An Oregon firm lumbers eastward 

Roseburg Forest Products, protested at home, enters the Montana market

Montana is gaining a new corporate citizen with big ambitions and supposedly “green” credentials. Louisiana-Pacific recently announced the sale of its Missoula particleboard mill to Oregon-based behemoth Roseburg Forest Products. The news is an economic reprieve for the plant’s 225 workers, but forest protection advocates say Roseburg’s rise to prominence has relied on unsustainable management practices and that the company is a leading cutter of old growth forests.

Headquartered in Roseburg, Oregon, Roseburg Forest Products (RFP) was founded in 1936 and is solely owned and operated by Allyn Ford. The Ford family has established a timber dynasty in southern Oregon and northern California, owning nearly 800,000 acres and six mills, generating $750 million in annual sales and employing 3,700 workers. The purchase of the L-P Missoula plant is RFP’s first foray into the Northern Rockies, part of an aggressive effort to become a dominant player in the national timber industry arena. The company’s Web site is littered with stories of recent purchases and expansion plans, and Roseburg recently spent thousands to host an opening celebration at the North American Wholesale Lumber Association conference in Dallas. That November 8 event was reportedly bum-rushed by activists protesting the “ethically criminal” practices of RFP and other lumber companies.

In a recent interview, RFP media relations director Hank Snow said, “Our intention is to grow our composite wood products, particleboard and MDF (medium density fiberboard) business and we are excited about being in Montana.” Asked if the company has bigger plans for the state, such as the purchase of additional mills, Snow said “We don’t know that yet. There is a good MDF facility just north of Missoula [the Plum Creek plant in Columbia Falls],” but Snow is quick to add that RFP has no immediate designs on that plant.

RFP is currently negotiating with

L-P’s suppliers of raw materials. Snow says that once the purchase is complete, the plant’s current employees will be invited to submit applications, and he expects a substantial majority to be hired.

RFP touts itself as a leader in environmentally sound forest management practices. Company publications feature photos of snow-capped peaks and verdant forests and claim a strong stewardship ethic. A key message is that Roseburg products and land management are certified as sustainable and environmentally friendly by “Smartwood,” part of the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council.

However, the conservationists most familiar with RFP say the company is a central player in the reduction of old growth forests. Francis Eatherington of the Roseburg, Oregon-based Umpqua Watersheds, a forest monitoring group and next door neighbor to RFP, says “RFP has one large area that is certified because they bought it that way. They resist certification on the rest of their lands because they are addicted to clear-cutting.”

Eatherington says the company often clear-cuts on steep slopes prone to landslides. She claims to have seen landslides from RFP clear-cuts dump directly into the Umpqua River. “The weak Oregon Practices Act allows clear-cuts up to 120 acres and RFP goes to the maximum on virtually every unit. They are also a heavy user of aerial herbicide spraying of their clear-cuts.” While she gives credit to RFP for re-tooling some of its mills for smaller diameter logs, she says they are often the highest bidder on old growth sales. “Roseburg Forest Products is involved in very controversial old growth timber sales on public lands.”

In fact, RFP is currently in the process of logging, or attempting to log, nearly 2,500 acres of old growth trees on eight timber sales on National Forest lands. The North Winberry sale on the Willamette National Forest, which threatens groves of 800-year-old trees, has been accompanied by tree-sitting protests for the past three years, and other sales, including some in Coho salmon habitat, are tied up in the courts.

Timothy Hermach, a native Oregonian and president of the Eugene-based Native Forest Council, says Roseburg’s rise to the Forbes 500 has been financed by clear-cutting old growth. “They’ve made billions butchering the southern Willamette and virtually the entire Umpqua National Forests. Allyn Ford is a nice man, but there is no sustainable way to clear-cut primary forest. The pictures don’t lie, the stumps don’t lie—something you can’t say for Roseburg Forest Products.”

While some might question the economic wisdom of buying a mill in Montana at a time of frequent mill closings, RFP is determined to increase its share of the specialty wood products market.

Moreover, companies specializing in particleboard could be in a position to benefit from federal plans to increase logging on national forests. The Bush administration’s “Healthy Forests Initiative,” the ostensible purpose of which is to reduce fire danger to structures and communities, would target dense fuels such as brush and small trees to reduce the severity of potential fires. RFP’s Snow answers with an emphatic “No” to the question of whether RFP will bid on National Forest timber sales in Montana: “We have absolutely no plans for plywood or sawmill operations in Montana.” But he does say that small diameter material from thinning projects might be a potential source “if we were short of materials.” In fact, one current supplier [Libby’s Stimson mill] has announced that it will be closing, and RFP will presumably require a replacement source.

While the company’s intentions in the region are unclear, Roseburg’s entry onto the Montana timber scene is part of an ongoing shakeup in the industry. Traditional giants including Louisiana-Pacific, Plum Creek and Stimson are gradually divesting or closing holdings and facilities throughout Montana. Will Roseburg Forest Products rise up to fill their shoes? Spokesman Snow can’t say for sure. “We don’t know that yet.”

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