Ex-Smurfit-Stone worker earns master's degree through federal program

2013-01-12T22:15:00Z 2014-11-02T11:49:10Z Ex-Smurfit-Stone worker earns master's degree through federal programBy MARTIN KIDSTON of the Missoulian
January 12, 2013 10:15 pm  • 

FRENCHTOWN – When Jimmie McKay was a kid growing up in Libby, the logging roads ran up the river valleys. When he answered the draft in 1971, the roads had reached the base of the mountains.

When McKay returned home in 1979, his tour in Vietnam complete, the logging roads had crossed the mountain tops. The big white and ponderosa pine trees, sometimes measuring four feet in diameter, were gone.

“These were the typical trees they were cutting back then,” McKay said, pointing to a black-and-white image depicting a massive load of logs hauled by the J. Neils Lumber Co., a division of the St. Regis Paper Co., in 1961. “I used to go hunting in there when I was a kid and marvel at those big trees. But they’re not there anymore.”

Gone with the giant trees is the equally giant industry that cut them. Champion International is gone, along with J. Neils Lumber. The Stimson Lumber mills have closed, along with the pulp factory that employed McKay for more than 20 years.

When Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. shuttered in December 2009, McKay found himself out of work. The industry that had employed his father and friends, in the woods and at the mills and factories, had been reduced to a footnote in Montana’s history books.

“When I was a kid, a logging load in Libby was four logs,” McKay said. “They cut the big trees and ran over the rest to get to the big trees. That’s not sustainable. I knew eventually that sustainable practices would have to show up.”

After Smurfit-Stone shut down, McKay took advantage of the federal Trade Adjustment Act to obtain his master’s degree at the University of Montana. He defended his professional paper last week and may now have a hand in developing the sustainable forestry practices he envisioned decades ago.

Returning to the university seemed an unlikely choice for a guy pushing 60. But McKay had a lot of experience on the industry side of the forestry equation. He watched the philosophies taught in college play out in the real world. He felt he had something to offer and even more to learn.

Now, he might just have another act left in what’s been a life of many acts; scenes filled with the setbacks and achievements of a blue-collar man who, for most of his life, has chased a hard-earned dollar.

“There’s no more new frontier,” McKay said. “We have to learn how to share.”


To understand McKay’s philosophies and his drive to shape the future of sustainable forestry, you have to understand his past.

Dressed in suspenders and wearing a University of Wyoming Cowboys cap – his wife Lindsay is from Rawlins, Wyo. – McKay explains how he graduated from Libby High School and answered the draft in 1971 to serve in Vietnam.

He returned to Montana after his discharge and witnessed drastic landscape changes brought on, he believes, by an insatiable timber industry. He attended UM where he earned a degree in forestry resource management.

“I was originally thinking of going into private work with the lumber company,” he said. “It was my background growing up in Libby. Most of my family worked for the St. Regis Paper Co., and I was kind of interested in Champion International.”

Champion was the biggest game around, but even by the 1970s, McKay had seen the writing on the wall. The timber industry had begun a slow but steady decline. So by 1984, looking for work, he signed on not with Champion, but with Smurfit-Stone.

McKay started with the cleanup crews and climbed the ranks to run the paper machines. He worked as a safety captain and toiled as a kiln operator, using sodium hydroxide to digest pulp. But the paper industry couldn’t escape the fate of the timber industry and, again, McKay faced an uncertain future.

Many old-timers, as McKay sometimes calls them – he himself may be one of them – have taken a more cynical view of past decades and the changes brought to western Montana’s once largest industry. He understands the bitterness behind the loss and even sympathizes with it, though he looks at things differently.

“We’re kind of in a renaissance in western Montana and we have been for the last 40 years – since they started passing environmental legislation, NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and the roadless rules,” he said. “It put a lot of barriers on timber production, but rightly so.”

The changes were generations in the making. McKay tells of his father’s days, when the government gave away the nation’s resources for free, timber included.

By the 1960s, he says, there was nothing more to give and nothing more to take. The industries fought the changes – the logging restrictions placed on federal lands. They began logging their own private land, but soon enough, that too had nothing more to offer.

The timber giants like Plum Creek would eventually shift to real estate. McKay watched it happen, just as he watched the big trees disappear. The giants in the woods he’d known as a kid would not return, he knew, unless changes were made to how things were done.


The executives at Smurfit-Stone stayed positive to the end. McKay says no CEO in the world would ever say his company was failing six months before it did.

When the paper plant shuttered, McKay took stock of his situation. Knowing the end was near – watching the trends – he paid off his bills. He lived frugally to do it and braced for the struggles ahead.

Most of the plant’s workers were in their 40s and 50s. A new beginning was hard to imagine, even for McKay, who said he has always managed an open mind and a flexible perspective.

Out of work and nearly 60, going back to UM to earn a master’s degree was still a possibility. The Trade Adjustment Act could help pay the way, he learned, so why not give it a try?

“I would not have been able to go to graduate school if not for these programs and federal support,” said McKay. “It was pretty unbelievable how accommodating everyone was. You go to school to begin a 40-year career. You don’t do a 40-year career to go back to school.”

So there he was, a man who should consider retirement, sitting among 20-something college kids asking about the working world of forestry. McKay had sat in their shoes 40 years earlier. He’d since been to war. He’d known the loggers and he’d worked the mills. He’d seen the industry they were studying in textbooks operate on the ground amid changing politics.

“I did give a lot of pep talks to the kids,” McKay said. “I call them kids but they’re young adults. This is their future. The older generation, they’re still remembering how it was, the free-for-all with timber and the good times. But for the younger people, this will be in their hands.”

McKay has no problem with the U.S. Forest Service serving as a land owner, so far as management is collaborative and operates lockstep with the community. He has no problem with land conservancies buying up property and turning it over to the government to help consolidate ownership.

He names the places across Montana where this has happened and says the successes have helped do away with the checkerboard ownership that has caused foresters such headaches when it comes to contiguous management.

McKay’s thesis at UM focused on the Southwest Crown Collaborative – an experimental project working to sustain ecosystems while providing economic and social benefits across a large swatch of western Montana.

Jobs lost from the closure of the Stimson Lumber mills and Smurfit-Stone, the decline of the timber industry and the threats to the landscape, its wildlife and healthy forests, are challenges needing new, imaginative solutions.

And that has kept McKay interested and involved.

“I’m really into collaborative forest landscape restoration,” he said. “Community forestry, I guess. I see that in our future. I realize it’s federal land, but it’s here to sustain and help people throughout the nation. That’s what federal land is, and it’s not a bad thing.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at (406)-523-5260 or

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. hellgatenights
    Report Abuse
    hellgatenights - January 13, 2013 9:05 pm
    Excellent Question MTNative.....I wish more people put in have as much thought. You are correct, my brief comments are insufficient to determine "Where I am coming from."

    Regarding abusive and crude resource management o the 19th and 20th centuries.....they are what they are, ugly, invasive and destructive. Keep in mind, all these industries were managed my the federal and state government.....the "Parasite" sector.

    Please it's best days, Butte had the highest per capita wage of ANY town or city in America. Average life expectancy was 38 wherein most would succomb to some form of lung silicosos.

    Now, we do not have any significant mining in western Montana, with exception to the Troy silver mine. All the good paying jobs are gone. Same in the timber and timber byproduct industries....all gone. Missoula is "Ground Zero" for this bomb.

    *** So most of the skilled labor is long gone, we see it in the cash flow of the economy and we see it in the politics. Missoula went from hard red to baby blue. Why? Because the hard working, balanced "Producers" are gone, and what we have remaining is .....a disgrace.

    Hard rock mining can be conducted with little "Outward" damage....this is nothing like coal mining. Modern logging employs amazing techniques that benefit wildlife, pruduce good jobs......and it is sustainable. Clear cutting is long gone and the area's impacted can be easily reclaimed in 12-36 months.

    But we have none of this. We have very few producers, and a lot of "Leeches." This is why the property taxes have trebled since the city sucked my properties into it's little "Central committee."

    Tell me MT....are you a ......producer? Do you come from a pedigree of producers?

    There is no "Balance" at all now. The "EPA" is commanded by eco-terrorists who destroy millions of jobs while spending the sweaty tax dollars they took from me. This was planned, executed.......and illegal. And it is history now. In fact, we just saw Lisa Jackson, the fat woman at the head of the EPA, make a hasty exit as here phony "Alias" email account was ferreted out. This is the account she would use to plan the destruction of people's dreams.

    NO......I do not want to see the mess that the flouride plant in Garrison left. I DO NOT want to see the rivers and stream of the Clark Fork and Bitteroot lined with junk cars and farming implements (Most of it is gone now. I dreaded the martian landscape around Anaconda and Columbia Falls....ALOT of good has been done......but it has gone to far.

    Builders simply place orders with Canadian firms (We get to smell the wood as it goes by on the train). Minerals and precious metals are produced in Australia, south America and Africa........too expensive here to fight lawyers and unions.

    Too EXTREME.......what do I mean? Strohmeir and Garrity are two of a kind. They are a couple of carbunkles that insist "Man" live in a fish bowl and never leave a footprint. Global Warming aka Climate Change is another farce designed to usurp people of tax monies.....and it is taught and preached right here in "Parasite Central"........the U of M.

    a big YES..........yes to state ownership of these public lands, the feds have always done a terrible job and they are very costly. The oNLY reason the feds still have large land tracts in Montana is because the politicians in Helena like the federal handouts we get from Washington. Cut off the candy and the lands would move to state stewardship.
  2. MTnative82
    Report Abuse
    MTnative82 - January 13, 2013 7:16 pm
    Dear Hellgatenights, I have a few questions for you and others like you who share similar views toward the environment and economy. First off, are you saying that we should continue to log the little remaining old-growth that remains? Second, I have never understood why many Montanans speak out of both sides of their mouths, please help me understand. On one hand you (I assume) are proud to be from Montana for many reasons but none perhaps are as great as our love and admiration for the natural beauty and open spaces we call home. Now, would you rather have Montana look like California or Colorado, or Kentucky? You know for the sake of the economy? Just start logging and mining everything, maybe throw up some new condos in place of a "parasite sector" managed forest? You know, shut out those of us who like to hunt, hike, fish, and camp and instead have fences and private property signs all over the place----sorry but you cant have it both ways and personally I would rather keep our lands public, managed by those parasites, than have it in private hands and private business. Third question, about the parasite sector, do you really believe Montana's public lands are a bad thing? In other words, would you rather have Montana become more like a Kentucky where private lands dominate the landscape, along with mountain-top removal mining, clearcutting without sustainability, and a general unattractive landscape that allows little to no public access for hunting, hiking, fishing, camping, climbing, whatever, etc... etc...? And lastly, are you willing to sacrafice Montana's greatest attribute for the sake of makeing a few bucks---in the short-term to boot? Did we not already learn these lessons from the terrible land abuse of the 19th Century? Are we not STILL trying to fix the problems created from this abuse of over 100 years ago? And lastly, what do you propose? How do you keep Montana wide open, beautiful, accessible and clean, while also creating a strong economy? I do not know, but I DO know you can't go back to 19th century thinking----the rip it up and take what you can get dam the land mentality----its already proven short-lived and tragic.
  3. hellgatenights
    Report Abuse
    hellgatenights - January 13, 2013 3:18 am
    “We’re kind of in a renaissance in western Montana and we have been for the last 40 years – since they started passing environmental legislation, NEPA, the Endangered Species Act and the roadless rules,” he said. “It put a lot of barriers on timber production, but rightly so.

    Dear Mr. Mckay,

    You certainly are ambitious and I commend the fact that you have tried so hard to adapt. I do take umbrage with the comment above, as you seem to place emotional value (Love of big trees) with sound economic sense.

    ** Perhaps the best example I can give is one that you can easily validate. You may recall that there were several, maybe dozens, of college graduates working at Smurfit, and some had masters degrees. Why were they at Smurfit in non-professional jobs? ANSWER: Because they knew that is where the money was. In other words, their degree did not translate to better wages in the professional jobs at Stone, so they worked along side you.

    Now you have all the timber and mill experience and a solid education as well. But where will you find the monies? Answer: The parasite sector or in another state. Why do you think Mayor Large Shanks and his "Central Committee" are always so eager to invite the feds here to "Clean up"? Yes.......that is all the big man can do for a few jobs.....during his tenure thousands of middle class jobs have exited Missoula County.

    ** We did get a new parasite named "Grunke"...he is a real schmart guy and has lots of big ideas about private/public partnerships and he talks real nice. But he has not delivered "ONE" single job in Missoula.....not one. The goal is 2500 and he has two years left to do it. Of course, Grumpy now wants more time because, well, you know.....the economy is so bad. I don't mind him staying........but he should be on 100% commission, like I am. You eat what you kill.

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