Swan song

Measuring Pyramid’s political weight in Seeley Lake

Pyramid Mountain Lumber still holds influence in its hometown of Seeley Lake, even as the regional wood products industry drifts toward political irrelevance. Whatever clout the locally owned mill has left, it would like to use now.

“When a mill goes down, it’s never, ever coming back,” says Gordy Sanders, Pyramid’s resources vice president. “Right now we’re at a balancing point here in Montana—we can have a fully integrated timber industry or we can have nothing.”

Mill officials say a deal on the table could help them weather economic struggles and assist in the healthy management of forestland. In early 2007, a collection of interested parties unveiled the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project as a cooperative approach to deal with issues in the Swan Valley’s panoramic wild interface. The plan seeks $12 million in federal appropriations to add 87,000 acres of new territory to three wilderness areas, subsidize the construction of Pyramid’s 3.2-megawatt biomass generator and finance proactive forest thinning. It would also effectively swap Pyramid’s cost-prohibitive logging turf for access to lower elevation forests.

Virtually nothing has changed with the project since its birth almost two years ago, except the world around it.

“We’re entering into what’s ultimately going to be a shutdown of the forest products industry,” says University of Montana natural resources economist Tom Power. He explains the downturn is to some degree just a segment of a cyclical process, but expects mills won’t have the capital for cooperative projects in the immediate future. “Right now there’s no demand to harvest trees,” he says.

The most telling sign of the project’s new economic environment arrived in the form of a recent disclosure from Pyramid that the Seeley Lake mill currently lacks the capital to live up to its $2.5 million part of the deal. Pyramid officials revealed the shortfall at a well-attended Nov. 13 public meeting about the Blackfoot-Clearwater project. Critics say this only underscores concerns that the wood products industry is no longer sturdy enough to factor into long-term land management.

Conservationist author George Wuerthner argues that stewardship project proposals are often chock full of promises to mitigate present and future logging damage. However, when the revenue fails to meet expectations, the good intentions count for naught.

“What happens is the logs get cut but the things that are supposed to happen either don’t get done or they get done at a reduced level,” he says. 

Segments of the environmental community also wonder if appeasing logging interests remains necessary in creating new wilderness. After all, by the end of January industry policy advocates—such as Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey—will be out of office and a presidential veto on the wholesale expansion of federally designated “Big W” wilderness areas will be significantly diminshed.

“The quid pro quo strategy that was developed when Bush had a 90 percent approval rating—maybe it should be revised,” suggests Matthew Koehler of the Wild West Institute. “Why in the world are environmentalists looking to support more over-consumption and unsustainable development?”

Advocates of the Blackfoot-Clearwater project consider that the wrong kind of thinking and appear concerned that such sentiments might jeopardize longstanding efforts to reconcile the two opposing sides. Some characterize returning to the old “gotcha” politics as a regression of the cooperative models introduced over the last several years.

“Where did it get the Bush administration, really?” asks Bob Ekey of The Wilderness Society. “No one’s sacrificing any principles here. It’s not quid pro quo with the timber interests—we’re trying to resolve the whole thing. We’re not interested in forest management plans if we can’t hold our head up.”

The Blackfoot-Clearwater drainage specifically became a sort of laboratory for collaborative efforts to protect forestland during the second half of Bush’s presidency. This latest project, in fact, emerged as a logical progression of region-wide success in matchmaking conservation land swaps. Those in support of the Blackfoot-Clearwater project hope to keep that spirit alive.

Of course, the reconciliation doesn’t come free. In the project’s $12 million federal request, $4.5 would go toward construction of Pyramid’s proposed biomass plant, allowing the outfit to generate its own power from sawmill byproduct and local undergrowth. For this plan to go forward now, the entire cost of the $7 million facility might fall to outside sources and nobody yet knows who could make up the difference. Advocates also admit they don’t have an answer to who would operate the biomass plant if Pyramid shuts down.

If creating wilderness is really the point of the Blackfoot-Clearwater project, some argue acts of Congress, like the currently shelved Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, would be more effective. That legislation aims to transform almost 23 million acres of roadless land across the region into Big W—a more realistic proposal today, though most Western lawmakers loathe the notion of federal intervention.

What major designation changes fail to address alone is the control of fuels in the lower-lying forestland. Paramount among the countless points of contention within environmental communities is whether it’s worth it to “subsidize” the timber industry just to keep local milling infrastructure in place. Sanders asserts it’s disingenuous to call stewardship projects and other bargain timber sales a form of subsidization if one believes forests need to be thinned to reduce wildfire risk.

Economists, however, debate whether that’s a relevant concern considering the diminutive state of the industry in the Rockies.

“When people talk about keeping the mills around to work in the direction of restoring lower-elevation forest, I don’t know how many they have in mind,” Power says. “We have hardly any mills left.”

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