Once Common Shout of ‘Timber’ is Only a Quiet Echo

By Bekhi Spika

“The earth is very resilient,” said Mark Vander Meer, his eager smile busting through his white, bushy beard. “It’s people who aren’t.”

Vander Meer is the owner of two small firms in Montana dedicated to forest restoration and health. He’s been working in the timber industry for years and — thanks to the conservation efforts of his generation — considers the future of logging to be promising.

Try telling him that CareerCast.com, a jobs research and database site, rated lumberjacking as the worst job in the nation for 2012 because it’s physically demanding, stressful, dangerous, and has weak employment potential.

Montana has a complicated timber history. Early loggers removed timber in ways that permanently scarred the landscape. Conservationists and environmentalists later brought change through forest managers to alter logging practices. In 1992 the U.S. Forest Service and other organizations created a policy of ecosystem management, focusing on improving forest health to promote long-term solutions to the timber industry.

Alan McQuillan, a professor emeritus from the School of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana, has been involved in Montana’s forests for decades and claims economics have been working against the logging industry in Montana since the beginning.

“It’s sort of the worst of all worlds for logging in this region,” McQuillan said, a faint British accent feathering his words.

Loggers started cutting the biggest and most accessible trees first, he said, so all Montana is left with now are little trees growing on steep hills. In addition to this, the market value of conifers is low because of the maturation of conifers planted after World War II and the emergence of Siberian conifers into the world market after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. And, of course, there’s the current recession surrounding the housing sector.

“If there’s something opposite to icing on the cake, [the housing bust] is it,” McQuillan said with a laugh.

According to a 2011 report by The University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, employment in Montana’s forestry industry fell from nearly 10,000 workers in 2004 to about 6,500 in 2011. BBER predicts the market will pick up significantly in 2013, but until then Montana has to continue to restore the health of its forests.

“[They aren’t] healthy because they’re overcrowded,” McQuillan said. “If the trees are spaced far enough apart you’ve got fresh air going through them. The trees are growing fast, so they’ve got lots of sap and they can resist bugs and disease. So having a poorly stocked — or overstocked — forest is sort of like you’re asking for insects and disease, or else you’re asking for fire.”

He said forest fire is nature’s way of weeding out smaller and weaker trees. Without naturally occurring fire, Montana’s forests have become crowded with smaller-diameter (and, consequently, less economic) trees. Also, because houses are scattered through most of Montana’s forests, modern-day loggers are capitalizing on cleaning up smaller trees and underbrush around residential areas — or, as McQuillan described it, “large-scale gardening.”

But Vander Meer’s small company has an economically viable option that uses Montana’s infested wood rather than just leaving it in the forest as wood chips. Between 2008 and 1998, the year the mountain pine beetle epidemic broke out in Montana, nearly 3.4 million acres of Montana’s forests were affected, according to Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Vander Meer’s firm cuts these live, but beetle-infested, trees for use in structures such as sheds, barns, and saunas.

“When you mill this pine, it warps. But if we put it together green and notch it and it tries to move, it can’t,” said Vander Meer, a smile budding on his face. “Everything we build, we use green wood, lousy wood.”

By cutting unhealthy trees, Vander Meer is able to let the healthy conifers mature into economically viable logs, setting up the foundation for successful logging in the future. And, Vander Meer says, it’s about time.

“Most logging right now is forest restoration work,” he said. “This generation is investing in the future — for real.”