Missoulian: Timber Legacy Offers Few Lessons for Industry Future

If you want to visualize Missoula’s timber history, ride a bike.

Start at Bonner Elementary School and wonder at the massive yellow structure across the street. That was once the world’s largest plywood plant. Behind it was a sawmill. And right across the river was another sawmill.

Pedal down one of those locomotive right-of-ways to the Clark Fork River. In the near future, you’ll be able to bike past its confluence with the Blackfoot, now that the Milltown Dam that originally powered the lumber mills has been removed.

Once on the rail bed now known as the Kim Williams Trail, it’s a short ride to the Osprey Baseball Stadium. Its foundations rest on steel I-beams pounded 50 feet deep into sawdust left from the Polley Co. sawmill wood lot.

Continue on to Silver Park, built on the old Polley grounds. It later became a Champion International mill until it closed in 1990.

Find the intersection with the Bitterroot Branch trail. If you could bike north across the Clark Fork, you’d reach the former White Pine Sash millsite that’s now the City of Missoula’s maintenance lot. Bend to the northwest and you’ll reach the Roseburg Forest Products Co. – Missoula’s only still-active wood manufacturing plant. But it makes composite board from shavings, not raw logs.

Point your bike southwest on the Bitterroot Branch Trail and you’ll soon reach the for-sale sign outside Plum Creek Timber Co.’s Missoula headquarters. A few years ago, 16 foresters and their colleagues managed more than 300,000 acres of private forest from those offices. Most of that land now belongs to either The Nature Conservancy, the state of Montana or the Forest Service through the $490 million Montana Legacy Project.

A little bit past the Plum Creek campus was the Intermountain Lumber Mill site, near where Russell Street meets Third Street West. It’s now an apartment complex and Salvation Army office.

Pedal some more and you’ll come to the Hamilton Lumber Co. mill, or as Missoulians now know it, Southgate Mall. Head west on South Avenue about 2 miles and reach Fort Missoula, where the Civilian Conservation Corps workers bunked between forays into the surrounding mountains building fire trails. This is where the UM School of Forestry holds its annual Logging Day demonstrations and maintains a museum of the era.

From here, you might abandon the bike for a canoe and float down the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers 20 miles to Frenchtown and the former Hoerner Waldorf Corp. pulp mill. Known more recently as Smurfit-Stone Container, it’s now another federal Superfund site, like Milltown Dam’s reservoir and the ground around White Pine. But in the 1970s, its air and water pollution troubles nurtured Missoula’s environmentalist community.

Over the next three decades, that timber legacy would clash with both environmental and economic forces in what residents look back on as The Timber Wars. Montana woods workers peaked in 1978 with 13,494 jobs in logging, trucking, milling and support jobs. Last year, that figure was about 7,000. In 1990, those workers fed 36 large mills throughout the state. Today, 10 mills remain in operation.

Many people look to that early-1990s period as the ideal. It’s where Sen. Steve Daines typically starts his presentation timeline when discussing plans to revive the Montana timber industry, if only it could get the wood. But a larger historical perspective indicates that wasn’t just the high mark – it was where the industry climbed so far out on a limb it had no choice but to fall.


Retired University of Montana forest economist Alan McQuillan was starting his graduate studies in 1971, just as the timber industry was torn by two separate forces. UM Forestry Dean Arnold Bolle had just released the “Bolle Report,” which demonstrated how the U.S. Forest Service had neglected its duties to protect watersheds, wildlife habitat and recreation in an economically irrational pursuit of delivering timber to industry.

McQuillan recalled an evening trip to the Club Chateau restaurant in East Missoula, where Bolle and colleagues were defending their report to a meeting of the American Society of Foresters.

“It was like a lynch mob,” McQuillan recalled. “There was all this energy and hatred and venom going around in that room – it was just amazing.”

And in 1972, U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers Inc. bought the Anaconda Company’s timberlands and the Bonner mill facility. Every employee got a pink slip and had to reapply for a smaller pool of jobs. On the hand-over day, a team of loggers chainsawed down the Anaconda gateway sign and burned it.

That year, C.E.O. Karl Bendetsen sent a memo to his key executives, explaining the company’s “Forest Management Policy and Procedure Guidelines for Montana Forest Lands.” McQuillan still has a copy of the memo.

“The main goal of management is to assure that these forest lands are operated on a sustained yield operating basis,” Bendetsen’s message started.

“It is anticipated that this first operating plan will be for a period of 18 years. During this period the remaining old growth timber will be removed.”

That strategy wasn’t made public, but the public soon noticed. Timber companies throughout the Pacific Northwest embarked on an “accelerated old-growth liquidation” policy. That same year, President Richard Nixon called on Congress “to pass a stronger law to protect endangered species of wildlife.” Congress responded by passing the Endangered Species Act unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 390-12 in the House of Representatives.

McQuillan pointed out the old-growth strategy made economic, if not ecological sense.

“The rationale was, they’re sitting on 100- to 500-year old trees,”McQuillan said. “These are the big, 2- to 4-foot-diameter trees. They’re not growing anymore. The amount of new growth and mortality per acre is equal. So the asset is not growing. It’s occupying space that could be producing new timber. So you cut it.

“Plus, it’s at risk from fire and insects and changing environmental attitudes that might restrict cutting – so you cut it. Private industry fears further restrictions, so it moves to cut all its old-growth within 20 years. And that’s what they do.

“If Champion cut one-third or one-fourth of what they did, they would still be running today,” McQuillan said. “The tension was between the people who thought like foresters and the people who thought like corporate people.”

Champion, as it came to be known, nearly tripled its industrial timber harvest between 1973 and 1986. The Bonner mill needed “peeler” logs at least 16 feet long, which were mounted on massive lathes and shaved into sheets of veneer. The new owners quickly turned the Bonner mill into the world’s largest plywood plant, producing 1 million lineal feet of plywood every 24 hours, worth $1 million a month.

But there were problems with the math. McQuillan went to work for Champion in 1978, tasked with developing a “level of harvest” study showing how long the company’s wood inventory would last at various cutting tempos.

He was told the company practiced “shelter-wood cutting” where a plot was 80 percent clearcut and 20 percent of the trees were left to provide wildlife shelter and seeds for future stands.

“But it turned out they weren’t doing shelter-wood cutting,” McQuillan said. “That was just for show. So I had to redo all of that work.”

It also turned out the formula used to calculate how much lumber could be cut from each tree trunk was wrong. It was designed for West Coast trees, which grow like bullets: long and uniform until they come to a point near the top. Montana trees, in their drier, tougher terrain, grow like arrowheads: wide at the base and progressively narrowing to a point.