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Timber industry expert talks about forest issues

By Michael Howell

The third and last talk in the recent lecture series being held at the North Valley Library in Stevensville featured Pyramid Mountain Lumber Resource Manager Gordy Sanders. The lecture series was created in response to the many comments on social media and elsewhere about the fires last season and was organized by Margaret Gorski.

Sanders has earned an impressive set of awards over the years, some from the industry and some from conservation groups such as the Five Valleys Land Trust and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He helped craft the state’s Streamside Management Act and the state’s Best Management Practices. He has worked in the timber industry all his life, at first for entities like Anaconda Forest Products, Champion International, and Plum Creek Timber, before going to work for Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley. He likes working for a family-owned operation and has stuck with them for the past 20 years.

At this point Sanders is an expert in what it takes for a small family business to survive in the modern world. A small family-owned operation can’t ride the rough times out as easily as a large corporation which can let some other mills keep one afloat at a loss for a while. According to Sanders, the mill at Seeley sort of hit bottom in November of 2000 and the family was really ready to throw in the towel. But Sanders said he couldn’t accept it. He and another man dug into it and produced a plan that convinced the family to hang on through the winter. And it worked!

“We are still here!” said Sanders. “It’s kind of a miracle.” He said since 1991 thirty sawmills have closed in the state. What’s left is stretched out in a web across the state with about 100 miles between sawmills.

Right now, Sanders said, the lumber market is “reasonable.”

“We are doing OK, but we could do better,” said Sanders. He said the mill was only running a shift and a half. He noted other mills not working at full capacity.

“The biggest problem in the industry is access to the resources,” he said. He said that Pyramid needs about 7,000 truckloads of timber per year to stay in business and right now they are going as far as Lewistown to get timber. It takes one truck a full day and 100 gallons of diesel to drive over and come back with a load.

Sanders said that when you lose your sawmill it doesn’t come back. He said people ask him what it would take to put a sawmill back in the Bitterroot.

“If you had $50 to $100 million to invest in something, would it be in a sawmill when there is no certainty about the supply? When the mills go away they are gone and they don’t come back,” he said.

According to Sanders, about 60% of the timber that goes through the mill at Seeley is from private land and contractors bringing in their own loads to the mill. He said there were lots of grants available from agencies such as Resource Conservation and Development, Natural Resources and Conservation Service and DNRC. To help subsidize the cost of non-commercial thinning and other activities that reduce fire hazard. The biggest impediment seems to be landowner resistance and ignorance about the need for forest management to maintain a healthy fire resistant stand.

“Tell everyone you know,” said Sanders. “We need to increase management practices by all the owners of forest land, public and private.”

At the current time, Pyramid Mountain Lumber sawmill is employing about 130 people at 40 hours per week and processing about 35 truckloads per day. Sometimes he is asked by forest managers how much volume they could really handle. He just says, “I’ve never seen too much and I’ve worked here for a really long time.”

Sanders noted that there were some things being done to make the bio-mass, that is the loads of leftovers after the saw logs are made, into a marketable product like wood pellets and other things that could help in the future if they catch on. But he believes that figuring in some saw log harvest is another good way to accomplish some work in the non-merchantable fire hazard reduction that needs to be done.

His advice to all those who would like to participate in this management: “Leave your swords at the door and leave your ‘company line’ and your organization’s ‘line’ at the door, too,” he said. He encouraged what he called participation by “individuals” as the best method for hashing things out.

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