At Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge, about 50 of its 160-person workforce got pink slips this fall – but owner Sherm Anderson says the sawmill and timber company is still losing money.
“We laid off one shift, and all that does is slow down the bleeding, to where you think you can absorb the loss,” he told MTN News. “It doesn’t make you profitable. The question is, how long can that go on?”
Sun Mountain isn’t alone; almost all of Montana’s sawmills and lumber plants have seen cutbacks in hours or personnel this year. A perfect storm of market and other forces is bludgeoning an iconic Montana industry that already has shrunk dramatically in the past three decades, from more than 30 mills down to nine solid-wood sawmills today. Export markets for finished lumber have withered, the strong U.S. dollar has made Canadian lumber much cheaper, and domestic demand for lumber remains below pre-recession levels, industry officials say.
But one thing that could help the industry survive – an adequate, affordable supply of raw logs, particularly from national forests – remains difficult to obtain. “That would not only be helpful; that’s the life blood (of our mills),” says Anderson. “If, in fact, we don’t (have that), there may not be any mills left.”
In 1995, 350 million board feet of timber was cut in the national forests in Montana and the Northern Region, which also includes northern Idaho and the Dakotas. For the past five years, the annual average is less than half that amount.