COLUMBIA FALLS – Four months after merging with Plum Creek Timber Company, Weyerhaeuser announced it will permanently close its lumber and plywood mill here late this summer.
A “chronic” lack of logs was blamed. Approximately 100 jobs will be lost, according to the company.
Employees were informed of the move at 3 p.m. Wednesday, according to a company spokesman.
Weyerhaeuser said it will continue to operate three Montana mills – a medium-density fiberboard mill in Columbia Falls, a lumber mill in Kalispell and a plywood mill in Kalispell.
Extra shifts will be added to both Kalispell mills according to Tom Ray, Weyerhaeuser Montana Resources Team Leader, and all 130 new positions will be filled by employees who currently work at the Columbia Falls facility.
The Columbia Falls mill employs 230 people, leaving a net loss of 100 jobs.
“We’ll be adding a third shift to the plywood mill in Kalispell, and a second shift to the sawmill,” Ray said. “All 130 jobs will be filled by employees of the Columbia Falls operation.”
For the 100 people who aren’t transferred to Kalispell, Ray said Weyerhaeuser will offer a severance package, placement services and the option of applying for other Weyerhaeuser jobs in other locations.
He declined to say what severance packages would include.
Ray said a “chronic log supply shortage dating back longer than a decade” meant it made more economic sense for Weyerhaeuser to consolidate its Flathead Valley operations, and the company’s president and chief executive officer echoed that.
“For some time now our operations in Montana have been running below capacity as a result of an ongoing shortage of logs in the region,” Doyle R. Simons said. “These closures will allow us to align the available log supply with our manufacturing capacity, including adding additional shifts at our Kalispell facilities. These moves will improve the operating performance of our remaining mills and best position these mills for long-term success.”
Weyerhaeuser had previously decided to move corporate positions that do not support manufacturing in Montana from Columbia Falls to its Seattle headquarters. The closure of the main office in Columbia Falls is scheduled for the end of the year.
The lumber and plywood mill closure will happen in late August or early September, the company said.
Reactions from Montana politicians were quick, and pointed.
“Ultimately, this closure is a consequence of activists who have strayed away from the multiple use doctrine to shut our forests down,” U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., said. “We can’t work, we can’t hunt, we can’t access our lands, but we can watch our forests burn.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who's running against Zinke for Montana's lone U.S. House seat and is one of five members of Montana's Land Board, also weighed in.
"Montana workers should not continue to lose job opportunities because of things that can be fixed by our leaders in Washington,” Juneau said. “Unfortunately, Congress has stopped doing its job. Instead of working together on solutions to improve the health of our forests and provide good-paying jobs for Montanans, the House has become a place of inaction and obstruction. I urge hard-working Montanans to stand with me and demand a change."
Gov. Steve Bullock called it “yet another extremely disappointing example of the federal government’s failure to do its job.”
“Hard-working Montanans shouldn’t have to be forced from good-paying jobs when there is critically important work to be done to improve the health of our forests,” Bullock, a Democrat, said.
Bullock said he would call on Western governors to “stand up to the federal government” and look for “new, responsible ways to open up supply for Montana’s timber industry.”
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., called it “devastating news to the Columbia Falls community and the hardworking families who relied upon these good-paying jobs.”
“This underscores the importance to urgently pass forest reform legislation to get Montana’s abundance of logs to our mills and keep good-paying jobs in our state,” Daines said. “I will not sit idly by and watch Montana jobs disappear and families suffer as a result of frivolous lawsuits by fringe environmentalists and excessive regulations.”
U.S. Sen Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is pushing the Obama administration and Canadian officials to come to a new Softwood Lumber agreement he says would level the playing field for Montana wood products against foreign competition, called the announcement "a major blow to folks in Columbia Falls and across the Flathead Valley."
"I will continue to push to create more job opportunities and increase timber harvests in the Flathead because I believe it is critical that everyone laid off at Weyerhaeuser has the opportunity to attain a good-paying job here at home," Tester said.
Weyerhaeuser owns or controls more than 13 million acres of timberlands, primarily in the United States, and manage additional timberlands under long-term licenses in Canada. Prior to the February merger with Plum Creek, the two companies in 2015 generated approximately $8.5 billion in net sales combined, and employed nearly 14,000 people worldwide combined.