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Timber industry still a driving economic force

December 30, 2018

After being with F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. for more than four decades, Chuck Roady is encouraged about the future of the timber industry more than he has been for several years.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Roady, Stoltze vice president and general manager, who has been with the company for 43 years. “People are connecting the dots on the severity of fires. There is a certain element that likes to put the blame on the environment, which we can’t control. But we can control the fuels.

“I’m biased, but I like to see forest management. There are people who would like to let Mother Nature run its course, but we’re kind of past that.”

Lawsuits have tied up dozens of proposed timber sales in Montana. It led U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., to introduce a bill, the Protect Collaboration for Healthier Forests Act, in Nov. 2017. The bill is still in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

But despite the litigation, Stoltze has been in business in Montana since 1912 and the current mill began operation in 1923, so it has learned to adjust to changing times.

Part of its diversification efforts include the co-generation plant that began operating in 2013. It runs on sawdust and woody materials, producing steam that powers Stoltze’s daily operations as well as providing electricity to thousands of homes.

It also allowed the company to replace its old boilers and increase the drying efficiency of its kilns.

Roady also touted the diversity and quality of the trees it harvests in Northwest Montana.

“We sell Douglas fir lumber all over the world,” Roady said. “It is very strong and a premium lumber for building. It’s popular in earthquake zones and heavy snow areas, but they also love it in the Mideast and East. We are very lucky to have it.”

Stoltze also offers spruce, alpine fir, larch, grand fir and lodgepole pine.

While the majority of sawmills have closed in Montana during the last quarter century, Stoltze, a family-owned company, has actually seen a healthy increase in production in the last few years.

According to its figures, Stoltze produced 58.9 million board feet of lumber in 2016. A year ago, it was 73.7 million board feet. Roady said recently that the mill would produce about 75 million board feet in 2018.

The workforce has increased from 110 employees two years ago to about 130 now, and they are still seeking electricians and programmers, according to Roady.

Stoltze’s work to remain economically viable has given it a popularity locally that may not always be easy to achieve.

“We have people come here that are surprised when they see all the trees we have,” Roady said. “They think they are going to see nothing but clearcuts.

“But there has to be a balance. We all use a lot of wood every day and it’s one of our most renewable resources,” he stressed.

Part of Stoltze’s growth can be attributed to another local company that opened in the Flathead in 2012 - SmartLam. It moved into an old Weyerhaeuser mill in Columbia Falls about a year ago because of increased demand for its products.

“We are the single biggest supplier of logs to them,” Roady said.

SmartLam was the first manufacturer of cross-laminated timber products in the United States. The extremely strong cross-laminated wood panels are used in building construction, bridges and platforms for oil-well rigs. Cross-laminated timber is an alternative to building with concrete and steel, made from the only renewable structural building material, timber. Off-site fabrication and modularization enables cleaner jobsites, and significant time and labor savings.

According to Nick Desimone, the senior product manager for SmartLam, the company currently employs 39 people.

“Smartlam’s growth over the past two years made securing more space and growing production capacity critical to meeting current and future demand,” Desimone said.

He also said the company looks forward to further growth in the coming years.

“Progressive building-code revisions and the rapidly growing awareness of cross-laminated timber benefits is resulting in exciting new projects and applications. We are excited to grow our operations in the Flathead Valley and beyond, as an innovator and market leader,” Desimone said.

Weyerhaeuser, another major player in the timber and lumber industry in the Flathead, downsized facilities in the area after buying Plum Creek Timber Co. in 2016, but the company is still a major employer, with 585 employees in Montana.

The company operates the largest Medium Density Fiberboard plant under one roof in North America, which showcases state-of-the-art technology and Weyerhaeuser’s workforce. It is getting ready for a capital project that will update its machine centers.

The Columbia Falls plant uses residual wood fiber, which is refined and processed into engineered wood products used across North America. These include specialty products in niche markets such as architectural doors, cabinets, engineered wood flooring, store fixtures and office furniture.

Weyerhaeuser’s two remaining mills are in Evergreen, located off U.S. 2.

The lumber mill makes 2x4 and 2x6 boards for the housing market and a plywood mill makes commercial- and industrial-grade plywood. These products are sold to locations all throughout the United States.

Weyerhaeuser is currently hiring in the Flathead and applications can be found on its website.

For more information on these companies, see their websites at fhstoltze.com, smartlam.com and weyerhaeuser.com.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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