Sawmill owner, conservation writer react to governor's forests initiative


VICTOR, Mont. - New reaction from Governor Steve Bullock's plan aimed to improve forests and Montana's economy -- the Forests in Focus initiative is meant to bump up the pace and scale of forest restoration, watershed protection and wildlife habitat on private and federal forests.

It earmarks $1 million for state officials working with the Forest Service, and $2 million for private land cost share forestry programs.

Last year, lawmakers gave the governor the OK to release funds from a $5 million fire mitigation fund.

To get reaction from people who are close to forest issues, we went to the Bitterroot. It's a valley in the shadow of national wilderness areas, with a history of sawmills and logging in decline.

Dale Burk's Stevensville publishing company office is filled with books about Montana's outdoors. We met the longtime journalist at the office, where he told us the idea behind the initiative is a "good one."

Burk has been writing public policy on national forest issues since 1967, and was in the forefront of the wilderness debate in the '70s, but said that public input into it was "too narrow."

"Why not involve more of the people in the dialog," said Burk. "That would be my invitation to the governor to bring more people in. We'll never have harmony, but we can build consensus and this not consensus right now."

The Bitterroot has many nationally known conservationists. Some say the initiative opens the door to too much logging on forest land, they characterize as vulnerable.

Sawmills used to string through the entire valley. The large mills that employed thousands of people for years are gone. So when anybody hears about a forest initiative that could bring back some timber jobs, people pay attention.

Ask anybody about small family-run mills, and they'll tell you they can count on one hand their number. But we met one of those small owners, a Darby native who cut his teeth on the timber industry, and now runs his one-man operation in Victor.

Chris Brown's kids mark six generations of Browns in the Bitterroot. The last three generations worked in timber. Brown did too, with his dad and grandpa, until about five years ago, when the young family man couldn't make the kind of living he needed to. He started the mill.

"A lot of times I have to turn jobs down," said Brown, "because I can't find the logs that I need to cut the orders."

Brown has heard talk before to allow more logging on forest land. He listens. But he doesn't seem to get too excited about it.

He said he is making a living, and works most every day. But the mill owner said sometimes he has to cut back his own hours.

"I need to be able to get a supply at a reasonable price," said Brown, "a local supply without having to ship it from Washington or Canada."

While we were at Brown's mill, we met a customer who came in for a small order. But we're also told he has larger customers, like consumers who need beams for high-end houses.

Brown said he would like to expand his operation with an employee or two. And he would like to add a planer.