Ben Smith grew up in a logging family.

“I had a choice to go to Sunday school or go work with Dad,” Smith said. “I came to Missoula to try line-skidding 18 years ago. I bought out the owner 2½ years ago. It was about a $1 million investment to start, but I keep adding to it.”

Smith’s investment was hard at work last month above Deer Creek Road southeast of Missoula, logging a steep hillside below Kathy and Gary Kahl’s home. The Kahls' project will produce about 80,000 board-feet of timber and 40 tons of pulp wood. The logs will go to Tricon’s mill at St. Regis. The leftovers will go to the Willis Enterprises chipping facility in Bonner, for shipment to a paper factory somewhere in the nation. The value of the logs on the property paid about half of what it costs to mount the logging operation to recover them.

The whole gig costs about $3,500 a day. The Kahls got a grant from the state Forests In Focus program to cover most of their half of the bill. 

When Ben Smith and the 20 loggers he employs for Intermountain Logging Co. go to work in Montana, they’re cutting just the tip of the tree-shaped chart of the American timber industry. The state's forests provide about 1.6 percent of the national timber demand. But they’re doing so on the landscape that’s provided many of the little wedges responsible for industry-wide evolution in the past 60 years.

“We have many fewer mills producing same volume of timber than we used to do with many more mills,” said Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman-based research firm. “The key is now we can do it without people. That’s a seismic shift in the industry.”

Outside forces like housing construction, remodeling trends, and financial interest rate shifts play additional roles. Montana Wood Products Association Director Julia Altemus argued that mechanization in the workforce plays a lesser role than access to wood supply.

“Just because they’re highly mechanized doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth,” Altemus said. “Last year, we laid off 275 direct jobs in the industry. If there was enough wood moving, they could hire these people back.”

***

The loggers themselves have held on hardest. Between 1990 and 2015, Montana’s forest industry employment slid from about 12,000 workers to about 7,000. Most of those losses occurred in the mills. Loggers and other forestry jobs dropped from about 3,000 to about 1,700 in that period, according to statistics compiled by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. Forestry support jobs, such as mechanics, tire dealers and tool vendors, actually reversed that trend by almost identical amounts.

Smith needs roughly the same set-up whether he’s cutting 600 acres near Thompson Falls or 6 acres atop Pattee Canyon. The toughest task involves moving the 110,000-pound Excaline skidder to the site. That typically takes a special low-boy trailer and two pilot cars, costing $180 an hour. It took 15½ hours to position the skidder on the Kahls' horse pasture.

Loggers prefer to drag logs up a steep slope rather than pull them down, even though gravity seems to argue otherwise. Smith said that’s because pulling downhill risks uncontrolled tumbles, and nobody wants to be a bowling pin in that alley. Plus, using the cable to lift a log uphill does much less damage to the soil than letting the log work like a bulldozer plowing dirt into the creek below.

The sawyers actually toppling the trees earn between $400 and $600 a day. But they cover their own expenses such as chainsaws, fuel, mileage and worker’s compensation insurance. The guys driving the heavy equipment earn between $18 and $20 an hour.

The chaser hooking logs to the line skidder gets paid by the ton. It works out to about $25 an hour.

“My biggest challenge is finding guys to hook logs,” Smith said. “It’s really dangerous dragging the chain down and running back up. You’re out year-round in rain, snow, sleet and 100-degree days. I’ve seen guys drinking 4 gallons of water a day doing this.”

Smith’s crew also runs a slide-boom delimber, a machine that grabs a cut tree, snaps all its branches off, and then places it on a deck or truck. It also trims each trunk to exact length, so it will fit sawmill equipment within 2 inches' tolerance.

Then he’s got to do something with the logs. This project will move about three loads of wood a day to Tricon and Bonner. The St. Regis run is about a 14-hour round trip for a log truck.

“We’ve lost a lot of mills,” Smith said. “Now they’re all about 300 miles apart. There’s a lot of cost moving product from one place to another. We spend a lot of time trucking wood around.”

***

Neil Simpson, who supervises the Forest In Focus program for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said many projects like the Kahls' need subsidy because of the poor quality of the timber involved. In the case of Pattee Canyon, it’s mistletoe infestations that deform tree trunks and steep hillsides that make them grow curved.

“This is not that different from a typical commercial sale,” Simpson said. “They’ve left enough trees to regenerate the stand. If this was industrial timberland, it might be the same prescription.”

Kathy and Gary Kahl have owned their 13.5-acre hillside for 33 years. The original Daniels family homesteaders put up a vertical log cabin in 1880s. A one-room schoolhouse stood nearby. When the Hellgate fire roared up the canyon in 1985, the initial attack headquarters was on the Kahls' front porch.

“When the opportunity came up to do something about it, to get rid of the fire danger and open up this stand of trees, we grabbed it,” Gary Kahl said. “In the long run, it will be healthier and regrow. It’s a dramatic change. We had pretty much a wall of trees here before.”

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