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Log, Baby, Log

Over the years, there have been plenty of proverbial canaries in the coal mine who repeatedly warned about a looming economic crisis, a virtual perfect storm that would be equal parts over-consumption, unsustainable development, deregulation, “free trade” and irresponsibility on the part of corporations and consumers.

If the sobering economic headlines of the past few weeks teach us one thing it should be that much of our current economic system is significantly flawed and that a new economic model – based on the principles of sustainability and local and regional self-sufficiency – is desperately needed.

Fortunately, Montana is in a unique position to lead this effort towards greater sustainability. A future where local farmers and ranchers grow our food, Montana workers produce clean and green energy for our homes and the ingenuity of our businesses combines with the skills of our workforce to protect and restore the environment, while also producing locally-made products that enhance the quality of our lives.

Locally, we’ve witnessed the timber industry hit particularly hard by the economic crisis with recent announcements of closures, curtailments and lay-offs. As tough as this news has been, it’s not entirely unexpected since the industry is inextricably tied to the housing and credit sectors of our economy. After all, we’re experiencing the worst housing slump since the Great Depression and the steepest decline in lumber consumption ever.

For example, when Plum Creek laid off nearly fifty workers in the Flathead Valley, their vice president told the Missoulian, “Market prices are depressed and don’t currently cover the costs of production.”

Last week, as Tricon Timber in Mineral County, MT laid off forty-five, the Missoulian article opened with, “No one’s buying what Tricon Timber of St. Regis has to sell.” Equally as blunt, was Tricon’s president as he told the Clark Fork Chronicle, “We are getting to the point where we’re not getting any offers [for our products].”

Compounding the problem, the industry is currently getting only 42% for their dimensional lumber compared with prices four short years ago, while diesel fuel costs have risen 250% during a similar time period.

Understandably, people are concerned and there is a natural inclination to “do something.” The past few years have seen an increase in collaborative efforts that have brought together diverse interests, including the WildWest Institute, to find common ground on bona-fide restoration and fuel reduction projects. While much work remains to be accomplished, to date agreements have been reached on a set of statewide Restoration Principles (www.montanarestoration.org) and collaborative projects are under way across the state.

Unfortunately, outside of these successful and emerging collaborative efforts, there is an aggressive effort behind the scenes to “bail out” the timber industry with an ill-conceived initiative divorced from economic reality and any concept of sustainability.

Led by the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation, this initiative is based entirely – and, up to this point, only – on a “wish list” that was put together by the timber industry.

The basic premise of MAEDC’s initiative, which in August was given to state officials, legislators and the Montana Congressional delegation, can be summed up simply: Log Baby Log. The initiative calls for “immediate action” to increase national forest logging by 330%, double state land logging and a bizarre plan for the state to seize control of a million acres of national forests, purportedly for even more logging.

But wait. There’s more. Montana taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill for timber industry exemptions from fuel taxes, discounts for vehicle registration and a taxpayer-supported program to pave log yards. One state legislator has even drafted legislation giving the entire timber industry a two-year tax holiday. Sorry, but does Plum Creek really need tax breaks paid for by hard-working Montanans?

If we are going to “bail out” the timber industry, shouldn’t Montanans at least demand that any taxpayer dollars go towards efforts that truly put the industry on a path towards economic and ecological sustainability?

For those interested in a more detailed discussion of what this path might look like, the Montana Community Development Corporation’s well-researched and well-reasoned “A New Business Plan: Moving Forest Businesses to Long Term Environmental and Economic Sustainability” should be required reading.

The WildWest Institute supports sustainable economic development in Montana and has been actively promoting some of our solutions. For example, let’s work together to ensure that every home and business built in Montana is made out of Montana wood products. After all, this would help solve some market issues, while also reducing costs – and greenhouse gases – from shipping products around the country.

Or how about collecting construction waste, which is currently dumped in our landfills, for use in high-efficiency biomass boilers? Or developing businesses that would use sustainably harvested blue-stain pine for locally made cabinets, furniture and wainscoting?

I’m confident that if we work together we’ll find sustainable solutions that benefit our state’s economy, workers and environment. Unfortunately, MAEDC’s timber industry “wish list” for greatly expanded logging of public lands and unprecedented tax breaks and subsidies represents the same type of short-sighted, unsustainable development and over-consumption that got our country into this current economic crisis to begin with, and it should be rejected accordingly.

MATTHEW KOEHLER is executive director of the WildWest Institute. You can learn more at: www.wildwestinstitute.

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