Bill Fenner has cut timber along the Rocky Mountain Front for decades, but the logging industry in the 21st century isn’t what it was 30 years ago.

Tightening regulations, slimmer profit margins and diminished access to standing timber have led to deep consolidation within the forest products industry. Today, only seven major lumber mills remain in operation in Montana, and little remains of the scores of small, family-run logging and milling operations that once dotted the forests of Montana.

But with financial help from the Great Falls Development Authority, Fenner is now preparing to open a new, rough-cut lumber mill outside Babb that promises to keep independent logging alive in North Central Montana.

Fenner’s introduction to the timber industry began in 1967. He was 24 when he left a truck driving job in Glacier National Park to fall timber to supply a now defunct sawmill that once operated in Browning. “They were looking for trainee sawyers,” Fenner said of his decision to sign on with the Rex Brown Logging Company almost 50 years ago. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m no cutter, but there’s got to be more money in life than driving truck for Glacier National Park.”

Earning $5 per 1,000 board feet of timber delivered, Fenner came away more than doubling the $1.84 an hour the park service was paying him. It was a good living, so when the Browning mill closed in the late 1970s, Fenner kept at it – hiring on with commercial logging operations when the opportunity arose, running an independent post mill until new environmental regulations shut him down, selling raw logs to the big mills in Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Polson to supplement income from the family’s cow/calf ranching operation.

From the Great Falls Tribune: