Forestry experts warn against
following path of Southwest
By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian, 9/18/06
New Mexico State Forester Butch Blazer would like
to turn the clock back to a time when there were
sawmills scattered across his sprawling state.
Two decades ago, there were close to 15 mills
operating in New Mexico.
Then began the debate on how to manage the Mexican
spotted owl and federal timber contracts came to a
screaching halt. One by one, timber mills around
the state started locking their gates and walking
Today there are two large sawmills remaining in
New Mexico, both on the Mescalero Apache
At the same time, Blazer said, forests in his
state are reeling from a century of successful
“Our forests in New Mexico are in pretty sad
shape,” Blazer said. “The exclusion of fire over
the last century has left us with forests that are
overstocked. We now have a lot of catch-up to do.”
Part of that catch-up will likely include
rebuilding a commercial wood industry, he said.
“It's a big piece of the puzzle for us here,”
Blazer said. “It's certainly not going to be easy
Public land managers around the West often use
timber sales to help offset costs of thinning and
other forest restoration projects. In New Mexico,
officials estimate it costs between $400 and
$1,200 to treat one acre of forested land.
Costs for that kind of work can climb much higher.
In the San Bernadino National Forest in Southern
California, restoration program manager Ben del
Villar typically pays anywhere between $2,000 and
$3,000 an acre for the same kind of work. If it
requires a helicopter or skyline setup, costs can
soar to $4,000 an acre.
The fact the closest lumber mill is about 250
miles away helps drive up those costs, del Villar
“There are just not that many mills left in the
state,” he said. “We're looking for ways to
address all this material. There are a few niche
businesses cropping up here and there, but that's
“Unfortunately, the loss of mills over the last 15
years has also resulted in a loss of people with
the kind of skills to do this work,” he said.
The Southwest isn't alone when it comes to mill
closures and the challenge of managing large
expanses of forest hit hard by drought, insects
Montana has seen its share of closures over the
past decade, but a pair of University of Montana
researchers says the timber industry remains
diverse enough to thin forested lands and still
A few years ago, UM forestry professor Carl
Fiedler and Chuck Keegan of UM's Bureau of
Business and Economic Research worked together to
analyze the potential of treating millions of
acres in both Montana and New Mexico.
Fiedler identified forest stands in both states
that were candidates for thinning because of high
fire hazards. He proposed opening up the stands to
cut down the potential for fire to spread into the
canopy, and thinning out much of the smaller
In Montana, Fiedler decided about 7.3 million
acres of forested lands should be considered. The
figure was about half that in New Mexico.
The plan called for leaving a good range of age
structure in each stand and included removing some
larger trees, Keegan said.
In a market similar to what the state saw in 2005,
Keegan figured on average each acre in Montana
would net $500 after being treated. In New Mexico,
under similar market conditions, the proposition
would lose $90 an acre.
Those figures would change dramatically if Montana
didn't have a ready market for the material coming
off forested lands, Keegan said. Without a market,
he estimates it might cost as much as $1,500 an
acre to thin an overcrowded stand.
The calculations in both states were based on the
proposition that only enough acres would be
treated annually as could be handled by existing
Therein lies the crux of the matter.
In the western United States, where the timber
industry relies heavily on federal lands,
somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the milling
capacity has been lost since the 1990s, Keegan
said. Much of that decline occurred as a result of
drops in supply from the national forest timber
Over that time, Montana has seen about a 40
The most dramatic dips came in the Southwest,
especially in Arizona and New Mexico. From 1986 to
2005, Keegan said, New Mexico's milling capacity
dropped from 50 million board feet annually to 12
“They lost 76 percent of their industry
infrastructure,” he said.
The timber industry in Arizona and New Mexico was
close to 80 percent reliant on the national
forests for raw materials.
In Montana, companies like Plum Creek Timber Co.
owned wide swaths of industrial timberland, which
up until now have helped to prop up the state's
forest products industry, Keegan said.
“All indications now point to a likely decline in
timber coming from those industrial lands,” he
So far, Montana has been able to maintain a
relatively diverse forest products industry
capable of using different products coming off the
forest. It's not unusual for loggers to separate
logs at a timber sale to be hauled to different
mills, each with its own specialty.
That diversity helps keep prices high.
One of the key differences between Montana's
timber industry and those in Arizona and New
Mexico is the market for the residue left behind
after a board is milled, Keegan said.
Montana has Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., the
Frenchtown pulp/paper mill that creates a market
for material that in places like New Mexico has to
“In an integrated industry like Montana's, having
a large high-value market for that residue is very
important,” Keegan said. “It's a significant
difference between the two states.”
The pulp mill likewise depends on sawmills around
the state for its supply. If the state were to
lose three or four more mills, it could endanger
that business as well, Keegan said.
As the timber supply from Montana's industrial
lands continues to taper off, there will be more
competition for what's left. Unless national
forests start doing more large-scale treatments,
Keegan said more Montana mills likely will be
forced to close.
“There are a lot of mills in the state in a
survival mode right now,” he said. “I don't think
it's just Plum Creek that's bidding up sales. I
think every mill in the West is in that survival
kind of mode.”
Mills in Idaho and Wyoming are now competing for
sales in Montana.
That's something relatively new, Keegan said.
Between 1990 and 2003, Montana mills drew about 10
percent of their timber from other states. Now,
the timber is going the other way, he said.
“Idaho mills seem to be more aggressive about
moving into Montana,” he said.
On top of that, Keegan said Montana's forest
products industry could start seeing production
declines in the second half of 2006 and into 2007
due to a weakening U.S. housing industry.
Lumber prices declined slightly in the first
quarter of 2006 and sharply in April, May and June
in response to reduced housing starts, he said.
Prices in June were down more than 20 percent from
the year before.
Montana's lumber production in the first half of
2006 was 491 million board feet, down 5 percent
from the first half of 2005.
Keegan attributed most of that lowered
productivity to the permanent closure of Eureka's
Owens and Hurst Lumber Co. in June 2005.
Production at the remaining mills stayed the same
in the first half of 2006.
U.S. housing starts dropped sharply in July and
lumber prices fell further in July and August.
Keegan expects the market to stay relatively low
Keegan said mills in Montana may see slowdowns,
like the recent four-day closure at the Stimson
Lumber Co. stud mill in Bonner, in response to the