Last week, Libby came alive again with the hum of chainsaws and the smell of diesel, as the town of 2,600 kicked off its 54th Annual Libby Logger Days celebration. Sawyer competitions and men and women knocking one another off logs commemorated its timber heritage.
Along a strip of booths selling ornate silver belt buckles, carnival food and vintage western photographs, Ed Levert and Mel Parker manned a table for the Libby Chapter of the Society of American Foresters. "I used to be able to look around and recognize every person that walked by," Parker said. "Then Grace"the W.R. Grace mining company"went down and the mill went down and everyone who was here left."
Parker moved to Libby in 1959, after graduating from the School of Forestry at the University of Montana. He came with a wave of people to work at the St. Regis Paper Company, which once employed over 1,500 and owned more than 200,000 acres of Lincoln County forest. "That was an example of good forestry," Parker said, refering to the way the company planned small and frequent cuts that would allow the forest to keep producing wood.
In 1984, St. Regis merged with Champion International and cut large sections of old-growth forests. The cuts led to the peak of logging on the Kootenai National Forest, which produced 250 million board-feet per year in 1987. But the clear cuts had consequences. Afterward, "they couldn't feed the mill," Parker said. "The mill closed down and everyone lost their jobs."
Libby once boasted the highest paying jobs in Montana. Now, it has one of the state's lowest average salaries. In 2009, average household income in Libby was about $27,000, while the state average was over $42,000. The industry that built the town fell on hard times in the early 1990s, when environmental lawsuits, pine beetle outbreaks and wildfires scaled timber production back by more than 75 percent of its peak, to 60 million board-feet per year.
In 1993, Champion sold its timberland to Plum Creek Timber, which sold the sawmills to Stimson Lumber. Stimson closed all but one of the mills; it, too, was eventually closed, in 2002, in part because of the skyrocketing cost of medical insurance for workers and families poisoned by asbestos from the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.
The majority of jobs in Libby are now with the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund cleanup of the Grace mine, which shut in 1990 after contaminating everything from Little League fields to the ice skating rink with a particularly toxic form of asbestos. Parker owned a nursery that grew seedlings for planting after logging and fires. It was destroyed after the EPA found that the building that housed it, the former screening plant for the mine, was blanketed with asbestos.
Now, some locals hope that the hundreds of thousands of acres of accessible timber in the Kootenai National Forest will bring back prosperity. Levert, who is the Lincoln County forester, says he sees the potential. What's missing is demand. "We have so much resource, it's impossible to ignore. I remain optimistic that something will show up."
Today, without a mill in Lincoln County, Levert continues, it's too expensive for timber companies that must ship trees to out-of-state sawmills; the forest has to produce a long-term yield of lumber before timber companies will consider bringing business back.
Almost 80 percent of the land in Lincoln County is part of the Kootenai National Forest. And groups such as Friends of the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness want to include an additional 88,000 acres stretching from Lincoln County to Idaho in the forest.
Molly Kieran, the Lincoln County coordinator of the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, serves with Levert on a board of stakeholders that reviews and propose logging projects, which also includes representatives from the Forest Service, logging companies and environmental groups. "It's really hard for anyone in the lumber industry to make a living," Kieran says. "We want to put people back to work."
The last time the Forest Service proposed a logging project in the Kootenai, one that would have cut on over 4,000 acres, they were sued by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of AWR, which argued that the proposal lacked an extensive environmental impact analysis showing how the cuts could affect grizzly bears. The Forest Service appealed the verdict, then dropped the appeal in March 2011.
Today, some in Libby are going to work in the copper-silver mine in Troy, which employs nearly 200 people and provides an annual payroll of $14 million in Libby and Troy. The mine is a good example of a way to plan resource extraction with minimal damage, Kieran maintains: "The mine is environmentally harmless."
Levert hopes its success will lure timber companies back to Libby."It's not something that can be prophesized," he says. "It just happens sometimes. ... But forestry and mining is what we know best, and that can't be ignored."