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Timber wars inspired Missoula's environmental movement

From the Can Montana’s timber industry outgrow its history? series
  • 5 min to read
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Since the plant closed in 2010, the cooling ponds next to the former Smurfit-Stone Container pulp mill have mostly dried up. For much of its operating time in the previous decades, air pollution from the paper-making process motivated Missoula's early environmental movement. Its consumption of wood pulp from area sawmills was also crucial to the economic web supporting Montana's timber industry.

Missoula, the timber industry and the University of Montana have a fractured family relationship.

Much of the city grew from the state’s need for lumber. Sawmills located here because the Clark Fork and Blackfoot rivers, and even Rattlesnake Creek, could float the huge trees that grew around them to the log yards. The university got into the forestry world in 1908, training rangers for the nation’s first national forests.

The Great Burn of 1910 blackened 3.1 million acres of Forest Service Region 1, headquartered in Missoula. The fires focused public attention both on the nation’s need for lumber and the challenge of managing its public forests. Early research on fire science, smokejumpers, and sustainable-yield harvesting all have deep roots in Missoula.

Smoky the Bear taught us all to keep fire out of the forest, but University of Montana and Rocky Mountain Fire Science Lab researchers eventually showed that made the fires worse.

The timber industry wrote thousands of paychecks to Missoulians making plywood, lumber and paper. But the pollution and ecological damage from those commodities produced their own backlash.

“We were given the best piece of property on the planet, and we sure monkeyed around with it,” said Jim Burchfield, who led the UM College of Forestry and Conservation for seven years. “Now we have some credibility issues.”

Burchfield also spent several years directing UM's Bolle Center for People and Forests. Namesake Dean of Forestry Arnold Bolle produced a report for Congress in 1970 detailing how the Forest Service had let timber production overwhelm its other duties to provide clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation on national forests.

Burchfield recalled his time as a private forester in the 1980s, watching timber companies clear-cut Washington’s Snoqualmie National Forest – “hacking off 640 acres at a crack, chopping down silver pines and letting the tops snap off, only taking the butt logs.” The industry has undergone a radical shift for the better, he believes.

“The old-school characterization of the ‘timber beast’ is dead,” Burchfield said. “Our mills used to have a problem with the economy of scale. It was like trying to feed the elephant from the backyard garden. Now the timber industry in Montana has retooled itself to a size it can sustain.”

But that means calculating the business math of managing forests in a much more complex way.

“Our view of the economic value of forests is incomplete," Burchfield said. "We don’t value ecological services like wildlife habitat, scenic beauty, recreational opportunities, clean water, pollination. We get all that free from the system. That leads us to make wrong assumptions that those things are worth zero, when in fact they are worth a spectacular amount.”


Long-time Missoulians remember the dead-diaper smell that used to fill the valley when then-Hoerner Waldorf Co.’s pulp mill fumes dominated the winter air inversions. That smell, and the related gunk in the Clark Fork River, drove a new mission on the UM campus.

“Missoula made Time Magazine in terms of air pollution in the late 1960s,” recalled retired University of Montana chemistry professor Ron Erickson. “I gave my first environmental talk in January 1970 on what we called ‘The Crisis of Crises.’ It was a global problem, including global warming.”

Professors from across the UM campus came together to create a graduate program in environmental studies. By the fall of 1970, the state Board of Regents authorized what became known as the EVST program. Botanist Clancy Gordon led the charge, assisted by Erickson, biologist Les Pengelly, economist Tom Power and botanist Meyer Chessin, among others.

One of EVST's early projects sent students in boats to Hoerner Waldorf’s cooling ponds along the Clark Fork. They discovered that decomposing sludge in the ponds produced the hydrogen sulfide stinking up the air. Aerating the water reduced the air pollution, in what Erickson called “a science-based success.”

Jake Kreilick was one of the students who came to the Environmental Studies Program in 1985. He also joined the fledgling Earth First! movement that had a publishing office above what’s now the Plonk Wine Bar in downtown Missoula.

“There was a log truck on every corner,” Kreilick recalled. “The Champion stud mill downtown was still going. The high-end private lands were still being liquidated. People were starting to see the destruction and the clearcuts. We weren’t getting the shelter-belt woods and seed-tree stands they promised.”

Earth First! and related groups turned logging practices into a national debate with their direct-action protests like camping atop old-growth trees and chaining themselves to road gates. In 1989, a mailed threat to spike trees on national forests drew intense surveillance from the FBI in Missoula.

Erickson, Kreilick, and several other students had to submit hair and fingerprint samples in the investigation. Gov. Steve Bullock’s current chief of staff, Tracy Stone-Manning, was a student in the Environmental Studies program at the time. She testified in court under a grant of immunity against the man who was eventually convicted of writing the letter and spiking the Post Office Creek timber sale in Idaho.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service whipsawed between presidential pendulum swings. Under President Reagan, the agency resumed building roads and offering timber at nearly double the rate it offered at the end of the Carter Administration. But the Bush Administration reversed that trend as the effects of Endangered Species Act protections on northern spotted owl habitat along the Pacific Coast took effect. Federal wood supply dropped even further under President Clinton as his Forest Service leaders considered the impact of roads on the landscape.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, we wanted to put roads into the forest, and using timber was a way to do that,” said Todd Morgan, timber analyst for the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “The road network has its own uses beyond getting timber. Recreation use is based on that road network. Firefighting is supported by the road network. The whole idea was that timber was generating revenue, and that paid for a lot of other things. They were able to charge lots of things to the timber receipts."

But the agency was also busted for using tax dollars to build roads the timber receipts couldn't pay for. A 1994 General Accounting Office study faulted national forest managers for being "overwhelmingly dependent on timber sales for funds," even in places where the sales were uneconomical. Depending on what costs were included, the study found the Forest Service lost between $36.6 million and $112 million in below-cost timber sales in 1990. The Congressional Budget Office similarly concluded that on average, the Forest Service spent three times as much as it made on timber sales throughout the 1980s.

The Forest Service went through two attempts at "Roadless Area Review and Evaluation'' to catalog what roadless places it had left. The final version concluded about 30 percent of the National Forest System totaling 58.5 million acres remained pristine, including 6.4 million roadless acres in Montana.

Montana has 32,000 miles of Forest Service roads, but construction of new roads was virtually halted in 2001.

“What we’re doing now is nowhere like what we were doing in the ‘70s,” Morgan said. “In the environmental community, they’re fighting against the history of the Forest Service and not what’s going on today. We’ve had 40-plus years of growth and death and change in the forest.”

Burchfield sees three major factors on the horizon that must be addressed.

“The first is climate change, and that train has already left the station,” Burchfield said. “It will affect tree growth, wildfire, water supplies and wildlife habitat.

"The second is that honeycomb of roads. They’re the vector for invasive species, for interference with hydrological patterns, and wildlife disturbances. The Forest Service has done a remarkable job removing roads but their budget has been hacked to shreds.

"That's third: They’re not funding fires, and they have had staggering personnel losses.

"We have the right laws and training and will. We just need the workers to actually do it. We need people to work in the woods.”

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