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U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, right, gets a tour of a control room from Wes Marlowe on a production line at Roseburg Forest Products Co. on Monday. Daines later talked with leaders from the wood products industry about declining timber harvests.

TOM BAUER/Missoulian

The lack of available timber is the single biggest issue facing the wood products industry in Montana, according to a group of foresters and sawmill managers who spoke with U.S. Rep. Steve Daines during a roundtable discussion on Monday.

Daines toured the Roseburg Forest Products Co. particle board production plant in Missoula before meeting with members of the Montana Wood Products Association for a frank discussion on the challenges facing the industry.

The stop was part of a weeklong tour focusing on reducing the impact of what Daines, R-Mont., called “overreaching regulations” on Montana’s economy.

Daines said the tour is meant to highlight the importance of the wood products industry to Missoula and Montana.

“We need to continue to fight to keep this business growing in Montana,” he said. “We need to turn around the wood products industry in Montana and keep these jobs in Montana. We used to have 30 sawmills in Montana and now we’re down to 11.”

Roseburg fiber manager Dan Daly gave Daines a tour of the plant, including the massive hydraulic press that mashes sawdust and woodchips into particle board and laminate that is used for everything from countertops to stair tread. The company employs 112 people and ships roughly 150 million square feet of finished particle board every year.

“This is an impressive startup here,” Daines said. “They’ve made millions of dollars in investment here. They pay good-paying jobs with good benefits. These are the kind of jobs we need in Montana to raise the per capita income, which is one of the lowest in the country.”

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When Daines sat down with leaders from the wood products industry for a panel discussion, he let them know he was aware of the decline of the logging industry.

“I have distinct memories growing up, I was a Bozeman kid, but the days when you would see the logging trucks going up and down the highways in Montana,” Daines said. “It struck me the other day when I saw a logging truck near Belgrade. And you just don’t see that anymore. The numbers clearly demonstrate what’s happening here. You look by any measure of the decline of timber harvests on our federal lands is somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of where we were in the mid-’80s to early ’90s. Something has to be done, and I hear that all over the state everywhere we go. How do we restore the timber and forest products industry to where it was? It’s one of the great battles we face back in Washington as well as here in Montana.”

Daines said that he has worked on passing legislation to find a solution.

“It starts with the source of getting more timber here,” he said. “Here in Montana, we stare at our hillsides and we see dead standing timber on our federal forests and we have an inability to harvest. So we passed a bill in the House that has comprehensive reforms and streamlines the regulatory process.”

He also referenced testimony by U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard.

“He came before our Natural Resources Committee in Washington and he was talking about litigation and these fringe environmental groups that file these lawsuits that are stopping much of our timber harvests here in Montana,” Daines recalled. “To quote Jim Hubbard, he said they’ve ‘virtually shut things down in our national forests.’ So I’m here to be your advocate back in Washington to increase the supply of timber. When I visit sawmills here in the state and they tell me they have to go 400 to 500 miles across sometimes two states going south to get timber, when you’re staring at national forests in the conference room. They said their biggest constraint right now is timber. In Livingston, they said they could add 100 more jobs if they just had access to timber.”

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Gordy Sanders, resource manager at Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, gave a summarization of the state of the wood products industry in Montana.

“Right now, lumber markets have been pretty good for a while,” Sanders said. “Everybody’s doing OK. The challenge is there aren’t any of us that are running at more than 65 to 70 percent capacity. We could all ramp up production. It really is all about raw materials, available raw materials. For a lot of the mills, every day it’s a challenge not knowing where the logs are going to come from, whether it’s a month, two months or six months down the road. From an owner’s perspective or corporate boards or financial institutions, some certainty is absolutely necessary for all of us in terms of going forward.”

Sanders said Montana has seen a lot of mill closures in the past few decades.

“All the mills now are about 100 miles apart,” he explained.

Daines interjected and asked about a common objection he has heard to increasing timber harvests.

“One of the things I’ve heard is if we suddenly increase supply, we would not have the sawmill capacity,” Daines said. “I literally have heard that objection from folks, saying if we start harvesting this timber, what are we going to do with it all? Which I’d like to hear from you all, the voice of reason and common sense.”

“We look forward to having that opportunity,” Sanders answered. “Everybody can ramp up. The existing sawmills located in this 100-mile distance have the ability to expand. So you’re not going to have new investment of building new mills in new locations. The bottom line is if you had $100 million, would you go build a mill? The answer to that is no. So it’s the existing infrastructure that needs to remain whole and strategically set up with some type of certainty and log supply down the road to have that opportunity to capitalize on. I’m not sitting here and saying ‘X’ number of mills are going to close. All mills close for different reasons, they make their decisions differently.”

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When asked about the history of large extraction-based companies in Montana creating environmental problems because of lax oversight, such as the Anaconda Co. and Champion International, Daines said people want to find a balance between regulation and industry.

“That’s what people want is to find a balance there,” Daines said. “People in Montana like to work and they like to play. It’s been said that our three greatest exports in Montana are our cattle, our grain and our kids. So we want to keep our kids here with jobs, but we also want to create safeguards that can protect our environment and I think we can do both. I think the pendulum has swung too far right now with some of these regulations that threaten jobs in Montana, and if you don’t have a job you can’t stay in a state that we all love.”

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at david.erickson@missoulian.com.

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Business Reporter

Business writer at The Missoulian.