Montana Viewpoint


from the Missoulian, April, 2000

Few guest editorials need a response as much as does the piece by Matthew Koehler on ending logging in the national forests. Koehler makes several valid points concerning the wasting of recoverable wood residue, the availability of alternative sources of pulp, and the desire to restore the national forests. What he, and many earnestly motivated environmentalists totally ignore, however, is the social and emotional cost paid by wood products workers and their communities when the timber goes away.

I begrudge no one their opinion, informed or otherwise, but I would wish that those who want to close the forest could have an experience similar to mine when the Crown mill in Thompson Falls went down. It was my dismal privilege to be asked to mediate the potential closure of the mill between Crown and the workers, and when mediation failed to keep the mill open, to assist the former employees in retraining for other occupations. The impression that haunts me most is the distress felt by millworkers and their families at having to leave their lifelong homes for other jobs, and worrying about how to make ends meet. True, there are no guarantees in life, but the cavalier manner in which the social and emotional effects of lost jobs on families and communities are seemingly discounted by many environmentalists truly frustrates me.

We are often told of the ill effects of "the boom and bust economy" that is part and parcel of the economics of the extractive industries. Where I live, in Sanders County, there has never really been a boom. A job is a job, and happy to have one. Is it a wonderful job? Many do not care, as long as there is a check and food on the table. We do what we have to do.

When Koehler does talk about the "social scars," he points to jobs exported by logs shipped overseas. He is correct, there is a lack of responsibility to both employees and our nation by large corporations. But, then, there are also gyppo loggers who are turning their efforts toward using timber that was formerly wasted by starting post and pole outfits, road builders who now obliterate Forest service roads rather than building them, and many other inventive ways that timber industry workers are working with the national forest. These positive aspects of the industry need to be acknowledged.

Koehler makes a point of saying that since only 3% of our timber comes from national forest, we can abandon the harvesting of such an insignificant amount of timber. This begs the question, where does the other 97% come from? How long will private lands, responsibly managed, be able to supply our timber needs? How responsibly are private timberlands harvested? How responsible are the logging practices in those nations that supply us with imported wood products?

Few people deny that poor management practices have sometimes been used in the past. Those with eyes to see can tell that, like it or not, our economy in western Montana is moving from timber to tourism. But these are not reasons to abandon wholesale the harvest of timber on national forest lands. Management practices are improving, in many cases because the detrimental effects of past methods have been pointed out by concerned environmentalists. Our economy is changing, but timber harvest, and recreation and tourism are not mutually exclusive. I encourage those in the environmental community to socialize more with those who make their living in the woods. I encourage both environmentalists and timber beasts to work together to find mutual solutions to their concerns. Finally, I would direct Koehler’s attention to the forest management practices on the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is regarded by some in the timber industry to be the best in the state, and an example that there are methods of forest management that can satisfy both environmental and visual concerns.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620