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Montana News

Environmentalists Weigh In On Weyerhaeuser Mill Closings

Weyerhaeuser closed its lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls last week.
Eric Whitney
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Environmentalists weigh in on Weyerhaerser mill closings

Wednesday’s announcement that Weyerhaeuser will close its Columbia Falls lumber and plywood mills, along with its administrative offices, brought an avalanche of reaction -- none of it good.

Montana’s Republican U.S. Senator Steve Daines called it "devastating news."

"It underscores the importance to urgently pass forest reform legislation to get Montana logs to our mills and to keep these good paying jobs in our state," he said. "I’m not going to sit idly by and watch Montana jobs disappear and Montana families suffer as a result of these frivolous lawsuits by fringe environmentalists and these excessive regulations.”

Scathing criticism of federal forest policy wasn’t just red meat for conservative Republicans this week.

Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, who recently assumed the reins of the Western Governors’ Association, weighed in as well.

Bullock released a statement saying he’d ask the WGA to stand up to the feds to find “new and responsible ways to open up supply for Montana’s timber industry.”

But Weyerhaeuser is a major exporter of unprocessed logs.

That means it can’t really rely on much federal timber anyway, according to Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

“Companies are not permitted to export timber that they acquire from the national forests, nor are they permitted to substitute national forest timber for their own private logs that they export," Stahl said. "This is a law that applies to national forest land west of the Mississippi River.”

Matthew Koehler, who runs Missoula’s WildWest Institute, points out that in addition to these technicalities, companies like Weyerhaeuser are subject to the whims of the global market.

Koehler says he’s puzzled by this week’s political bluster out of Helena and Washington, D.C.

“Apparently Montana politicians would like us to believe that our state is immune from global economic realities," he said.

Koehler points out lumber prices are depressed and Canada is dumping low-priced lumber south of its border.

“The U.S.-Canada softwood lumber agreement expired last October," he said. "The weak Canadian dollar also makes it more profitable for Canadian timber corporations to sell their goods in the U.S.”

Weyerhaeuser Resources Team Leader, Tom Ray, told Montana Public Radio this week the decision to close the mills in Columbia Falls was disappointing.

“But if you don’t have the resources we just can’t continue to run those mills," he added.

But, as Wildwest Institute’s Matthew Koehler points out, "Weyerhaeuser in Montana owns 880,000 acres and owns or controls a total of 13-million acres of timber land.”

Meaning, the company does not rely on the same federal timber supply that some politicians say is so constrained right now.

The Flathead National Forest has held only two timber sales since the merger between Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek was finalized earlier this year.

Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said Weyerhaeuser bid on neither. Weber added even Plum Creek historically did not bid on Flathead Forest timber sales. He said the company occasionally purchased Flathead Forest timber purchased by other independent loggers.

Matthew Koehler reiterated that timber sales on public lands or not, Montana's Washington delegation is missing the bigger picture.

“Right now here in Montana, the Forest Service could log an unlimited amount of timber sales on over 5-million acres of national forest land that’s categorically excluded from the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act," he said. "Once again, I would encourage the Montana delegation and some of these timber corporations to look in the mirror, be straight up with Montanans: The fact is increasing national forest logging is not going to counteract these global economic realities.”

Weyerhaeuser, meanwhile, will continue to run three mills, two in Kalispell and a fiberboard mill in Columbia Falls.

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