Forty years after the Montana Logging Association was founded, the group met Saturday morning to look at an industry in limbo and what needs to change so it will thrive.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., addressed the MLA attendees, hopeful that a bill containing forest management reform that passed the U.S. House recently would soon make it through the Senate, into a conference committee and onto President Barack Obama's desk before the end of the year. Either that, he said, or the Senate would try to pass a standalone bill.
"I just got news last night (Friday) of positive discussion being had with the Energy Resources Committee leadership," said Daines, who serves on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"The current state of our forests, frankly, is tragic. You can see the clear difference between federal ground, state ground and private ground. It's tragic that our mills have to go hundreds of miles to get logs to supply."
Daines emphasized the importance of establishing "common-sense" forest management practices now to create healthy forests, rather than "waiting until Mother Nature makes that decision for us."
"Compounding the risk are years of inadequate forest management practices spurred by obstructionist litigation by fringe groups as well as excessive regulations," he said. "Our friends of the U.S. Forest Service are being forced to spend much of their budget on responding to fires rather than preventing those fires in the first place. We need to equip the Forest Service with the tools they need to succeed. We need reforms to dramatically increase the pace and scale of restoration to address the enormous challenges and the persistent threats to our communities and to our environment."
Timber harvests in Montana's national forests are down 78 percent since 1987. Forest industry employment has dropped from 12,000 jobs in 1990 to 7,000 jobs today.
Under the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, about 5 million acres of Montana's national forests were identified for priority forest restoration work, "allowing us to address some of the standing dead timber that we have as a result of the beetle kill," Daines said. Two years later, 6,200 acres are in process for approval.
MLA executive director Keith Olson was encouraged by Daines' remarks. He, like everyone else at the meeting, wants to see the fire-borrowing funding issue fixed.
"Everybody knows we've got to come up with a way to fund wildfires," Olson said of the fire-borrowing problem. "But then how much policy reforms go along, because I think on the more conservative side the belief is throwing money at wildfires isn't the answer if we're not going to go out and make our forests healthy. And then of course on the other side of that argument there are groups that just are real nervous, real concerned about changing forest policy."
"It's an industry in flex," said Kate Wehr, who works for King Mountain Forestry LLC in Deer Lodge alongside her husband, owner Forest Wehr.
U.S. Forest Service Region 1 acting director of renewable resources management Christine Dawe talked to attendees about the industry's age gap: older loggers are retiring, taking institutional knowledge and skills with them before the Forest Service can find younger workers to take their place, mostly in rural areas, and retain them when they do.
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Eighty percent of Dawe's staff has turned over in the past 18 months, all but one of which was retirements.
It's time to get creative, she said, noting that the Forest Service has hired a staff member devoted solely to outreach. They've also taken about 20 seasonal workers from the regional timber strike team and moved them into full-time positions, added more silviculturists and started timber sale administration trainings.
"In this agency, there's an expectation that you'll pick up and move," she said. "There are pros and cons to that ... the (lack of) continuity, the relationships you build with the community."
Companies like King Mountain have gotten creative, too, diversifying their work to ride out a constantly fluctuating industry.
Kate Wehr expects to see the different arms of the logging and timber industries shift to accommodate this new mindset, with more focus on conservation and environmental impact rather than "the old school log-on-a-truck."
"I think it's overblown a little bit," Olson said of the age issue. "It's true. But we have a lot of good young loggers out there, but they're struggling to bring in the employees they need."
In a presentation by Bureau of Business and Economic Research research specialist Chelsea McIver, she looked at a 2014 study by Auburn University associate professor Yaoqi Zhang, which found that it can take up to four years for logging industry supervisors to become proficient in the West.
"Even experienced people, it can take awhile to get them integrated so they know the way you operate," said Forest Wehr. "Sometimes it's harder to unlearn than it is to learn. When I first started ... I worked for a rancher friend of mine. I was 19. He asked me all these machines, if I knew how to run them, I said no and he said, 'Good. I'd rather train you to learn my way than have a bunch of bad habits I've got to undo.' "
Wehr said he's found some solid young workers, but it's a challenge. Logging is an unpredictable line of work.
"One of the challenges isn't just young people, it's the so-called millennial group," Olson said. "We are as an industry, and I think all natural resource industries, probably struggling a little bit with understanding them but also making the job fit the lifestyle they're going to want, because if we can't do that, they're going to go do something else."
It represents a cultural shift that the timber and logging industries haven't quite caught up to, he said.
"The millennials are expecting a little more from their employers and we're trying to figure out how to get it and still get logs on trucks," he said.
Kate Wehr said she sees a lot of turnover in the younger crowd because entering into the industry isn't always "glamorous work," and she sees many who "don't want to do the grunt work" to move up in the field.
"If you go to demo someplace, they've got great equipment, they jump up in that air-conditioned cab," Olson said. "I mean, it's Star Wars. There are buttons and levers, all the things they grew up with as kids. They look at that and man, they're really excited, but then they gotta get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and go to the job and it starts to lose its glamour."