COLUMBIA FALLS — F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber on Thursday announced it will curtail production at its sawmill here by the end of September and lay off nine to 10 of its 120 employees.
In a written statement, company officials appeared to lay much of the blame on a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy last week that blocked a plan to build new logging roads into 36,700 acres of grizzly bear habitat in the Stillwater State Forest near Olney.
But Stoltze resource manager Paul McKenzie said the Stillwater Forest case was just a small part of a larger picture in which he says 200 million board feet of timber in western Montana is tied up in litigation.
“What (Molloy’s) decision did to us was make it critical we do it (lay off the 9 to 10 employees) right away,” McKenzie said.
Molloy concluded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by approving a state plan to issue a permit to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to “take” grizzly bears (i.e., harm their habitat) in the state forest.
“It is with extreme frustration that we announce this curtailment,” Stoltze Vice President Chuck Roady said in the news release. “At a time when lumber markets are rebounding, we are faced with having to reduce production due to lack of access to the raw material.”
Timothy Preso, the attorney who represented conservation organizations in the Stillwater case, questioned whether Molloy’s decision – cited in the first sentence of Stoltze’s press release – was the real reason.
“The area affected has been off-limits to logging for decades,” Preso said, adding that approximately two-thirds of the Stillwater Forest’s nearly 100,000 acres are not affected by Molloy’s ruling and remain available to logging.
Preso said Roady, who was not available for comment Thursday afternoon, “acknowledged they were faced with the need for layoffs anyway.”
Roady was quoted in the Flathead Beacon Thursday as saying, “We were facing this anyway. But the (Molloy decision) was the final jab in the gut.”
“He’s right,” McKenzie said of Preso. “Judge Molloy was not the deciding factor. Log supply has been the issue for a long time.”
But Molloy’s decision did trigger the company’s decision to reduce production hours from 80 to 60 a week, and lay off approximately 8 percent of its sawmill workforce, next month, McKenzie said.
The cuts are scheduled to take place Sept. 29. Stoltze has been operating for 102 years, and is the oldest family-owned sawmill in Montana.
“As a forester, it is disheartening to be surrounded by highly productive forests that could benefit from active management, yet still not have access to sufficient log supply to meet the production needs of our sawmill,” McKenzie said in the press release.
It is “extra frustrating,” McKenzie told the Missoulian later, that just as the economy is recovering from the worst markets he’s seen, a lack of supply has forced Stoltze’s hand.
“The Kootenai National Forest alone has a target of harvesting 50 million board feet, and we have a hard time getting to half that,” McKenzie said. “The primary reason is litigation.”
Representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Friends of the Wild Swan, plaintiffs in the Stillwater lawsuit, hailed Molloy’s ruling as critical for the protection of grizzly bears.
Grizzlies are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The judge found that Fish and Wildlife Service officials lacked a rational scientific basis when they approved new road construction in what is known as the “Stillwater Core.” The permit to “take” grizzly bears – again, “take” refers to habitat destruction that drives grizzlies out of their territory and leads to reduced reproduction – would have lasted for 50 years.
Earthjustice, the environmental law firm Preso works for that represented the conservation organizations involved in the lawsuit, said the state’s plan to log the Stillwater Core would have eliminated the last non-road grizzly habitat on state lands in Montana.
State land managers said impacts to grizzlies would be minimized by imposing seasonal restrictions on road use and logging.
“This is incredibly important to grizzly bears in the Stillwater State Forest,” Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan, said. “Bears don’t use calendars to know when an area is safe to raise their young and avoid conflicts with people. The court’s ruling ensures that bears get a fair shake.”
Matt Skoglund, director of the Northern Rockies office of the National Resources Defense Council, agreed.
“Fifty years is a long time, especially with the sobering reality of the impact of climate change in the Northern Rockies,” he said. “Building new roads in secure grizzly habitat is a dangerous road to go down.”
Preso said female grizzlies need areas like the Stillwater Core to raise their cubs, and that “Federal officials played fast and loose with the science in claiming otherwise. Fortunately we have courts in this country that require federal officials to make rational decisions and follow the rule of law.”