Workers air concerns to Tester

Helena Independent Record

by Eve Byron

“Jobs, jobs and more jobs” are the top concerns Sen. Jon Tester is hearing about from Montanans as he talks to people in small communities, and it was no different at The Mint cafe in Townsend on Thursday.

“The economic downturn has people concerned about their jobs and communities, and that’s what I heard here today,” Tester, D-Mont., said after the Townsend listening session. “We have to get the economy turned around.”

About 50 people representing a wide range of occupations n loggers, miners, national forest employees, mill operators, outfitters and public officials n crammed into the back room of The Mint to talk with Tester about their concerns and search for both long-term and short-term solutions, with the focus on the timber industry.

Ed Regan, resource manager for RY Timber’s Townsend and Livingston mills, which are some of the largest employers in those towns, said they’re struggling to stay afloat in the toughest market he’s seen in 50 years.

“The downturn started in the second half of 2006, and eventually, we figure it’s got to turn around,” Regan said. “In the interim, we have to figure out what to do for the long-term survival not only of RY but for all the mills in Montana.

“Our solution is that America needs to start building houses again.”

Scott Stern, the general manager at RY, noted that they typically employ 100 people at each of the mills with an annual payroll of about $7 million. Another $25 million is paid out to private contractors each year, like loggers or truckers.

But with the recession, people aren’t building houses, and the lumber isn’t moving off his lot. They’re stocked with about 3 million board feet of 2-by-4 and 2-by-6 dimensional lumber wrapped and ready for shipping, plus another 6 million board feet that’s rough sawn.

So RY is operating at 60 percent of capacity, and as of January, they cut back to running the saw mills only three days a week.

Those cutbacks at RY are felt throughout Townsend, and many of those at Thursday’s meeting urged Tester to help find ways to get a constant supply of timber from public lands to sawmills at a cheaper rate.

Stern said that because of legal protests by environmental groups, he has to get timber from private lands or as far away as Wyoming and Idaho instead of from the surrounding million-acre Helena National Forest, which has hundreds of thousands of trees either dead or dying from mountain pine beetles.

Stern and others pointed to a recent compromise reached through a coalition of sawmills and environmental groups that led to the creation of a new plan on the Beaverhead/Deer Lodge National Forest, in which the environmental groups promised not to litigate timber sales on certain lands if the loggers would support wilderness designation in other areas.

Tester said he understands that the timber industry is “in a world of hurt” and the collaboration for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge project is a great example of Montanans working together to find a solution to a national problem.

“My office, as the partnership has done, tries to gather information to find out how I can move forward with common-sense solutions to what’s going on in the timber industry,” Tester said. “The (Waxman-Markey Green Jobs Bill) puts $250 million into hazardous fuel reduction, and the revolving loan fund will get out of the Legislature soon, and will include some help for the timber markets that need it.”

The crowd also asked Tester for help in making sure the federal government enforces the nation’s three-year-old softwood timber agreement with Canada, in which the United States imposes fees on imported timber.

“It levels the playing field,” Regan said.

Tester said he appreciated the comments and understands both the challenges and the frustrations being felt by Montanans.

“You want some accountability, and I share those frustrations,” Tester said. “The bottom line is that working together, we can get some good stuff done. If we continue to be divisive, nothing will happen.

“I feel confident we can make things happen working together.”