Uncertain future lies ahead for Western Montana forestry and forest products industries


MISSOULA — The forestry and forest products industries have been staples in Western Montana’s economy for decades.

But with the two recent announcements of the closures of Pyramid Mountain Lumber and Roseburg Forest Products, the industry has been shaken once again, now processing what kind of a future lies ahead.

“You lose one mill it’s awful, you lose two mills in the span of a week, it’s pretty devastating to the industry," said Montana Wood Products Association Second Vice President Christine Johnson.

The closure of these two companies came as a surprise to much of the community.

But the Montana Wood Products Association — although saddened at the losses — knew that with the current forest products market, many mills were struggling.

Much like the rest of any given market, forest products were hit especially hard during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The timber industry is always the first one into a bad situation, and we’re the last one out," Montana Wood Products Association Executive Director Julia Altemus noted.

Altemus says the industry had just gotten out of the grasp of the 2008 economic recession before the pandemic — meaning the industry had been fighting an economic crisis for a decade. But then during the pandemic, they were hit hard.

Many may remember that the price of lumber skyrocketed, with sheets of plywood going for $200 in some places at the peak. This was all due to the supply of lumber, or lack thereof.

“It’s all about the inventories, it’s all about supply. Yes, the workforce and housing has complicated our situation for sure," Altemus explained. “But, like I said, if we had had a steady supply of wood products, you know wood fiber moving from the forest to the mill, I think that things could have been a little bit different.”

The majority of mills and logging operations remained open from the beginning of the pandemic, but at a greatly reduced production rate due to various mandates.

And post-pandemic, something else has emerged — everything is more expensive.

“All these factors that have come into play now, housing and workforce, and people not being not able to afford to live here because it’s too expensive, I mean all of this, I mean we’re still in the aftermath of the pandemic," Johnson said.

Now the lumber industry is left with a dilemma as everything will cost more due to the amount of shipping now needed. Instead of shipping logs 20 miles, logging operations now have to ship 170 miles.

“If you’re doing a much farther load, you’re only getting one or two loads out of the woods every day instead of, four," Altemus said.

With a future that will almost certainly contain higher costs, a solution forward seems daunting.

“The ripple effect, I would say, of the two earthquakes we just had, are huge. And I don’t think we’re going to completely understand or feel it for probably about another year" Altemus told MTN.