The Tragic Tale of Montana Logging

The inability of Congress to act and provide proper funding, has advanced a strong movement in Montana, led by state Senator Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) to push for the transfer of federal lands back to the state for proper management and supervision. 

By Taylor Rose l October 20, 2015

While the news headlines are littered with stories about the boom and bust cycles of petroleum and coal, timber is often the forgotten natural resource. States like Oregon, Washington, northern California and Idaho are now more known for their lush forests as places of tourism, rather than industry.

The same is true of Montana, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful states in the union, with one of the highest levels of poverty. Now, freshman Senator Steve Daines would often quote a constituent during his 2014 campaign, describing the former logging town of Eureka, as having “poverty with a view.”

Keith Olsen, the Executive Director of the Montana Logging Association spoke with SFPPR News and Analysis on the sad state of affairs governing the Montana timber industry.

Olsen says the logging industry was at its “height” in the 1960s and 1970s, where “dozens of mills” operated across Big Sky Country. Now, sadly, “there are only a handful.” Libby, Montana, once one of the major commercial logging hubs in Northwest Montana finds the nearest mill in northern Idaho or an hour and a half to Kalispell.

The culprit behind the decline of Montana’s logging industry is the federal regulatory morass. “There are a myriad of rules and regulations that come out of Congress,” explains Olsen, and they turn the rule making processes over to the federal agencies like Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service.

Olsen says “government agencies, largely the U.S. Forest Service, control or own two-thirds of the forests in Montana.”

This regulatory morass has severely limited timber production to “producing maybe 20 percent of the total volume needed to maintain the milling infrastructure. It used to be over 50 percent. Now, the manufacturing industry could not be sustained on the declining volume produced.”

Olsen clarifies saying “no doubt “market fluctuations” can also account for the decline in timber production, but there is also no doubt that the drop of timber industry production in Montana is attributable to the “entrenchment of the federal government.”

The laws severely impacting Montana’s logging industry are the National Forest Management Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Bureau of Business and Economic Research has charted the decline of Montana timber output, noting that the state of Montana in 2011, only cut and sold about 150 million board feet compared to cutting and selling about 500 million board feet in 1980.

If any positive reforms are to come, Congress must lead the way. But even that might not be enough, according to Olsen, as “Congress has got a lot of proposals out there.” But it is the regulatory agencies that are strangling the timber industry.  Olsen says, “the elephant in the room is the U.S. Forest Service and they have got to get back to being the stewards of the forests.”

Proper management is what isrequired in order to get the timber industry back on track and thanks to years of mismanagement many Montana forests are overgrown and unhealthy making them, in Olsen’s words, “a brush pile waiting for a match.

Thanks to a lack of funding due to never ending litigation costs, the Forest Service has been stripped of most of its forestry personnel. The distraction of having to spend money on litigation, “negates the role of stewardship” for the U.S. Forest Service and instead their budget is based on “responsive budgeting or crisis management.”

Often times, funds that could have been used for fire management or clean up are instead redirected to litigation costs.

The Equal Access to Justice Act is responsible for the heavy litigation burden. This allows plaintiffs to recoup court fees and attorney costs if the federal government’s position in a court case is found to be “without substantial justification.” This has led to a massive increase in environmentalist groups suing the U.S. Forest Service, leading to a massive closure of commercial logging land and access for recreation.

Additionally, the problem revolves around Congress’ unwillingness to plan and act. By Olsen’s estimation, “Congress isn’t interested in passing budgets, rather they are interested in passing continuing resolutions,” which runs the risk of unforeseen budget cuts. It makes it very difficult to plan ahead.

Montana’s cries for forest reform are unlikely to be heard nationally since the state  only has three members of Congress – two senators and one representative, while the other Western states also have small delegations.  It does not give them a strong voice in the face of many larger states, especially New York and California.

There are some glimmers of hope, however.

Olsen says it was “encouraging” to see Steve Daines win his election to the U.S. Senate knowing he will make forest reform a top priority and get something done early,” with an eye toward a Republican president in the White House in 2016.

Montana’s lone congressman, Ryan Zinke, has introduced H.R. 2644 the National Forest Health Collaborative Incentive Act of 2015, which will, according to Montana Public Radio, “prevent unnecessary litigation, improve forest health and help prevent wildfires.”

The inability of Congress to act and provide proper funding, has advanced a strong movement in Montana, led by state Senator Jennifer Fielder (R-Thompson Falls) to push for the transfer of federal lands back to the state for proper management and supervision.

Canada may provide a model. Whereas, Lincoln and Flathead counties on the border with British Columbia and Alberta, have seen their logging industries nearly disappear altogether, across the northern border Canada still has a vibrant forest economy.

Olsen has observed this trend saying “Canada has been very job sensitive” in regard to their forest policy. They don’t have such limiting legislation as the lower 48 states, and they “also have a government that is more concerned about getting their people jobs, rather than institutionalizing regulations.”

Another possible hope for positive change could come from the use of biomass. Trees are one source of biomass, and, according to Olsen “there is a ton of biomass in Montana.”

If biomass could become profitable, it “would be a huge benefit to manufacturing and harvesting infrastructure in Montana.”

Montana Forestry Employment

He adds that Montana’s timber manufacturing is designed to accommodate this change in the use of timber products and if the population continues to demand products from the forests, this could encourage the generation of more supply. “I would like to think that biomass has a great future,” Olsen declared.

But again, the problem with biomass is the same as it is with other timber products, there is a lot of supply, with little to no means to extract it thanks to onerous federal regulations.

When asked what he thought the future of Montana’s logging industry was, Olsen responded, “I really don’t know,” adding that there are too many unknowns to say that the logging industry will be eliminated altogether, but he did add that places such as Libby could become the new norm.

Taylor Rose is a graduate of Liberty University with a B.A. in International Relations from the Helms School of Government. Fluent in English and German he has worked and studied throughout Europe specializing in American and European politics.  He is a prolific writer and author of the book Return of the Right an analysis on the revival of Conservatism in the United States and Europe. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.