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No war wood from Montana?

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While the international community debates who will play the biggest part in rebuilding a post-war Iraq, it’s growing increasingly clear that Montana’s role will lie somewhere between small and non-existent. No, Gov. Martz wasn’t planning on taking over for retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, but Montana lumber could have been an important tool in housing U.S. troops and rebuilding bombed-out structures.

The Pentagon has an annual budget of about $8 billion for non-weapons-related supplies, and of that about $2 billion has been earmarked for lumber and wood products—all of which is expected to increase once President Bush’s $75 billion war appropriation is apportioned. But as of yet, none of that money is going to Montana companies, says Frank Johnson, a spokesman for the Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia.

“The primary contractors are in Texas, Oregon, Washington, Louisiana and Arkansas,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that a primary contractor wouldn’t subcontract to a company in Montana.”

But Montana Wood Products Association lobbyist Ellen Engstedt has doubts those subcontractor calls will come. Engstedt hadn’t heard about the increased demand until a reporter brought it to her attention. She says the ripples may not reach Montana because buyers are concerned about Montana’s ability to supply large contracts.

“Our main difficulty is a lack of timber,” says Engstedt. “So the demand could be there, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope that this will help Montana mills.”

Engstedt says the problem is that Montana loggers aren’t getting access to the trees on federal land that they need to stay afloat. While up to one-third of the U.S. market has been stripped away by Canada—the United States imported $6 billion in lumber from Canada in 2001—Montana is also losing out to private, southern tree plantations in Louisiana and Arkansas.

“Someone made the analogy that this is like ANWR,” Engstedt says, referring to Montana’s timber problems, not the war on Iraq. “It doesn’t matter if the oil is there if you can’t access it. It’s the same thing with trees on public land. If we can’t access it, they might as well not be there.”

But as with the war in Iraq, much remains uncertain.

“Obviously there is still a lot of unrest in Iraq,” says the Defense Supply Center’s Johnson. “But I would imagine that in the next couple of weeks we’re going to start asking our lumber contracts to start accelerating deliveries as they get into the rebuilding of the country.”

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