The Western News: Daines hosts economic roundtable

As local business owners, organization leaders and local officials look to jumpstart the local economy, a group of commerce leaders got a chance to ask one of their two Senators in Congress for help bringing their issues to Washington, D.C.

U.S. Senator Steve Daines, R-Mont., hosted a roundtable discussion on Thursday at the Lincoln County commissioners meeting room that focused on the local economy and the hopeful future envisioned by the stakeholders in attendance. More than 20 people squeezed into the county commissioner’s meeting room on Thursday afternoon.

“What we saw here today was a wonderful cross section of the community,” Daines said after the meeting. “It’s interesting how unified the community is, diversified backgrounds but unified in that they want to fight for their future and the prosperity of Lincoln County.”

Daines was quick to note the economic disparities. Lincoln County has the second highest unemployment rate in the state, about twice the statewide rate, he said. Thursday’s discussion was meant to gather information to bring back to Washington, D.C., where he said he hopes to bring reform to conservation management.

“A lot of people out east don’t understand what we’re up against,” he said.

The first hour of the discussion focused primarily on the timber industry; what it’s become in recent years, where it’s left loggers today and what they would like to see in federal regulation to open the gates that have blocked off management of federal forest land.

Commissioner Mark Peck opened the timber talk, highlighting Lincoln County’s economic situation without access to timber production.

“We can do all kinds of economic development and companies can move in, but won’t save this county,” Peck said. “That forest has to produce. We’re a couple years from bankruptcy in this county.”

Paul Tisher, a private logger who said he draws timber from Weyerhauser land, noted that without the ability to move forward with timber harvests, the area is losing its infrastructure, including human knowledge of the trade.

“We’re still losing mills, we’re also losing our infrastructure,” Tisher said. “We’re losing out ability to know how to go out there and cut a tree down and turn it into a product.”

One of the largest issues discussed was the federal ownership of 80 percent of the Lincoln County land. Several people in the meeting argued that the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to properly manage that much land. Daines said he hoped to bring the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to Lincoln County for a meeting, to get a first-person view of a county in which so much land is owned by the federal government.

Peck said he’d like to see some financial return on the county’s contribution to stewardship programs. Daines said this was one point he’d like to take back to D.C.

“We can go back and see why counties aren’t getting a share if that’s coming out of the resources of the county,” Daines said. “I think that’s something specific we could do that could be impactful here, especially since we have three county commissioners here that are always trying to find ways to make ends meet here.”

Commissioner Mike Cole provided Daines with a clear anecdote of the timber industry’s fall. When Daines visited Cole in Eureka a few years ago, the community had a sawmill and a pellet mill. Today, both are closed down, just like the Weyerhauser mills in Columbia Falls, and the primary industry has given way to recreation.

“How do you generate opportunity in small rural communities?” Cole asked.

The topic turned toward mining, the other natural resource at the forefront of Lincoln County’s hopes for a recovered economy. Hecla General Manager Doug Stiles was in attendance at the meeting to discuss what the mining company needs from the federal level in order to get to work in the mines.

Stiles said the Forest Service and other agencies involved are working through the permitting process, but they need more resources in order to do that quickly. With two Hecla projects approved and awaiting the permits to begin, oftentimes resource and budget shortfalls hinder the process.

“We really want to make sure agencies have what they need to get things done,” Stiles said. “Our goal is to get things across the finish line on the permitting side, get in there and get some work done.”

Tina Oliphant, of the Lincoln County Port Authority, said that while the community moves away from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Site designation, which has left a stigma in the area that may stagger economic growth, she would like to see money appropriated towards communities for post-cleanup development.

“There’s no money set aside to rebuild what the community has lost through the 14 years of treatment,” Oliphant said.

Daines said examining other Superfund sites in the country could help determine how money is appropriated to communities after the federal designation closes.

Jim Hayes, president of the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, said as he continues to open businesses in the community, he’s looking for ways to build the economy back to its healthy state. He said as the economy continues to shrivel, some residents have taken smaller steps to better it themselves.

“As you see things close, people have less pride and let up on their maintenance,” he said. “How do we get it back to what it was in ’62?”

There weren’t many direct solutions produced in Thursday’s meeting, but each concern was on the table before Daines. He said Lincoln County and the Kootenai Forest provide a unique insight into how legislation can be considered.

“There’s a reinforced the importance of the Kootenai in how it relates to the future of the forest management here in Montana. There’s greater opportunity here and there’s a reason the mascot in Libby is a logger. This really is where the heart and soul of this community is,” he said.