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Montana’s forests, outdoor recreation opportunities and other natural resources draw economically significant numbers of tourists, students and jobs in Missoula County. The forest products industry is also on the rebound in the state due to tariffs and increased timber harvest limits put in place after a disastrous wildfire season. That's all according to a panel of experts convened by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

“Visitors come here because of our natural resources,” said University of Montana president Seth Bodnar. “Missoula and Montana is a special place because of forests and natural resources. They fuel our culture, fuel our economy and fuel our recreation. It’s just an integral part of what makes this state the special place it is.”

Barb Neilan, the executive director of Destination Missoula, said tourism is one of the most important industries in the state and depends on outdoor attractions.

“Tourism is a huge piece of our economy and something we need to protect,” she said.

In 2017, she said, 12.5 million people came to Montana and spent $3.4 billion here. The tourism industry also supports 53,000 jobs that paid $1.4 billion in wages.

“Tourism has gotten a bad rap as being entry-level and not very good jobs, but that’s really changed over the years,” Neilan said.

In Missoula County, Neilan said 2.88 million visitors come here every year and pump $294.9 million into the economy. Montana’s bed tax collections go to wildlife management, tribal tourism, historical interpretation and the state’s general fund.

“That money goes into paying for roads, paying for health care and paying for all the things that are really important to us,” Neilan said. “It’s a huge contributor to our economy and our well-being.”

Neilan said tourists spend money at restaurants, bars, hotels, grocery stores, outfitters, guides and local retail shops.

One of Neilan’s hardest jobs, she said, is trying to get people to come here for the first time. Missoula isn’t a ski destination, is hours from the nearest national park and doesn’t have any specific thing that is hugely captivating for the out-of-state market, she said. Yet when people do come here, she said, 84 percent of them return within two years.

“We have to preserve the health of our forests and clean water and all the things that attract people to Montana,” she said. “People enjoy the natural resources we have.”

The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual Forestry Tour on Thursday to give local foresters, business leaders and interested community members a look into different efforts to preserve, maintain and restore nearby wildlands and timber harvest districts.

Recently, researchers at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at the University of Montana compiled a report on the state of Montana’s forestry industry. For many years, Montana’s largest manufacturing sector employer was the wood products industry, but recently that was surpassed by the fabricated metals industry. In 2000, wood and paper jobs were 28 percent of the state’s manufacturing employment and 31 percent of labor income, according to study authors Dorian Smith, Steven Hayes and Kate Marcille.

In 2016, only 13 percent of jobs and 11 percent of income was generated by wood products manufacturing. In late 2009, for example, the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. in Frenchtown, which processed logs for various products, put 417 people out of work.

However, the study's authors said Montana’s wood products industry is on the rise again due to a commitment from the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to address forest health and increase timber harvest levels.

Companies like Idaho Forest Group, which owns and operates a sawmill in St. Regis west of Missoula, are planning on doubling capacity. SmartLam, a company that manufactures cross-laminated timber products in Columbia Falls, plans to hire 75 workers in 2019. 

Chuck Roady, the vice president of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber in Columbia Falls and a board member of the Montana Wood Products Association, said tariffs on imported Canadian softwood lumber have boosted Montana mills.

"It has been beneficial to our industry, very much," he told the Missoulian this summer. "We have 135 employees, and we’re running two shifts now. We have the same problem as every other business. It’s hard to find employees. Anybody that’s interviewed and come in, we’ve tried to hire.”

Partly in reaction to the devastating fire season of 2017 in Montana, which was the most expensive on record and choked valleys with smoke, the U.S. Forest Service is planning on increasing timber harvests in the region.

“To decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfires and beetle kill, we are applying several treatment methods: thinning, prescribed fires and timber harvests,” said Carol McKenzie, acting director of the Forest Service’s renewable resources management for Region 1, which includes Montana.

McKenzie told the BBER that planned timber harvests for Region 1 will increase 55 percent, from 321 million board feet in 2017 to an estimated 500 million board feet in 2022. The agency is recommending increasing thinned areas from 24,000 acres to 40,000 acres every year.

Tom DeLuca, the dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at UM, told the forestry tour crowd on Tuesday that the school is focused on sustainability and teaching students how managed forests can also be healthy natural ecosystems.

"We're looking at a restoration effort to bring those forests back to a natural and resilient function," he said.

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