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Townsend prepares for economic impacts of sawmill closure

Posted at 10:21 AM, Feb 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-19 12:21:57-05

TOWNSEND — The City of Townsend organized a public meeting Tuesday to address the impacts of the RY Timber closing their sawmill in Broadwater County.

RY Timber announced the closure last month, causing 70 employees to be laid off.

“It will have an impact on expansion,” said Townsend Mayor Mike Evans. “We’ve got nobody to take up the gap.”

He told MTN News there are a lot of unknowns right now, but the City has been looking at what could be the biggest impacts.

The mill is a significant source of tax revenue and employment for the area and the closure will be felt by every person in the community.

“We’ve got a hardware store up the street and RY Timber is their best customer,” explained Evans. “Same with the housing. You’ve got landlords that are used to getting rentals and might not have that anymore.”

According to the City of Townsend, there is a potential of 50 families that could leave the area, which also means around 60 kids may no longer attend Broadwater schools.

Bill Upthegrove with Broadwater Health Center Board of Directors says the closure will also have an impact on the hospital. Fewer people using the facility means less revenue, and the hospital is already operating on a stretched budget.

“Right now, we see around three people a day in the emergency room,” said Upthegrove. “It’s going to be harder and harder to keep the emergency room operating.”

RY Timber representatives attended the meeting to answer any questions from the public and explain why the mill was closing.

RY Timber Resource manager Ed Ragen said there is a chance the mill may reopen down the road, but they would need to secure enough lumber to operate it effectively.

“If we had enough wood to run two shifts, we wouldn’t be having this meeting,” said Ragen.

RY Timber said around 33 million board feet per year to operate the Townsend mill at full production and they’ve currently only been operating about half that.

Ragen said in the meeting that current litigation practices against Forest Service projects have not been working in their favor.

“We’ve had 24 of our timber sales, almost 100 million board feet, that has been tied up in litigation or delayed,” explained Ragen. “Try to find loggers that you can hire to go into these areas. They’re all looking for a job, they don’t want to sign a contract if there’s a chance the courts are going to shut them down.”

The public meeting was also attended by congressional representatives, the U.S. Forest Service, Montana DNRC and other state leaders who also expressed frustration over forest management lawsuits.

RY Timber says the Townsend mill will most likely continue to operate into April before shutting down. The mill is not for sale at this time, and RY are looking for new timber sources for the mill. However, no potential new timber sources will be finalized in the immediate future.

The office will remain open and a minimal staff will be kept on to clean up and maintain the property. RY Timber has offered severance pay or a position at their Livingston sawmill and around 30 employees have expressed interest in relocating.

Mayor Evans says the City will be actively looking at ways they can help get the mill back up and running but worries if people leave it will be hard to build up a workforce to meet the mill’s demands.