Montana lumber mills are bracing for an expected suspension of timber contracts on national forest lands Monday as part of the growing impacts from the federal government shutdown.
The U.S. Forest Service confirmed Friday it is shutting down logging operations on national forests across the country due to the partial shutdown of the federal government.
“Due to the federal funding lapse, early next week the U.S. Forest Service must notify 450 timber purchasers across the country that timber sales and stewardship contracts will be suspended,” said Forest Service communications director Leo Kay.
The agency plans to work with individual timber purchasers to suspend work in an orderly manner, he said.
“We regret the continued impact to the American public,” Kay said. “However, we must cease activities that require Forest Service oversight and management during the funding lapse.”
Kay said he was not able to provide details on how the suspension will occur, but several representatives from Montana mills said it appeared the agency would give loggers seven days to finish whatever work they could.
At this time of year, Montana mills are feverishly stockpiling enough logs to keep their operations running though the winter months and spring breakup.
“It would really hurt to have to shut down this time of year,” said RY Timber resource manager Ed Regan. “Most of the sales we have are up in the high country. We still expect some decent weather before winter sets in that would allow us to keep working.”
In a few weeks, some timber sales will be shut down to accommodate the annual hunting season. Others end when snowmobiling season gets underway.
“If loggers can’t work now while the going is good, they could be in trouble this spring,” Regan said. “If they can’t get enough wood into the mills’ log yards, then the impacts will really occur in March, April and May.”
Tricon procurement forester Scott Kuehn serves as president of the Montana Wood Products Association.
“We’ve heard five different things in the past five days,” Kuehn said. “Today, it looks like they will give us seven days of work once the letter comes out next week. This will definitely impact us and our guys.”
Kuehn said the shutdown already idled 20 employees working on a national forest project in Fish Creek.
Tricon currently has five logging contractors working on national forests in Idaho that would be shut down by the new suspension.
“It’s a big deal for all of us,” Kuehn said. “This is our final big push before the snow comes. We’re all scrambling. We all can’t just move to private or state lands in order to get by.”
Julia Altemus of the Montana Wood Products Association said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told her and others Wednesday the agency planned an orderly shutdown that would attempt to minimize impacts and keep people working.
“If they were truly concerned about jobs, there may have been a better solution than this one,” Altemus said.
Regan hoped the agency would follow the precedent set during the last federal government shutdown in the mid-1990s.
“They didn’t shut the timber contracts down that time,” he said. “They let us work through all of that time.”
RY Timber has about a half-dozen current logging operations on federal lands.
“Immediately, it will probably impact about 50 to 60 people working the woods,” he said. “In the long term, if we can’t build up our inventory, it could impact a couple of hundred millworkers.”
There are two current timber sale projects on the Bitterroot National Forest. Both projects are just about complete.
Steve Flynn of Sun Mountain Lumber said they’ve been told they will be able to finish their project at Lost Trail Pass.
“We’ll be done with the skidding next week and by the end of the next week have it all hauled if the snow doesn’t get too deep,” Flynn said.
The only other national forest timber project for that mill is near Wise River. Flynn said the suspension would shut them down there.
Over the past few years, Flynn said the mill has focused on private and state lands for its timber due to challenges of acquiring wood products from national forest lands.
“In the long term, we will need more timber from federal land if we want to be able to exist here,” he said. “This whole thing is a double-edged sword for us. We’re lucky right now because we don’t have much Forest Service timber, but we’re also in a bad spot because we don’t have much Forest Service timber.”