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2024 Montana Primary elections

Lumber mill closure leaves Seeley Lake wrestling with a timberless future

After 75 years in business, the owners of Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake say they can’t keep afloat amid falling lumber prices, a dwindling workforce and a housing crunch.
Austin Amestoy
/
MTPR
After 75 years in business, the owners of Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake say they can’t keep afloat amid falling lumber prices, a dwindling workforce and a housing crunch.

The signs of Seeley Lake’s timber-town origins are everywhere you look. The community is nestled in a valley packed with pine trees. Signs warning of “log trucks entering” are sprinkled along the highway toward town. Log buildings are everywhere.

But, Seeley Lake may not be able to call itself a timber town for much longer. The community — and the state’s once-booming lumber industry — suffered a blow in March when Pyramid Mountain Lumber announced plans to shut down. The Seeley Lake business’ owners said a changing economy and a housing crunch made it impossible to stay in business.

Now, mill workers and Seeley Lake residents are grasping for a future that may not include timber.

Pyramid Mountain Lumber operates on a sprawling patch of brown earth covered by piles of massive logs and mountains of wood chips. Inside the mill, 58-year-old plant manager Todd Johnson surveyed a stream of two-by-fours rattling by on a conveyor belt.

Pyramid Mountain Lumber plant manager Todd Johnson poses for a photo in an office lined with memories. His grandfather founded the mill in the late 40s, and its been in his family ever since.
Austin Amestoy
/
MTPR
Pyramid Mountain Lumber plant manager Todd Johnson poses for a photo in an office lined with memories. His grandfather founded the mill in the late 40s, and its been in his family ever since.

“This is just the finish end,” Johnson said. “This is what’s coming out the end of the whole process.”

His grandfather founded the mill in the late 40s, and it’s the only work Johnson has ever known. This fall, he and the plant’s 100 employees will likely be out of a job. But, Johnson said it’s not for a lack of logs to mill.

“Our housing costs have increased so much after COVID, you know, the blue-collar workforce is having a hard time living in rural communities,” he said in an interview with MTPR.

In Missoula County, where the mill is located, themedian home price shot up 55% since the start of the pandemic to more than half a million dollars. And, Seeley Lake has struggled to build new housing for decades, lacking a sewer system to make construction cheaper.

Johnson said Pyramid spent the last 10 years short on labor thanks to the housing crunch. Then inflation spiked and lumber prices fell sharply from pandemic highs.

Now, Johnson is struggling with what comes next.

“I’ll have to find something,” he said. “We’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”

In the days before trucks and trains, lumberjacks in Montana would float logs downstream by the thousands to sawmills hungry for wood. When Pyramid Mountain Lumber shuts down, though, Missoula county will be without a mill for the first time since the frontier days. So, what happened?

According to one regional economist — the economics of lumber milling have changed.

Bryce Ward said the same mountains and lakes that made Montana prime timber country are now attracting people for different reasons.

“Not just tourism based,” Ward said. “You know, a tech company that can really locate anywhere — ‘My workers really like those mountains and trees, so we’ll locate there.’ And, that’s what drives, then, the housing price growth.”

At least three Montana sawmills shuttered in the last decade and laid off more than 300 people, according to state data. Less than a week after Pyramid Mountain Lumber announced its closure, Roseburg Forest Products in Missoula did the same, laying off its 170 workers.

Now, Seeley Lake residents are grappling with the potential fallout of losing their largest employer.

Seeley Lake Elementary School principal Josh Gibbs says about 10% of his students have parents who work at the mill. He’s concerned what might happen to the school if those families leave to find jobs elsewhere.
Austin Amestoy
/
MTPR
Seeley Lake Elementary School principal Josh Gibbs says about 10% of his students have parents who work at the mill. He’s concerned what might happen to the school if those families leave to find jobs elsewhere.

A couple of blocks from the mill, Seeley Lake Elementary School echoes with the sound of dribbling basketballs. Just down the hall in a sparse office, principal Josh Gibbs crunched the numbers: 165 enrolled students, 18 of whom have parents who work at the mill.

“If you were to look at a possible worst-case scenario of all those people leaving town for new job opportunities or career opportunities, that is 10 to 11% of our enrollment,” Gibbs said.

Since school funding in Montana is tied to enrollment, those possible departures could mean layoffs at the elementary school. Gibbs wonders what will happen to the electricians and plumbers who work with the mill, or the restaurants that serve mill employees, or the town’s sole grocery store.

“There’s that transition of, ‘What’s the new identity of our town going to be?’” Gibbs said. “What’s it going to grow to be, and how are we — or are we — going to survive?”

Economist Bryce Ward envisioned two possible futures for Seeley Lake:

“It will either be smaller, or it will be Big Sky,” he said.

Big Sky: a ski-resort town where themedian household income is nearly a hundred thousand dollars and the luxury real estate marketis booming.

Seeley Lake doesn’t have a ski resort, but it does draw snowmobilers, backcountry and nordic skiers, hikers and remote workers looking for a lakeside view.

Local business and government leaders have said they’re talking about ways to potentially keep the mill running, too. But without a major investment, that will be an uphill battle.

Todd Johnson, the timber mill manager who’s worked there since he was 12, said he’ll miss it, and his co-workers. There are many unknowns ahead, but he’s certain about one thing.

“I’m not leaving,” Johnson said. “I’m born-and-raised Seeley Lake. I’m not going anywhere.”

What may fade away is a backdrop of familiar sounds, like the rumble of a truck turning onto the highway out of town after delivering one of the mill’s final loads of timber.

Pyramid Mountain Lumber has withstood several near-closures through the years, but its owners say a storm of falling lumber prices and rising expenses have forced their hand.
Austin Amestoy
/
MTPR
Pyramid Mountain Lumber has withstood several near-closures through the years, but its owners say a storm of falling lumber prices and rising expenses have forced their hand.

Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing austin.amestoy@umt.edu.
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