550 Jobs Do Matter

The Flathead Beacon

by Wayne Hirst

What’s a paycheck worth? More to some people than others.

Creating jobs and paychecks is, of course, among the important goals of Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act – a bill that blazes a trail to healthier, more productive and more sustainable forests in Montana.

Big deal! So shouted one of the bill’s extreme critics in a recent commentary (March 3 Beacon: “Jon Tester, Hostage Negotiator”). Dave Skinner offered a simplistic, pessimistic formula of 5.5 jobs per million board feet of timber harvested to declare the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has the potential to create no more than 550 timber-industry jobs. We’re urged to dismiss these potential jobs as trivial – and told that some of them won’t be worth counting because they might turn out to be existing sawmill jobs saved rather than new jobs created.

Five-hundred-fifty jobs created or saved may not look like much from the distant fringe, but they look a whole lot better from Main Street and mainstream Montana. As a businessman in Libby who has witnessed the decline of our local timber industry and the painful dislocation of friends and clients, let me assure you that nothing could be more welcome right now than new opportunities to work in the woods. I wish we could have saved even one sawmill job here in Libby. The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act gives us a chance to revive our industry and revitalize our community. I wish people who have jobs or don’t need jobs wouldn’t be so quick to discount the real opportunities this bill creates.

I know that people in communities throughout Montana feel the same way. One of the hardest economic blows to western Montana in memory was the recent closure of Smurfit-Stone’s linerboard mill in Frenchtown. Try telling the 400-some Smurfit-Stone workers now unemployed that 550 jobs – new or saved – aren’t significant. Try telling that to the local schools faced with the loss of tax support or the many vendors who just lost their most significant customer.

These jobs translate into 550 mortgage payments, car payments, grocery bills and doctor bills for 550 families. And let’s not forget to count all the other families supported with paychecks tied to the economic activity created by those 550 wood products jobs – teachers, carpenters, merchants and mechanics.

Of course, all this has to do with just one sector – wood products. But Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act promises far broader economic benefits, putting the emphasis on forest stewardship and restoration, not mere logging. The bill also creates opportunities to put Montanans to work reclaiming poorly maintained and abandoned roads, and improving watersheds and the long-term productivity of our forests.

Tester’s bill represents the hard work and compromise of Montanans who see common ground and opportunity in the forests. Some people aren’t interested in working things out. They want to keep fighting and maintain the decades-long stalemate that serves only those who like to argue. The overwhelming public support the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act enjoys shows most Montanans are eager to move forward.

Wayne Hirst