A job at the lumber mills in Columbia Falls was supposed to be the kind of job you’d have forever. But forever came to an end last Friday, when the Weyerhaeuser Company sawed its last logs at its lumber and plywood mills in the industrial heart of the Flathead Valley. The mills had been open since the late 1940s.
The closure comes just a few months after the timber giant merged with Plum Creek, which operated several mills in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Evergreen for decades. Consolidating Plum Creek’s former plants is just good business, Weyerhaeuser spokesperson Tom Ray said last week in his office at Weyerhaeuser’s Columbia Falls headquarters, the Cedar Palace, which is also closing later this year.
"By combining operations and adding the shifts in Kalispell, we can be much more efficient and be much stronger for the long term," Ray says.
Ray cites a shortage of logs from private and public lands for the closures.
In all, Ray says 146 people will be transferred to other mills in the valley, 72 employees will lose their jobs and receive severance as the lumber and plywood mills wrap up production in the next few weeks.
News of the closure caught many in Columbia Falls off guard. But Tim Cochran, an associate editor at an industry newsletter called Random Lengths, was surprised that it didn’t happen sooner.
"In reality, it was impressive that Weyerhaeuser stuck with it for a few months, rather than just buy it and shut it down right away," Cochran says.
Cochran says that for years, Montana has only produced a tiny sliver of North America’s total wood products - about one percent. That’s due largely to falling availability of timber here. Since 1987, timber harvest in Montana has dropped from 1.4 billion board feet to 400 million. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of mills in Montana dropped by half. Cochran says, demand for wood products tanked when the housing market crashed in 2009 and although the market is rebounding, it’s still got a ways to go.
When Weyerhaeuser says there isn’t enough wood in Montana to keep the mills in Columbia Falls running, Cochran says, "What they say makes sense to me."
Weyerhaeuser spokesperson Tom Ray says the biggest shortfall has come from U.S. Forest Service lands.
"The largest landowner is the Forest Service, and you've seen litigation over the years really make a big difference in their harvest levels," he says.
Rob Carlin, a natural resources manager with the Flathead National Forest, says the log shortage isn’t a new problem: "We have had a very stable program from the Flathead Forest for the last decade, so our program has been pretty consistent with the number of sales and outputs in timber volume."
Carlin says timber sales in the Flathead Forest are constrained by regional harvest goals and budgets, as well as an occasional delay from a lawsuit. He says demand for timber in the Flathead Valley tends to outstrip supply from Forest Service lands.
"I think the need for saw timber in this valley still exceeds the outputs, even with the closure," he says.
In recent years nearly 46 percent of the logs harvested in the Flathead National Forest went to Plum Creek. Weyerhaeuser is too new to the area to have bid on any timber sales from the Flathead National Forest.
But the Forest Service is just one source of material for a timber giant like Weyerhaeuser. Wood comes from lands managed by other federal agencies, the state, tribes and even its own private lands.
Don Witulski, a former forester in the nearby Kootenai National Forest and now a lumber trader in Stevensville, says Weyerhaeuser inherited part of its current log shortage from Plum Creek.
"They basically cut and everything is gone, so then they sold to Weyerhaeuser, so I know Weyerhaeuser is getting a black name for coming in here, but it was already done by Plum Creek," he says.
Witulski says the main question now is what does Weyerhaeuser plan to do with the nearly 800,000 acres it owns in Montana - manage for future timber products, or pivot to real estate?
Weyerhaeuser spokesperson Tom Ray says the company has no plans to change its current timberland management practices, and will continue Plum Creek’s policy of letting the public use its lands for recreation for free.
But for people in Columbia Falls, who relied on these mills for decades, these assurances are little comfort.
On any given Friday night, Kelley’s Pub and Casino is usually overtaken by mill workers fresh off their shift. Last week, conversation at the gas station bar centered on the closure, but nobody wanted to talk to a reporter. The town is too small. Everyone knows someone who could lose a job for speaking up.
Finally, a woman at the slot machine tells me what everyone’s been saying all night:
"I think this whole thing will be a downfall from everybody to daycares to hair salons to everything," she says. "It's gonna have a downfall for years to come."
I ask her if I can use her name. She tells me no, she’s connected to somebody who might find themselves out of a job, too.