Montana's Forest Management Crisis deepens with consecutive Wood Plant Closures

MISSOULA, Mont. — More than 25% of Montana is covered in forest, with millions of acres of trees that seem to never end.

Even though we see it every day, we may not think about how it takes tree thinning, wildfires, and even lumber mills, to maintain a healthy forest.

Experts in the forest management industry are expressing their concerns in the wake of two back-to-back wood product plant closure announcements in Missoula County.

“We’re trying our best to get control of a really serious epidemic and forest health and wildfire crisis in the state,” said Shawn Thomas, a state forester for the Montana Department Natural Resources Conservation.

Pyramid Mountain Lumber’s closure announcement is putting pressure on state agencies and private landowners.

“Every time we see one of these things, it’s kind of a shocking event, as a forester you feel when you see the retraction,” Thomas said.

Some landowners say the increase in hauling and milling costs wouldn’t generate enough profit to continue to operate which could mean parts of the forest go unmanaged.

“Part of the ripple effect of all this is the fact that yes, now the private timberland owners and even the agencies DNRC and the federal government, their timber just got worth a lot less. It just got worse because of transportation costs are going to be huge, I mean diesel went up again,” said Julia Altemus, the executive director of the Montana Wood Product Association.

Those who make their living in Montana’s forests say this is a trend all too familiar. Since 1990, the state saw 36 mill closures to date, totaling almost 8,500 jobs, according to Altemus.

In that same time frame the DNRC saw fire severity, size, and frequency all increase.

“It’s really a key part of the equation that we have a viable mill industry and help offset that cost that we need to spend in order to try to manage these fuels better so that we can, you know, protect people’s homes and property,” Thomas said.

Experts say as of now, there are 9 million acres of forest in Montana that need to be treated, that’s because the mortality rate outpaces tree growth.

Not only that, but 3.4 million of those acres fall within the wildland urban interface, which is where human development meets with trees and other dense vegetation, making forest health a key factor in those areas to protect local assets.

Source: NBC Montana