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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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Mill closure hits hard in northwest Montana


KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — The expected loss of about 200 jobs in northwestern Montana resulting from timber giant Weyerhaeuser’s purchase of Plum Creek Timber will be a punch in the gut for a community that was starting to recover from the 2009 closure of an aluminum plant, officials said.

Weyerhaeuser officials said Wednesday they will permanently close the Columbia Falls lumber and plywood mill that was part of its $8.44 billion purchase of Plum Creek this spring.

Weyerhaeuser will continue to operate three Montana mills, including a medium-density fiberboard mill in Columbia Falls, and the net job loss is expected to be about 100.

On top of that, up to 100 administrative jobs in Columbia Falls were already in the process of being eliminated or moved to Weyerhaeuser’s Seattle headquarters.

It’s bad news for Columbia Falls, which was coming back from the 90 jobs lost when the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. closed seven years ago, state Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, told the Missoulian.

“There was a positive vibe, new businesses have been opening, and we had our smiley face on,” Brown said. But the Weyerhaeuser announcement, she said, “is punching us in the gut.”

Tom Ray, a resources team leader with Weyerhaeuser, said a “chronic log supply shortage” meant it made economic sense for Weyerhaeuser to consolidate its mill operations. Timber executives and forest managers said they are not surprised by the cuts, given the constraints on the wood products industry, including lawsuits that can stall timber sales in national forests for years.

“It is unfortunate, and I hope it won’t happen to other mills,” Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association, told the Flathead Beacon. “But without significant changes in forest management that is always a possibility. We are sitting in a wood basket but we don’t have access to the supply.”

Neither Plum Creek Timber nor Weyerhaeuser have bid on timber sales in Kootenai National Forest for nearly a decade, said forest Supervisor Chris Savage.

Chip Weber, supervisor of Flathead National Forest, said there have only been two smaller timber sales offered in Flathead forest since Weyerhaeuser bought Plum Creek.

“I do know they have emphasized harvesting off their own lands,” Weber said.

‘Double whammy’

Plum Creek owned 1.3 million acres of land in Montana a decade ago but has sold or traded more than 500,000 acres that it determined was not productive for timber. On the land it kept, the company cut down too many trees, a state official said.

“They were harvesting far in excess of what was sustainable on those landscapes,” said Bob Harrington, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s forestry division administrator.

The loss of 200 jobs will be felt across the entire Flathead Valley, Columbia Falls insurance agent Lyle Mitchell said. The mill employees are based in and around Columbia Falls, while many of the administrative workers live in Whitefish and Kalispell.

The local tax base also will suffer once the mill is no longer in production, Mitchell said.

“We’re going to get caught in a double whammy,” he said. “The aluminum company shut down too, and they’re removing those buildings now, so in the near future those will be re-valued at zero.”

State and local agencies are figuring out how to respond to the people who will need new jobs and training. Flathead Job Service is planning to hold workshops for Weyerhaeuser workers on topics such as filing for unemployment, understanding their rights and re-training for other jobs.

Flathead Valley Community College representatives also plan to visit the mill to talk about programs that could match workers with new jobs, President Jane Karas told the Daily Inter Lake.

Lumber mills have traditionally offered some of the highest-paying jobs in Flathead Valley, and most other jobs available won’t match the mills’ average pay of $22 an hour, said Trevor Gonser of Flathead Job Service.

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