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Timber legacy offers few lessons for industry future

From the Can Montana’s timber industry outgrow its history? series
  • 8 min to read

If you want to visualize Missoula's timber history, ride a bike.

Start at Bonner Elementary School and wonder at the massive yellow structure across the street. That was once the world's largest plywood plant. Behind it was a sawmill. And right across the river was another sawmill.

Logs arrived at first by floating down the Blackfoot River. Through the first half of the 20th century, the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. mainly squared them off for mine tunnel timbers, tossing away slabs that today's mills would turn into 2-by-12s. Bonner Elementary School had a “slab yard” as big as a playground, piled 10 feet deep with those rejects for winter firewood.

Pedal down one of those locomotive right-of-ways to the Clark Fork River. In the near future, you'll be able to bike past its confluence with the Blackfoot, now that the Milltown Dam that originally powered the lumber mills has been removed.

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The Anaconda Copper Mining Co.'s large sawmill in Bonner produced 8,000 truck-loads of lumber a year just to line mine shafts in the 1920s and '30s as it cut old-growth trees from what's now Lubrecht Experimental Forest northeast of Missoula. When the company sold the mill to U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers Inc. in 1972, workers chainsawed the Anaconda sign down and burned it.

Once on the rail bed now known as the Kim Williams Trail, it’s a short ride to the Osprey Baseball Stadium. Its foundations rest on steel I-beams pounded 50 feet deep into sawdust left from the Polley Co. sawmill wood lot.

Continue on to Silver Park, built on the old Polley grounds. It later became a Champion International mill until it closed in 1990.

Find the intersection with the Bitterroot Branch trail. If you could bike north across the Clark Fork, you’d reach the former White Pine Sash millsite that’s now the City of Missoula’s maintenance lot. Bend to the northwest and you’ll reach the Roseburg Forest Products Co. – Missoula’s only still-active wood manufacturing plant. But it makes composite board from shavings, not raw logs.

Point your bike southwest on the Bitterroot Branch Trail and you’ll soon reach the for-sale sign outside Plum Creek Timber Co.’s Missoula headquarters. A few years ago, 16 foresters and their colleagues managed more than 300,000 acres of private forest from those offices. Most of that land now belongs to either The Nature Conservancy, the state of Montana or the Forest Service through the $490 million Montana Legacy Project.

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Growth rings on a tree cross-section show it started growing the same year that F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. was established in Columbia Falls in 1923. Stoltze is the oldest of the six family-owned companies and seven sawmills still operating in Montana. 

A little bit past the Plum Creek campus was the Intermountain Lumber Mill site, near where Russell Street meets Third Street West. It's now an apartment complex and Salvation Army office.

Pedal some more and you'll come to the Hamilton Lumber Co. mill, or as Missoulians now know it, Southgate Mall. Head west on South Avenue about 2 miles and reach Fort Missoula, where the Civilian Conservation Corps workers bunked between forays into the surrounding mountains building fire trails. This is where the UM School of Forestry holds its annual Logging Day demonstrations and maintains a museum of the era.

From here, you might abandon the bike for a canoe and float down the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers 20 miles to Frenchtown and the former Hoerner Waldorf Corp. pulp mill. Known more recently as Smurfit-Stone Container, it's now another federal Superfund site, like Milltown Dam’s reservoir and the ground around White Pine. But in the 1970s, its air and water pollution troubles nurtured Missoula's environmentalist community.

Over the next three decades, that timber legacy would clash with both environmental and economic forces in what residents look back on as The Timber Wars. Montana woods workers peaked in 1978 with 13,494 jobs in logging, trucking, milling and support jobs. Last year, that figure was about 7,000. In 1990, those workers fed 36 large mills throughout the state. Today, 10 mills remain in operation.

Many people look to that early-1990s period as the ideal. It’s where Sen. Steve Daines typically starts his presentation timeline when discussing plans to revive the Montana timber industry, if only it could get the wood. But a larger historical perspective indicates that wasn’t just the high mark – it was where the industry climbed so far out on a limb it had no choice but to fall.

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Retired University of Montana forest economist Alan McQuillan was starting his graduate studies in 1971, just as the timber industry was torn by two separate forces. UM Forestry Dean Arnold Bolle had just released the “Bolle Report,” which demonstrated how the U.S. Forest Service had neglected its duties to protect watersheds, wildlife habitat and recreation in an economically irrational pursuit of delivering timber to industry.

McQuillan recalled an evening trip to the Club Chateau restaurant in East Missoula, where Bolle and colleagues were defending their report to a meeting of the American Society of Foresters.

“It was like a lynch mob,” McQuillan recalled. “There was all this energy and hatred and venom going around in that room – it was just amazing.”

And in 1972, U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers Inc. bought the Anaconda Company’s timberlands and the Bonner mill facility. Every employee got a pink slip and had to reapply for a smaller pool of jobs. On the hand-over day, a team of loggers chainsawed down the Anaconda gateway sign and burned it.

That year, C.E.O. Karl Bendetsen sent a memo to his key executives, explaining the company’s “Forest Management Policy and Procedure Guidelines for Montana Forest Lands.” McQuillan still has a copy of the memo.

“The main goal of management is to assure that these forest lands are operated on a sustained yield operating basis,” Bendetsen’s message started.

“It is anticipated that this first operating plan will be for a period of 18 years. During this period the remaining old growth timber will be removed.”

That strategy wasn’t made public, but the public soon noticed. Timber companies throughout the Pacific Northwest embarked on an “accelerated old-growth liquidation” policy. That same year, President Richard Nixon called on Congress “to pass a stronger law to protect endangered species of wildlife.” Congress responded by passing the Endangered Species Act unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 390-12 in the House of Representatives.

McQuillan pointed out the old-growth strategy made economic, if not ecological sense.

“The rationale was, they’re sitting on 100- to 500-year old trees,”McQuillan said. “These are the big, 2- to 4-foot-diameter trees. They’re not growing anymore. The amount of new growth and mortality per acre is equal. So the asset is not growing. It’s occupying space that could be producing new timber. So you cut it.

“Plus, it’s at risk from fire and insects and changing environmental attitudes that might restrict cutting – so you cut it. Private industry fears further restrictions, so it moves to cut all its old-growth within 20 years. And that’s what they do.

“If Champion cut one-third or one-fourth of what they did, they would still be running today,” McQuillan said. “The tension was between the people who thought like foresters and the people who thought like corporate people.”

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Sawmill worker Ben McMurray guides logs onto the slip at the Anaconda Copper Mining Co plant in Bonner some time before 1908. Lumber and plywood mills in Bonner and Milltown employed hundreds of workers through the 20th Century before the final plant closed in 2007. Today, Willis Enterprises operates a wood-chipping facility using timber too inferior for lumber production.

Champion, as it came to be known, nearly tripled its industrial timber harvest between 1973 and 1986. The Bonner mill needed “peeler” logs at least 16 feet long, which were mounted on massive lathes and shaved into sheets of veneer. The new owners quickly turned the Bonner mill into the world’s largest plywood plant, producing 1 million lineal feet of plywood every 24 hours, worth $1 million a month.

But there were problems with the math. McQuillan went to work for Champion in 1978, tasked with developing a “level of harvest” study showing how long the company’s wood inventory would last at various cutting tempos.

He was told the company practiced “shelter-wood cutting” where a plot was 80 percent clearcut and 20 percent of the trees were left to provide wildlife shelter and seeds for future stands.

“But it turned out they weren’t doing shelter-wood cutting,” McQuillan said. “That was just for show. So I had to redo all of that work.”

It also turned out the formula used to calculate how much lumber could be cut from each tree trunk was wrong. It was designed for West Coast trees, which grow like bullets: long and uniform until they come to a point near the top. Montana trees, in their drier, tougher terrain, grow like arrowheads: wide at the base and progressively narrowing to a point.

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Rough-sawn planks await grading in F.H. Stoltze’s sawmill in Columbia Falls. While Montana provides less than 2 percent of the U.S. national lumber demand, its slow-growing trees produce boards two or three times stronger than wood from the dominant supply regions of the Southeast. Despite contributing such a small portion of the timber industry’s production, Montana has played an outsized role in setting forest management policy.

The difference seems inconsequential until the log reaches the mill. In the 1970s, tree trunks arrived in 32-foot lengths. The wider, lower 16 feet spun on the lathes in the plywood mill. The upper half became 2-by-8s and 2-by-6s. As the boles dwindled in the 1980s, the sawmill downshifted to 2-by-4s and the lathes got power backup rollers so they could peel a log down to a 3-inch core, instead of stopping at 6 inches. That put another crimp in Champion’s inventory.

The outside world wasn’t standing still either. The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo helped kick U.S. inflation rates from 3.2 percent to 7.7 percent. By 1975, inflation reached 9.1 percent and the unemployment rate went from 5.1 percent to 9 percent. The housing market, and the rest of the economy, went into deep recession.

Through the 1960s, the Forest Service had been selling an average 10 billion board-feet of public timber a year. Responding to the Bolle Report and related research, the agency throttled back its allowable cut by half. In 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act and the agency developed rules to preserve old-growth habitat.

Orville Daniels was the Bitterroot National Forest supervisor from 1970 to 1974. After two huge wildfires burned the Sleeping Child and Saddle Mountain drainages in 1961, his foresters proposed salvage-logging the whole thing.

“They went to 90 million board-feet, and kept it up for 10 years when the sustained yield for the Bitterroot was calculated to be 25 million (a year),” Daniels said. “It opened up so much country and put in so many roads – we were cutting almost four times the historic rate.”

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 made the Forest Service literally look at the forest rather than the trees.

“After that, we were not in the business of producing wood – we’re in the business of sustaining landscape ecology,” Daniels said. “It definitely changed the amount of wood that could be harvested. We dropped about 75 percent of the wood coming off the national forests. At the same time, the private lands started harvesting heavily to fill that void. They overcut their lands to the point they didn’t have timber to cut, so they decided to sell it off.”

In 1979, the federal funds interest rate reached 11 percent. By 1981, it hit 20 percent. Unable to borrow money on the financial market, timber companies like Champion looked even harder at their fungible assets – their privately owned wood inventories.

President Ronald Reagan’s administration added its own push. In 1980, Assistant Secretary of Agriculture John Crowell announced plans to return the Forest Service cut to 1960s levels. In what McQuillan called a “conspiracy of optimism,” federal harvest plans assumed best-case scenarios for everything from allocated budgets to wildfire and insect activity. They also ignored what was happening on the private industrial lands checkerboarded alongside them.

The next decade devolved into what’s now known as the Timber Wars. The radical environmentalist group Earth First! hit the stage in 1980, and much of its tree-sitting, bulldozer-chaining direct action protests were directed from a headquarters office above what’s now the Plonk wine bar on North Higgins Avenue. Ironically, the tree-spiking tactics for which Earth First! was most vilified were adopted from loggers, who used to hammer long metal spikes in the trees of competing timber companies to sabotage their sawmills.

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During the 1970s and ’80s, the plywood mill facility in Bonner was the largest of its kind in the world. Today, the site has been redeveloped with small businesses, including a data company that wants to create 65 new jobs.

On the other end of the spectrum, in 1989, a Hungry Horse woman named Peggy Wagner started making wooden signs painted fluorescent green that read “This family supported by timber dollars.” After producing 10,000 of them, she passed the stencil on to at least 53 other advocates who carried on the message for years.

But by then Montana’s private old-growth forests were gone. In 1993, just as Karl Bendetsen had predicted, Champion abruptly sold its Bonner and Libby mills to Stimson Lumber Co. About 600 mill workers lost their jobs overnight.

As part of the deal, Plum Creek bought 876,000 acres of Champion timberland for about $300 an acre, and committed to supplying a million board-feet of timber a year to Stimson’s mills for 10 years. In 2002, Stimson closed the Libby plywood mill and put 300 people out of work. The Bonner mill hung on for five more years, closing in 2007.

Plum Creek also started shedding its harvested lands to vacation, conservation and public buyers. In 2004, it sold 89,000 acres to the Blackfoot Challenge for $70 million. Four years later, a consortium of land trust organizations put together the Montana Legacy Project and won federal funding to buy another 310,000 acres from Plum Creek for $490 million. That included most of the Gold Creek drainage cut over by Champion in the 1970s and '80s.

On Feb. 28, Weyerhaeuser Co. bought Plum Creek for $8.4 billion. Four months later, it closed the plywood and lumber mills in Columbia Falls, eliminating 72 jobs. Another hundred positions will go dark this December, when the “Cedar Palace” corporate headquarters duties are absorbed by Weyerhaeuser’s new offices in downtown Seattle. Weyerhaeuser Montana Resources Team Leader Tom Ray cited a “chronic log supply shortage dating back longer than a decade.”

Correction: This article has received two corrections since it was published on Sunday. Alan McQuillan's comment about 6- to 10-foot-diameter logs referred to trees growing in Washington, and has been changed to 2- to 4-foot diameter logs that are common old-growth in Montana. And McQuillan's reference to peeler logs being 16 inches around has been changed to 16 feet long.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.