More than 30 hard-hat wearing locals climbed out of a bus in front of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. Thursday afternoon. Trucks stacked high with behemoth logs chugged past the visitors, who assembled around a handful of mill employees for the Flathead Timber Tour, which began at Stoltze and ended at Weyerhaeuser, both in Columbia Falls.
The tour, which was hosted by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, was held in honor of National Forest Products Week, Oct. 15-21. The distinction was established by Congress in 1960 to celebrate the contribution of the forests to the country’s economy and well-being.
Montana’s forest product industry employs more than 7,000 workers who were paid over $320 million in wages last year, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“Those are living-wage jobs — jobs that provide health insurance, jobs that provide a wage that can support a family. That stuff is really important,” said Angela Wells of the DNRC.
The majority of that sector is devoted to wood manufacturing, followed by forestry support, logging and lastly, paper manufacturing. In Montana, over half the state’s forested land is federally managed and less than a quarter is private. Access to timber is becoming more and more difficult, especially on Forest Service lands, where logging projects frequently come under fire from environmental groups concerned about animal habitat, resulting in costly and lengthly lawsuits.
F.H. Stoltze safety coordinator Al Hawkins said things have changed drastically since he first entered the timber industry more than 40 years ago — especially as the industry transitioned from clear-cutting forests, to selective-cut harvesting where only certain trees are cut down.
“I started in the timber industry when I was 13,” Hawkins said. “Things are way different now. Back then, that was 43 years ago, it was run and gun. You get into a patch of timber, you raped it and moved onto the next one. That is just not done anymore. It’s all selective cut, sustained yield harvest. Mills have changed the attitude — instead of being in it for the profit right now, they’re in it for the long (haul).”
In the early days of Hawkins’ career he can recall more than 30 mills in existence in Northwest Montana, which have been reduced to a handful today.
And mill manager Trevor Kjensrud said more and more people are leaving the industry. At least a dozen mills have shuttered in Montana in the past decade, Wells said, including facilities in Columbia Falls, Eureka, Pablo, Libby and Fortine. The lumber market took a dive in 2007 and began recovering in 2011, but a lack of supply has prevented many mills from running at full capacity.
“When you hear about a mill going down, there’s a little voice in the back of your head that says there’s the possibility of another year for us,” Kjensrud said. ”When another mill goes down, it makes the opportunity a little better for the guys that are fighting to stay.”
But there are some bright spots in the industry. Last week, SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber manufacturer, announced that they would be moving into the Weyerhaeuser mill in Columbia Falls and expects to hire 75 employees by the end of 2019.
And Stoltze is holding on — and are pushing for increased production. Last year, Stoltze produced 60 million board feet of wood and Kjensrud said they’re shooting for 72 million this year. The record-setting fire season hasn’t impacted the log yard, he added, at least not yet.
“Right now we have about 7 million logs in our log yard,” he said. “We had quite a bit going into the fire season, we were one of the few mills that did.”
The mill transforms 25 truck loads of logs into planed lumber during each 10-hour shift, up to 50 percent of which is Douglas fir, while a third of the output is comprised of Spruce and Lodgepole. Stoltze is divided into two sides: the small side that processes logs up to 25 inches in diameter and the big side which can handle logs as wide as 60 inches. Logs travel down a channel where they are debarked, cut and sorted. Wood waste, including bark, sawdust and shavings, is burned in the boiler, which converts the fuel into steam, which then creates electricity. The company sells the power they produce — enough to power roughly 2,500 homes — to Flathead Electric Co-operative, and buy back what they need to run the mill.
Stoltze was established in 1912 and remains one of the oldest family owned, continuously operating forest product companies in the state.