Townsend mill tells senator forests bill would help

Helena Independent Record

by Eve Byron

TOWNSEND — Ed Regan, resource manager at RY Timber, is becoming a master balancer in an industry where many already have fallen.

He needs trees to put through the mill, and needs customers to purchase the finished product. But with home construction lagging far behind in the nation’s economic recovery, and not as much lumber being logged as in past years, he’s had to change the way RY does business and right now, he’s happy to be running the mill at 100 percent during what’s usually the slowest time of year.

“December is normally slow, but it’s picked up in the last two weeks, higher than what’s been expected,” Regan said, cautiously optimistic. “We’ve cut costs, and trimmed back wherever we can. We think we have bottomed out and can only go up.”

He’s able to do that because they’ve changed the way they do business at the plant, which mainly manufactures 2-by-4 studs for home construction.

RY Timber now makes loggers bid for work instead of contracting with them. People who are trying to get work bid lower so they can get the job and it cuts RY’s costs.

What’s also helping is that Canadian logging firms, as well as West Coast companies, are shipping whole trees to China. While that’s forced some mills to close, it means that the remaining ones are getting more of the logs to be cut into dimensional lumber for single-family homes and apartments. Regan notes that the mill sends its product throughout the United States, but it’s selling for a lower price, and with higher fuel costs, that’s cut into profits.

“So the demand is up but the price is down,” Regan said. “We are moving everything we are cutting, but it’s selling for about half of what we used to. That’s where the cheaper stumpage and lower logging costs help.”

What he really wants is to somehow get easier access to the beetle-killed, as well as standing live, lodgepole pines on Forest Service land in Montana. So Regan was thrilled two years ago when U.S. Sen. Jon Tester unveiled his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act at RY Timber, and equally pleased Wednesday when Tester visited the mill again and pledged to push forward with the legislation.

The proposal generally would designate new wilderness areas on federally managed land in Montana, while also mandating logging in certain areas.

Tester said he had hoped to get the legislation passed sooner, but that it’s run into some political roadblocks, including opposition from Rep. Denny Rehberg, who is challenging Tester for his Senate seat. But Tester noted that contest “will be ironed out” soon, and he still thinks there are opportunities to get the legislation passed in the next six to eight months.

“The leadership knows about this and good folks on either side of the aisle are supporting it,” Tester said. “It’s a good piece of legislation.”

That was good news to Regan, who earlier said he thought the legislation would have passed by now. He believes that most of the private property owners with merchantable timber on their land have had it harvested, and he’s tired of seeing trees dying in the forest and losing market value.

Regan added that he didn’t bid on recent sales in the Bitterroot National Forest — nor did anyone else — because it was mainly ponderosa pine and he needs lodgepole for his product.

Scott Stern, RY Timber’s general manager, also urged Tester to push forward on the legislation.

“The timber supply is my biggest concern,” Stern said. “We can handle market fluctuations and we’ve handled changes in the housing market before. But timber is the biggest thing.”