How much wood would a sawmill saw if a sawmill could saw wood?

Normally, that question wouldn’t be rhetorical—we’d just quote output statistics from one of western Montana’s many local lumber producers. We would, but they all seem to be either gone or in fallow, victims of a wood products industry that had been waning anyway and suddenly collapsed under the weight of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Since the industry began hemorrhaging jobs earlier this year, it’s become almost weekly routine to tip our union caps to the mill workers laid off, either permanently or temporarily. (Though, let’s be honest: If trends in the housing market don’t at least reverse direction soon, it’s all pretty much the same.)

Those rallying to save industry jobs hoped the pulp mills would help to keep industry interests buoyant, but even that prospect now looks bleak. The latest flurry of pink slips descended on Frenchtown Nov. 6 when the Smurfit-Stone Containerboard Corp. announced the “temporary” shutdown of one of its machines, sending 52 employees home for the winter.

A day earlier, Potlatch Corp. suspended operations at three northern Idaho mills, putting another 415 wood products industry employees out of work. We could go on and rehash all the unprinted mill layoffs announced over the past two months between Portland and Bozeman, but it would wrap around the page.

We could expend equal space rattling off the ill-advised, no-profit lumber contracts—dubbed “t-sales” by insiders—that the state Land Board and U.S. Department of Agriculture have distributed lately like a thick-book of food stamps. Despite all explanations presented by industry advocates, we find it continually puzzling that the problem is purportedly not enough wood—as mill operators pontificate in every single facility closure announcement—especially as the casualty list of housing developments continues to grow.

We recently received reliable reports that Arizona-based developer Ken Madden was backing out of the Flat Iron Ranch, a controversial 625-lot proposed subdivision in Hamilton. Although Madden did not return calls to verify the claims, we can’t help but wonder how much wood that might take off the local market alone.

Yet, wherever one falls on the sensitive issues of forestry policy and development, the collapse of the wood products industry is deeply lamentable on a labor front. Even outside that drainage of once steady revenue, the loss of those jobs only makes it clearer to some employers that they can hamstring the working class and still keep a workforce in towns like Missoula.
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