-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current
SEELEY LAKE – When Loren Rose signed on with Pyramid Mountain Lumber 33 years ago, Montana was embroiled in a timber war and the big players were Plum Creek and Champion International.
Jump forward three decades and Plum Creek has parceled out its properties, Champion is gone, and technology is set to do what human hands have done for decades.
Pyramid Mountain on Tuesday won approval from the Missoula County commissioners to apply for a state grant to hire six new employees as it prepares to install a pricey lumber grader at its Seeley Lake mill.
The grader, valued at around $3 million, can size up a board in seconds to make the most precise and valuable cut. The job was historically done with the human eye, the boards marked with crayon.
“It’s fast,” said Rose. “We’re going to have better quality and more lumber, which will require more people. We’re not sure where it’s all going to land. But more production means more people. It’s a simple equation.”
Rose said the plant currently employs nine certified lumber graders who physically handle each board the mill produces. With the new equipment, those employees will be retrained to work in other parts of the mill.
A handful of grader technicians will staff the new equipment, including computer optimization, electrical and mechanical maintenance. Others will work on the back end to keep pace with the mill’s increased productivity, Rose said.
“It’s hard to grow our employee count because of our problem of no sewer and Seeley Lake’s lack of housing,” said Rose. “Our industry is changing. You have to be efficient, you have to have improvement in your quality, your production and in your recovery. With the inability to grow your workforce, you need to do something with technology.”
Meeting with commissioners on Tuesday, Rose reflected on the mill’s history and his time with Pyramid Mountain. The mill opened in 1949 and is just one of eight sawmills “of any consequence left in Montana,” he said.
It’s also the only mill without access to rail, and the only mill that produces Ponderosa pine boards on a consistent basis. It’s also the only mill that cuts square timbers, he said.
“Plum Creek and Champion 33 years ago were very aggressively managing their lands,” Rose said. “We had very little regulation in this state managing what happened in the forested area. Fast forward to today and there’s no Plum Creek. Most of their lands are now are owned by Weyerhaeuser or the Nature Conservancy in our neck of the woods, and there’s no Champion.”
State and federal regulations have also transformed the industry, including legislation on streamside management zones and best practices. Sustainability has replaced clear cutting and mass production.
“When I started, there were timber wars, and now we get along great with the conservation community,” he said. “We do a lot of things hand in hand with them. We’re one of the few mills in the state that has certified lumber. We’re part of the sustainable forestry initiative, so we have an annual audit.”
Rose described Pyramid as a random-width mill that utilizes all the softwood tree species found in the state. Forty percent of its product includes fir and larch, 40 percent Ponderosa pine, and 20 percent spruce, lodgepole and alpine fir.
If the state grant is approved, Pyramid will expand its workforce to 136 people, making it the largest single employer in Seeley Lake.
“This company offers really great benefits,” said Nicole Rush with the Missoula Economic Partnership. “All these jobs would be above our county average wage, which would be $19.65 an hour this year.”