad news for Montana, its economy, people and forests,” he said. “In addition to the direct job losses and declines in tax revenue to the state and county, other negative impacts can be expected.”

He noted that Missoula’s Roseburg facility was a major user of sawdust and other residuals from sawmills and other wood products facilities in the region.

“There are few wood residue-using facilities, and this will have multiple effects on the remaining forest industry,” he said. “The closure will likely reduce revenue of Montana, Idaho and other mills that sold residue to Roseburg, jeopardizing those operations by essentially making their products more expensive to produce. Additional job losses in trucking as well as other industries that supplied goods and services to Roseburg can be expected.”

And Pyramid was an important user of ponderosa pine, one of the less-preferred tree species for lumber producers in the state.

“Ponderosa pine is one of the species whose increased density and mortality have contributed to increased fire hazard throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming,” he said. “The Pyramid closure will likely make forest restoration treatments and other timber-related management more expensive, prohibitively so in some cases, for public and private landowners throughout the region. When landowners cannot manage their forests profitably or at least break even financially, they tend to sell those lands for other uses (such as development) or those forests become overgrown and increased fire risks for the owners and their neighbors.”

In announcing its closing, Pyramid’s owners cited a lack of housing in Seeley Lake as a major factor. In a press release, Roseburg said their decision to close the Missoula plant was part of a strategic plan to exit the particleboard manufacturing business. Roseburg also said the age of the Missoula plant meant it could not keep up with more modern competitors.

“Although Roseburg’s decision to shut the Missoula facility may not have been because of the announced closure of Pyramid, the combined impacts will be felt well beyond Missoula and lasting,” Morgan said.

Julia Altemus, the executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, said she’s hopeful that Pyramid will be bought and operated again by another company.

“But if they don’t, and if they’re forced to sell it off, that will be a huge hit to the economy,” she said.

Altemus said she’s certain the Roseburg plant will be sold off and never operated again.

“That one hurts,” she said. “Roseburg takes all the residuals from mills. Everyone has to take that somewhere unless they’re going to burn it off in a boiler.”

She said that local timber is going to be worth less money now because it will have to be hauled a longer distance.

“The timber sale amount is going to have to be less because the haul costs are going to be astronomical,” she said. “So the stumpage (the price contractors pay to harvest timber on a segment of land) is going to be a lot less. It impacts everybody.”

Altemus said housing costs are a big issue for the wood products industry.

“Somehow we need to figure out the housing so we can convince workers to stay here,” she said.

She noted that if thinning projects are stalled out, the wildfire risks and associated insurance costs will increase.

She also noted that the resulting job loss from the closures is more like 300 when factoring in all the mechanics and other workers that do direct business with Pyramid and Roseburg.

“Montana has lost 36 lumber mills since 1990, which equates to 8,500 jobs,” she said. “It’s a big part of the economic engine for the state, and we can’t lose anymore.”

In a social media post, Missoula Economic Partnership CEO Grant Kier said his organization will work to assist workers who have lost their jobs.

“(It’s) worth noting that right up to this announcement, Pyramid has been trying to hire enough people to keep their mill running at capacity,” he said. “The shortage of workforce, and especially housing that our workforce can afford, is deeply impacting our community businesses.”

Source: Missoulian news